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Greece celebrates after Syriza win elections
Greeks flood into the central university square to celebrate the winOscar Webb

How Syriza reclaimed Greece for its radical youth

Joy in the streets: the left-wing party and its election win offers some hope for a downbeat country

TextOscar WebbPhotographyOscar Webb

Since the government’s debt crisis in 2009, life under austerity has been increasingly hard for Greeks. Especially young Greeks. Half of all 16 to 25 year olds are out of work; the economy has shrunk by a quarter since 2008. Depending on which statistics you look at, poverty affects between one in three to half of the population. The situation in Greece, as one activist told me, is reaching the scale of “a humanitarian crisis”. 

But on Sunday Greeks overwhelmingly voted against austerity at the general election. Despite scare tactics from the incumbent government and generally centre-right media, the anti-austerity party Syriza – often hailed as radical and far-left – received 36 per cent of the vote, an almost unprecedented victory in Greek politics. The previous governing party New Democracy polled 27 per cent and saw its number of MPs cut by a third. 

Central Athens was partying on Sunday night following the victory. The square next to the university was packed with tens of thousands of people screaming, crying, embracing and waving flags under floodlights whilst bad Europop blared through a tannoy system. People were ecstatic at the prospect of a Syriza government and genuinely believed their victory spelled a new and better era for Greece.

 I spoke to Mata and Dora, teachers in their twenties, and asked them why they’d voted for Syriza. “We face unemployment, but those who have jobs are overworked,” Mata told me. “Fascism and racism is increasing; we are overtaxed but the taxes don’t go anywhere; we pay taxes that don’t come back to benefit our health or education. Syriza offer hope for a better world.”

“The new government will create jobs and make public healthcare free,” Dora added.

Charis, a university professor in his late 50s, hailed Syriza’s success as the first genuine left-wing victory in Greece and the rest of Europe for 70 years. 

“Left parties in Greece have suffered for more than seven decades, since the last civil war and the war against the Nazis,” he explained. “I feel alleviated – there might now be an end to what Greek people have suffered for the last five.”

Paul Mason from Channel 4 news tweeted that there was something cathartic about the rowdy celebrations. “There's a psych release going on in Greece,” he wrote. “Several people talked to me today about their fathers being jailed/ tortured in the Civil War and Junta.”

I asked Charis if Syriza could really bring about the changes it promised. “We require it, we requested it, we need it,” he pronounced.

By early Monday morning it turned out that Syriza had not won enough seats to form an outright majority government. They would have to form a coalition with another party. They chose to ally themselves with the Independent Greeks, an anti-austerity party which leans towards right-wing nationalism – the group opposes immigration and multiculturalism, and its leader was recently accused anti-Semitism when he said Jews paid fewer taxes than other Greek citizens. There were mumblings of a sellout. Activists within the Syriza youth wing said that it was a less than ideal solution.

I went over to Exarchia to gauge reactions to the new far-left–far-right coalition government. Exarchia is a pocket of Athens with a long history of anarchism, communism, anti-fascism and general resistance to the state and governments. Guidebooks and online tourist forums have branded the area a ‘no-go’. The Athens government even created a dedicated branch of law enforcement to police the area – the Delta force ride around on motorbikes and are notorious for police brutality. Here I’d find some dissenting voices to the Syriza victory. 

I met George, a Syriza supporter, and Paul, a Communist party supporter, in a cafe on Exarchia square, both in their 30s. George claimed that Syriza will still be able to carry out their anti-austerity agenda despite its dubious allies. 

Paul was more cynical. “There’s a worry that they’ll be like Tony Blair in Britain; he was meant to be left wing but his policies were far-right. This is what we’re afraid of Syriza being,” he said, adding, “and if they don’t manage to make the changes they promised, the next government is going to be the fascists.” After all, the neo-fascist group Golden Dawn polled 6.3 per cent in the election – making them the third most popular party.

On the corner of the square, I spoke to Zoe, a twenty-something Exarchia resident who was heading into an anarchist cafe. I asked if she voted. ‘Of course not,” she laughed. “In Exarchia no one votes.”

Zoe said that she didn’t believe in governments or elections. “We have to organise for ourselves. We don’t want to be governed by anyone. We don’t trust capitalism. We don’t trust the system. But we’re going to change this. The place is here and the time is now.” What did she think about the new coalition? “They are the same: Syriza, whatever the name. It’s the capitalist system. It doesn’t change.”

I asked if I could take her photo. “Of course not.”

“Young people are facing an impossible situation these days in Greece” – Elias Panteleakos

Despite its questionable coalition, Syriza do offer genuine hope to many Greeks. Their party members didn’t seem like the type to sell out easily. I caught up with Elias Panteleakos, a self-described communist, student and secretary of Syriza’s youth wing. 18 to 24 year olds are Syriza’s largest block of voters

“Young people are facing an impossible situation these days in Greece,” he said. “The neo-liberal attack of austerity has young people as the target.”

At a packed meeting of young European leftists in the Syriza HQ, Elias spelled out how he hoped his party could change Greece: “Taking the government is just the first step – it’s a tool, a weapon – in changing society.”

Whether Syriza are able to change society will largely depend on events in the next few weeks as the government try to negotiate a way out of Greece’s massive debts to the European Union, which currently stand at €193bn.

“It’s not going to be easy,” Elias told me. “We’ll have to struggle, we have to face these problems but I think we can do it.”