The Slatest

Greece Is Just the Beginning

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras at a Syriza victory rally on Jan. 25, 2015 in Athens, Greece.

Photo by Milos Bicanski/Getty Images

Alexis Tsipras was sworn in as Greece’s new prime minister today after his left-wing Syriza party, campaigning on a pledge to renegotiate the strict terms of the country’s bailout, trounced the mainstream parties in a snap election held yesterday.

Syriza won 149 seats in Greece’s 300-seat parliament, putting it just two short of an outright majority. To get over the top, it partnered with the right-wing Independent Greeks party. The two parties are sharply at odds on a number of issues—from immigration to the role of the Orthodox Church in politics—but both want Greece to write off its debts and roll back the strict austerity measures imposed as part of the bailout package.

In exchange for billions of dollars in loans from the EU, the European Central Bank, and the IMF—the so-called troika—Greece’s government agreed to steep cuts to social programs and government spending. Tsipras now says he wants to renegotiate the terms of the deal and has pledged to raise the minimum wage and hire back public-sector workers, moves that are probably irreconcilable with the demands of the country’s lenders, particularly fiscal disciplinarian Germany. Tsipras maintains that he doesn’t want to take Greece off the euro, but if the two sides can’t reach an agreement, that scenario becomes more likely.* 

The Greek election kicked off what could be a breakthrough year for anti-establishment parties as well as anti-EU appeals from both the left and right in Europe. Syriza’s victory was hailed today by  ideological allies, like the leader of Spain’s Podemos party, Pablo Iglesias, who said at a rally that Greece would finally have a real leader rather than a “delegate of Angela Merkel.” Founded just last year, Podemos is another anti-austerity party, and, according to recent polls, if elections were held in Spain today, it would hold the most seats. If this sentiment holds until elections are held, probably in December, it would mark a stunning shift in Spanish politics: Just two parties, one center-left and one center-right, have dominated national elections since the early 1980s.

Then there’s Nigel Farage’s anti-immigrant, anti-EU U.K. Independence Party, which is likely to gain seats in May’s British elections. And even if the establishment holds out, Prime Minister David Cameron is under heavy pressure from euroskeptics in his Conservative party and will likely be forced to hold a public referendum on British membership in the EU. (It’s also possible that UKIP’s growing strength could actually hurt the euroskeptic cause by taking enough votes away from the Conservatives to put the pro-EU Labour in power.)

France isn’t holding national elections this year, but local elections in March will likely see major gains for Marine Le Pen’s National Front. Polls in December showed a plurality of voters planning to cast a ballot for the far-right party, and that was before this month’s terrorist attacks in Paris, which will likely help Le Pen’s hard-line rhetoric on immigration and Islam resonate with more voters.

This could also be a big year for the far-right Danish People’s Party. Denmark is due to hold general elections this year, and recent polling shows that the party, which wants less EU influence in Danish politics and tougher border controls, is now the country’s largest.

With close to 50 percent youth unemployment and deep cuts to social services, the frustration of the Greek public is clearly an extreme case—in an alarming development, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party came in third with 6.3 percent of the vote—but it’s also clearly not the only place where anti-EU messages from both the left and right are resonating with voters. So far, these anti-establishment parties have been able to perform well in local elections and EU votes, where voters often perceive the stakes to be lower. But this could very well be the year that the extreme parties from both sides finally break into the mainstream. 

*Correction, Jan. 27, 2015: This post originally misidentified the country that Tsipras had pledged not off the euro.