Rights Wire

The Human Rights Blog of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice


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The rise of Syriza: human rights in the wake of devastating austerity

By Chris Beall

Late on Jan. 25, standing before the University of Athens Propylaea, Alexis Tsipras greeted a crowd of chanting and flag-waving supporters. His party, Syriza—Greece’s “Coalition of the Radical Left”—had just won 149/300 seats in the Hellenic Parliament: a political victory fueled by the party’s platform of hope and relief from harsh austerity measures.

While the election results marked a momentous occasion for Greece and arguably for human rights generally, Tsipras recognized that the night also resembled an important juncture regarding the future of Europe. In thanking supporters across the continent for their solidarity and confidence, Tsipras declared, “All of Europe, all of the world is listening to us. We give the assurance that we will continue this struggle with the same pathos, the same confidence.”

POLITICAL HOPE AND SKEPTICISM

The confidence cited by Tsipras is far from universally shared. As soon as the election was over, many European politicians began firing off tweets deriding its results, and digging in their heels for upcoming negotiations. This, against the backdrop of the Athens Stock Exchange’s spectacular 30 percent sell off since early December, when it became clear that the incumbent New Democracy party’s failure to form a government would result in snap elections and pave the way for Syriza’s parliamentary ascent. Not exactly a vote of confidence from Europe’s power brokers, nor from the capital markets.

However, this all deserves some unpacking. On one hand, let’s talk perspective: while radical in name, Syriza isn’t exactly talking about abolishing private property or seizing the means of production. Indeed, the party’s continual assurances that they seek to work alongside their creditors to renegotiate the terms of their debt hardly amounts to storming the proverbial Winter Palace.

But on the other hand, we might also ask ourselves what is to be gained in any attempt to explain away Greece’s election results in terms of high profile twitter feeds and/or falling financial indices. Really, such reactions are obvious. These sorts of indicators reflect little more than the familiar moods and sentiments of just one narrow segment of the European social fabric: the slim beneficiaries under the Troika’s—Greece’s creditor super committee made up of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund—status quo policies.

This is not to say that these reactions should be overlooked. These people will in effect pull the strings of any further European Union (EU)-Greek bailout package. But after half a decade of setting policies with the sole aim of protecting their own—to hell with the social costs—it should not surprise anybody that these same people view Syriza, or any change whatsoever, as a threat to their own privileged interests.

Which is all to make the basic point that the dominant discourse in Europe today is but one narrative of the post-2009 Eurozone experience. For the first time in the crisis, the rise of Syriza reveals that this mainstream narrative has approached its natural limits—that other counter-narratives, like them or not, have a legitimate space in the marketplace of ideas.

A TRIUMPH FOR HUMAN RIGHTS?

This shift in narrative should be greeted with both applause and skepticism for those interested in the state of human rights in Greece and the region more generally.

The structural adjustment policies forcibly attached to each Greek bailout package—immensely burdensome loans financed by deep and scathing cuts to Greek society—have resulted in a genuine humanitarian and human rights crisis, evidenced by a long list of ugly developments. First, there are the obligatory economic numbers, such as the country’s unemployment rate, which has averaged about 26 percent over the last four years. Youth unemployment, after rising above 60 percent in early 2013, has averaged roughly 56 percent during this same period. The real wages of working Greeks have plummeted nearly 28 percent since their peak in 2010, a direct result of Troika efforts to devalue labor costs and make the nation a more competitive trading partner. Naturally, such policies have weighed heavily on the Greek middle class, which has both shrunk and as a whole become poorer under austerity. The result has been an exacerbation of social inequality, both inside of Greece and across the Eurozone. While the Greeks suffer, the continent’s largest economies watch their own exports skyrocket, disproportionately benefiting from Europe’s weakened currency.

But if these kinds of statistics fail to give a human face to the crisis, consider some more direct measures: Suicide rates in the country have steadily skyrocketed since the start of the recession. In June 2011 alone, the number of reported suicides jumped by approximately 36 percent. The country has also witnessed dangerously high child malnutrition, and many families are no longer vaccinating their children due solely to cost pressures. Adoption rates too have soared to unprecedented levels during the crisis, with some desperate families turning to informal adoption channels, or outright child abandonment.

