Editorial Observer By SERGE SCHMEMANN
Alexis Tsipras, the leader of the Syriza party. Credit Yannis Behrakis/Reuters
ATHENS — Driving along a broad avenue lined with restaurants, the Greek man at the wheel points to the trash cans. Every night, he says, people rummage through them for scraps of food. His two well-educated daughters cannot find jobs; more than half of Greek youths have no work, and the jobs that do appear are often short-term and lacking in benefits.
Such stories of misery are legion after six years of economic crisis — including stories of suicides, of housewives turning to prostitution. Listening to them, the only surprise in the rise of the left-wing Syriza party, which is expected to come in first in Sunday’s general election, is that it has taken so long for an anti-austerity party to come to the fore.
Alexis Tsipras, Syriza’s charismatic 40-year-old leader, has been campaigning under the banner “Hope is on its way.” He has vowed to undo the austerity program mandated by the troika of international creditors — the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund — and at the same time to somehow reduce the country’s debt and remain in the Eurozone. Fulfilling these contradictory promises may not be possible, but to a lot of people that’s not the point — voting for Syriza is another way of saying “Enough.”
The incumbent prime minister, Antonis Samaras, has insisted that the radical left wants to drive Greece out of the euro, and that the only path for Greece is to stay the course of painful reforms and budget cuts that he has led.
Recent opinion polls showed Mr Samaras’s centre-right New Democracy party only four to six percentage points behind Syriza. So even if Syriza does come in first, it will probably need a coalition to form a government. Given the variety of parties and passions likely to come out of the elections, the next government may not be around for long.
All this makes for a frightening welter of unknowns as voters approach decision time. If Mr Tsipras goes ahead with his promise to cut taxes and restore social spending without finding new sources of funding, the “troika” bailout could be cut short. Without the bailout, Greece would face the risk of a default on its massive sovereign debt. And failing to meet its debts would raise the possibility of a “Grexit,” a Greek exit from the Eurozone.
Though Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who has the decisive say in what demands to make of Greece, insists she wants Greece to remain in the Eurozone, the possibility of a Greek exit is no longer regarded in Berlin and Brussels as necessarily an unmitigated disaster.
For the Greeks, however, it would be, most likely plunging the country into recession, and the large majority of Greeks want the country to remain in the single currency.
In any case, Mr Tsipras has given signals that he may be open to a more sensible course than his radical party platform. Polls show that a strong majority of Greeks, 61 per cent, want consensus in talks with the troika, and the optimistic scenario is that his left-wing credentials would give him the credibility to urge more patience.
Another question is whether Berlin and Brussels really mean their tough talk about Greece. Mrs Merkel repeated in her keynote speech at Davos that Greece must accept responsibility for its mountain of debt. But there seems to be a growing sentiment among economists in Europe that debt relief is essential to bringing the Greek economy back from the depths. Whether Greeks “deserve” punishing austerity after years of profligacy, as many in northern Europe continue to maintain, is not the right question. The question is how to allow Greece to move forward and to avoid a political catastrophe that would inevitably have ramifications for the rest of Europe.
Mr Tsipras or whoever wins Sunday’s election must understand that there is no easy, painless exit out of Greece’s troubles. But Germany and the troika must understand that sticking with their flawed and dogmatic insistence on austerity can only create more misery and desperation — and a more radical response next time.