Syriza: A party under pressure
- 15 June 2012
- From the section Magazine
If the anti-austerity party Syriza wins power in Greece's election on Sunday, the country's membership of the euro could be at risk. So how are they coping with the pressure?
In one of the most impoverished neighbourhoods in Athens, behind a clinic for illegal immigrants and overlooking a park favoured by heroin addicts, is the headquarters of the new force in Greek politics, the radical left-wing party Syriza.
Stained walls are decorated with posters bearing yellow stars and the party slogan: "Making the memorandum history, opening a road to hope!"
Up a tiny, rickety elevator is a first-floor canteen, where the party runs a scheme for the unemployed giving them work serving soya-balls to party officials who eat from plastic plates. Everywhere, people refer to each other as "comrade" - it is a far cry from the mainstream politics of Greece.
Yet until last month most people outside the country - and some within it - had never heard of Syriza. For years they struggled to win more than 5% of the vote, but in the first round of the general election, this anti-austerity party rocketed from nowhere to second place with more than 17%.
Such is the demand for Syriza officials from news broadcasters, that several offices in party HQ have been emptied and turned into studios.
Syriza's head of European policy, 32-year-old Yiannis Bournous, has taken on the mammoth task of managing the endless requests from the international media.
In the cramped office he shares with a colleague, he maintains a sense of humour while juggling a Japanese TV crew filming his every move and endless phone calls from journalists as far as Mongolia, Kazakhstan and South Korea.
There's a sense that Syriza is still struggling to come to terms with its new-found attention.
When asked what the party's policy is on Kazakhstan, he laughs. "These issues are new for us."
Syriza's complete lack of experience - its youthful leader Alexis Tsipras has been a member of Greek parliament for less than three years - benefits them because they are seen as removed from the corruption that has infected mainstream politics.
But the main reason for the party's appeal is its promise to end the EU-imposed austerity measures.
And threats from EU leaders in Brussels that bringing spending cuts to an end will cut off the EU loans doesn't worry their supporters - the economy is shrinking by 7% a year and one in five people are unemployed, so many Greeks are too fed up to care.
At a Syriza rally in a small town south of the capital, U2 blares from the speakers, making it feel more like a pop concert than a gathering of the radical left.
When Tsipras walks on stage, in a suit and open-necked shirt and with his arm raised up in a fist, the people cheer furiously and break into a chant: "The time for the left is here!"
One of those in the crowd is Sophia Tzitzicou, a pharmacist in her 50s who was previously a lifelong supporter of the centre-left Pasok party. Not now.
"I don't believe that leaving the euro would be any worse, we used to live with the drachma and if we have to we will again."
Ultimately what separates those who will vote for Syriza from those who will vote for New Democracy is they feel more anger towards the austerity plans than fear of exiting the eurozone. The battle lines for this election are emotional - anger versus fear.
But almost as big an issue is the sense that the old parties are corrupt and out of touch.
Ms Tzitzicou says she feels sold out by the last government because they signed the EU austerity agreement and allowed life to become unbearable for Greeks. But in Tsipras she sees a potential prime minister who can stand up to European leaders.
At the heart of Syriza's philosophy is the fight for social justice, and they believe this can be achieved through an expansion of the state, which they see as the arm of the people.
If it came to power, Syriza says it would increase taxes on the rich by up to 75%, renationalise state assets that are currently being privatised, like the railways and the national power supplier, and order state oversight of the major banks.
"The private bankers should be afraid," explains Bournous. "The Greek state cannot continue rescuing the banking system without having a decisive voice within the system, a public intervention."
Rather than cut back on Greece's civil service, which has been accused of being bloated and inefficient, it would be expanded by up to 100,000 people.
Although these policies are election winners for many Greeks, particularly civil servants, other sections of the public are concerned they could make matters worse for an economy already in crisis.
In a small television studio in the northern suburbs of Athens, members of the public have the chance to put their questions directly to Tsipras who lounges behind a desk and swivels in his chair to face his questioners.
He looks comfortable and confident, even when the questioning becomes more aggressive in tone - "A number, a number! We are still waiting for you to give us the figures, Mr Tsipras!"
Danae Voyatzi, who works in the private sector, challenges his plans to pull Greece out of Nato. She is a loyal New Democracy party voter who believes the Syriza leader's promises - and his figures - do not add up.
"I am an auditor, I know numbers and I can see through the lines."
She worries Tsipras is trying to buy Greek votes by offering promises of jobs, better pensions and salaries, without any way to pay for them.
"I truly believe he is dangerous for the country and I am afraid that if he comes to power there will be riots when people realise that their 'hope' was not true and that he is worse than the others."
But this is not a question of figures in a notebook, says Costas Isychos, a Syriza candidate relaxing in an Athens taverna. It is rare to see a politician sitting in a restaurant these days - the public often hurl yogurt at figures from the established parties, blaming them for the country's ills.
"It is a contest of ideologies, a contest of values. It is a contest of our truth and their truth."
Isychos believes that in taking on big business and the EU's austerity programme, Syriza offers voters something beyond policies.
But he admits that it will be a major challenge to turn their policies from opposition into practical governable ideas.
"It is very easy to be in opposition because you can just make criticisms but it is another thing to try to permanently solve a problem, like people living in the streets, or being on the verge of committing suicide. I have literally lost my sleep at night."