here is no single reason why people vote for a particular candidate in a particular country at a particular time. People assess the options from narrow, even selfish perspectives, and decide. To try to disentangle them is like trying to reverse-engineer a moussaka back to aubergines, potatoes and a live sheep.
Democracy is public, but also profoundly personal. All I can do is tell you why I voted for Syriza, to give you my impression as an almost-Brit of what I have seen happen to my birth country.
The anger that existed about the debt crisis and subsequent austerity had been diffuse but tangible for some time. Despite popular commentary, this was not because Greeks did not accept responsibility for the crisis – hardly a discussion goes by where we don’t self-flagellate about it. The narrative did, however, change significantly over time.
Gone were the story’s roots in Wall Street and the City of London. Gone was thecollapse of subprime lending in the US. Gone was Iceland. Gone was the accusation that the very institutions we paid to bail out were speculating against the euro and fuelling volatility – an accusation articulated by the German chancellor Angela Merkel herself in 2010. Instead, the story mutated into onefocused exclusively on lazy, feckless Greeks.
Attempts to point out the patent absurdity of the idea that Greek train drivers retiring early in 2009 could be responsible for Lehman Brothers folding in the US a year earlier were dismissed as “Greeks not taking responsibility”. This anger, this feeling of being globally bullied, intensified when the troika of the European commission, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank imposed their programme of austerity. Many of the measures were horizontal and caused most hurt to those who had least to do with the crisis. Not only that, but the loans secured in exchange mostly went to propping up the very banking institutions that were seen as responsible.
This made for a pretty ugly pincer movement. Working-class people felt they were being punished for the mistakes of the rich and that the rich were largely unscathed. Out of that the protest movement of the aganaktismenoi, the indignant of Syntagma Square, was born and the riots that set Athens ablaze. It is this fire that Alexis Tsipras and Syriza managed to tame into political will, just likePablo Iglesias and Podemos are doing in Spain. It is this fire that is politically alluring. The anger was no longer diffuse, it had a shape, a target and a champion
The only promise Tsipras made that truly mattered to me was to “give dignity back to the people”. Of course, he cannot deliver that. Only people can deliver that for themselves. But even mention of that word, “dignity”, in a political context, struck an important chord. It was hugely refreshing to have someone speaking that sort of language, instead of tired neoliberal dogma of privatisation equalling efficiency. To start from priorities and then define the method.
Syriza’s supporters were accused of being irrational, were threatened and cajoled not to destroy the country in advertising campaigns of breathtaking negativity. This confirmed in my mind that conventional politics supported the very system that collapsed globally and spectacularly only a few years ago; a system that eschews taxation, but required unprecedented bailouts from taxation; a system that, somehow, has now gone back to being considered infallible, supreme and self-correcting.
I concluded that voting for that would be irrational and that trying something different with Syriza, however risky, made better sense. Dignity might be an abstract concept, but its absence is a very real and practical thing. Stand outside a central Athens supermarket at closing time, to see elderly women, dressed in black, rummaging through bins for food and you will see it. Spend a day with my mother, who worked two jobs for 45 years, paid every cent of tax and now finds herself diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, with no decent health or social provision and a monthly pension of €400 (£300), and she will explain it to you.
Added to this, Syriza gave me a way to voice dissatisfaction with the EU without aiming to dismantle it. To ask for radical change without victimising migrants. As a migrant myself, this was very important to me. It was possible to be pro-EU and still want to punch its current monetarist policies in the face. The EU as a project is very worthwhile. We need to fight for the Europe we want. The idea that what stands between each of us and a life of prosperity is a hypothetical Romanian cleaner is the most ludicrous one we have ever been sold.
Finally, there was another, technical reason. Greece is a country ruined by corruption, nepotism and lawlessness. “We are fascisto-liberals,” a taxi driver once told me. “We want the harshest possible laws to apply, but only to everyone else.” In this context, to have a party like Syriza in power, neither indebted nor connected to the past, is the healthiest thing. Like a national spring clean. After years of the wrong people succeeding, Greece longs for the right people, even if they fail.
This is a key fact that international fearmongers (and there were many) failed to grasp. The more Christine Lagarde, of the IMF, and Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany’s finance minister, warned of impending Armageddon, the more my will to defy them crystallised. Not because they were wrong, but because they were trying to use fear as an instrument of force. Not because it wasn’t good advice, but because it was blackmail. Not because the reforms they imposed were wrong, but because they were imposed.
And there, I think, is the wider lesson from the Greek election. Globalised capitalism and democracy are often uncomfortable bedfellows. We must not assume that one needs – or magically brings about – the other. China is proof that they operate independently. Democracy is often messy. Markets like certainty. It is vital to recognise the existence of this tension. If the Greek people have given a gift to the rest of the world, if there is a payoff for all the uncertainty, it is bringing those global players – usually unseen – out of hiding. Making them confront us out in the open; blackmail an entire country publicly.
Everyone understands the wider debate better now. We anthropomorphise the abstract on the news – “markets are sceptical”, “markets are nervous”, “markets are angry” – and offer human sacrifice to the volcano. It is a sort of free-market fundamentalism with a religiosity in tone as extreme as any caliphate’s.
To me, voting for Syriza was part political choice, part resistance movement. It is important to clarify that I am fully aware it might fail – everyone and everything is set against the party. The economic environment is as challenging as it could be. Syriza’s ideas may prove unworkable. The leviathan of politics may swallow its politicians and regurgitate them wearing the same ties and telling the same lies as those before them. But this election was about putting down a marker. About saying “no more”. Shock doctrine has its limits. You gotta leave the plebs with a little something to lose.
I felt the time was right for bold choices. We must either, as a species, put life ahead of money, or not. Markets, currency, trade, business, the state, the EU, the stock market and the media are either in the service of utility, of making life better for as many as possible, or utility is secondary to a kind of sadistic accountancy.
The weather has always been the metaphor of choice for flailing politicians. They’re always pilots trying to land the plane in a blizzard, captains trying to moor the boat in the storm. Allow me to appropriate this tired cliche. Yesterday, I walked to the polling station – the school where I went as a child, where I was taught what it means to be Greek, the sadly distant glories of the past. A freezing, thick rain pelted my face. Today, I woke up to a beautifully sunny, bright, warm morning. For the first time I can recall, the working class had voted in its own self-interest. Greece had a true socialist government.
I know these halcyon days in the middle of winter will not last; cannot. But, for now, the sun feels lovely on my skin and this country seems a lot less cold and afraid than it did yesterday.