Foremost, we should welcome Syriza’s blow to the neoliberal discourse that has so narrowly managed this crisis for the past half-decade or so. The bailouts thrust upon Greece have been fueled by an unchecked and assumption-driven economic logic, which has absolutely failed to correspond to Greece’s reality. Put another way: the inherent limits of starvation, poverty, loss of hope and human dignity are all variables that have a hard time fitting into even the most sophisticated of economic models. Yet, the Troika’s unadulterated hubris in ignoring this reality has, perhaps more than anything, fostered Syriza’s rise to political power. By pushing austerity in the absence of any societal pressure meters or safety valves, a pipe has finally burst in the Hellenic Parliament. This is because, in times of humanitarian crisis, there is no such thing as ceteris paribus.

Clearly, the situation in Greece amounts to a public health nightmare and rampant violations of the right to work and health. Any ability to give voice to these tragedies, to bring them into the forefront of Eurozone policymaking and establish their place alongside the dominant discourse, is a healthy development.

Likewise, the measures proposed in Syriza’s Thessaloniki Programme to address Greece’s reality through a more rights-based approach merit praise. Far from some radical Marxist agenda, the program looks to basic Keynesian economic policy and a “European New Deal” to steer Greece out of its depression. By temporarily halting the nation’s suffocating debt-service payments in order to dramatically reinvest in the Greek population, the program wisely attempts to exit the crisis through stimulus and economic growth, rather than austerity’s violent fiscal savings program. The platform also resembles an important ideological shift in values among Greek voters, which could serve a bellwether for European values more broadly. Among its four central tenets, the Thessaloniki Programme places “confronting the humanitarian crisis” at the top of the list. Whatever terms and promises might be eroded in forward negotiations between Greece and its creditors, Syriza will be pressured domestically to respect this ideological turn.

There are other positive byproducts of the Greek election results. While the dramatic rise of Syriza has been a result of the party’s popular economic platform, the new government’s social policies will also allow specific advances in human rights that would have never been politically feasible, were it not for the crisis. As reported by IRIN, perhaps those who stand the most to gain under Syriza are the region’s traditionally marginalized migrants and refugees, who will welcome Syriza’s open-door immigration policies.

WHAT’S AT STAKE

And yet, we should caution ourselves: What happens if Syriza fails?

Tsipras was absolutely correct in his victory speech, to note that all of Europe is watching. Perhaps those watching closest are Europe’s ultra-right or openly fascist political parties, who have their own dark narrative to contribute toward the economic crisis. It’s no small development that Golden Dawn—Greece’s xenophobic and literal neo-nazi party—won 6.3 percent of the popular vote, coming in at a parliamentary third place while a good chunk of the party sits in jail on charges linked to murder and organized crime. Similar movements all across Europe—and especially France’s rising National Front—are paying attention to Syriza. They rightly conceive of themselves as next in line to the ideological throne.

The human rights implications of this potential development are obvious. The ultra-nationalism at the heart of these movements poses a very real threat to all of Europe’s immigrant and minority populations. Taking advantage of Greece’s dissatisfaction with the status quo, Golden Dawn has openly called for the forcible deportation of all migrants, and has routinely used physical violence to intimidate both minorities and members of other political parties. They’ve also displayed stark jingoistic rhetoric when it comes to Greece’s immediate neighbors. If these violent mobs were to be given the state’s official police power, or Greece’s military, the consequences could be devastating. Less dramatically, any grant of legitimacy toward such a movement would mark a point of no return to the peace and international cooperation upon which the EU is premised.

And so this brings us back to the constraints Syriza faces, and the past hubris displayed by the Troika. It will be mathematically impossible for Syriza to both keep its election promises, and prevent Greece from leaving the Eurozone, if the nation’s creditors do not give the country some breathing room. It is decision time. The choice is entirely the Troika’s, and so far, it hasn’t been a good start. But as unpopular as loan forgiveness and delayed payments may be in Berlin, the Troika needs to remind itself that if Syriza fails, there are alternative counter-narratives waiting their turn on the sidelines.

If a commitment to Keynesian economics and basic human rights proves too radically leftist for the Eurozone to stomach, then the continent could soon find itself dealing with full-blown Eurosceptics and the radical right. That’s the real choice here. Let’s hope the Troika realizes that.

Chris Beall is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: Thierry Ehrmann/Creative Commons