Syriza’s victory brings fresh hope to Portugal’s anti-austerity parties

Whatever Europe’s power-makers like to say – and they are doing their best to play-down the consequences of last Sunday’s election victory of anti-austerity party Syriza in Greece – so-called contagion is already spreading rapidly through southern Europe. In Spain, the new left-wing “Podemos” party is gaining high-profile traction, with outright rejection of austerity as one of its cornerstones. And here in Portugal citizens’ movement “Juntos Podemos” is moving full steam ahead for classification as a political party.

The race is on to be able to stand in October’s legislative elections in Portugal. As “Juntos Podemos” spokesperson Manuela Magno told RTP this week, Syriza’s extraordinary results – six years after holding only 5% of the country’s vote – show Portuguese voters disillusioned with traditional politics that “anything is possible”.

“There no longer needs to be the feeling of inevitability,” she said. “People can now see there are solutions that are not austerity.”

But is this all post-election victory euphoria? Certainly Brussels would hope so. Political commentators have made much of the “no negotiation is possible” stance on renegotiation of the colossal Greek debt.

As Público reports, “prudent declarations but not a millimetre of ceding to the idea of debt pardon or defaulting on Europe’s budgetary rules. This was the way Europe’s finance ministers reacted the day after confirmation of Greece’s change of leadership”.

Toeing the “good pupil of the troika” line for which the coalition under Portugal’s prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho has become famous, the PSD issued a characteristically diplomatic statement, larded nonetheless with warning: “The common project that connects us in this European house of which we both take part reminds us of how interlinked and dependent we find each other and reinforces the sense of cooperation and respect for national institutions that should guide us.”

It was a masterpiece of words that said nothing and everything at the same time.

Elsewhere, however, it was impossible to ignore the feeling that change was in the air.

Left-wingers like Bloco de Esquerda called on the coalition government to work with Athens to defend the interests of southern countries; the ecologist party Os Verdes suggested Syriza’s rise to power was the perfect moment for Portugal to “demand debt renegotiation”, and the new Republican Democratic party of political maverick Marinho e Pinto said the anti-austerity victory was “a seed that would germinate and bear fruit” in a Europe that would “never be the same.”

The Socialists, desperate to show themselves pro-active though painfully aware that they are one of the traditional parties held to blame for the economic woes battering the country, hailed the victory of incoming Greek PM Alexis Tsipras as a triumph for democracy.

Party leader António Costa said the election result showed the politics of austerity were at their end. “It is another sign of the change in political orientation that is taking place across Europe,” he declared.
“I think it is essential to remind European institutions that the fundamental principle of the European Union is the equality of all member states. Thus the EU has to respect the decisions of Greece as the decisions of all other state-members, and Europe should respond to this change with solidarity”.

Economic contagion thus far contained

Despite scaremongers a-plenty – Forbes magazine contributor Charles W. Calomiris pointed to a Greek default in a matter of months, and then in the same article suggested it could even come in hours – Europe’s principal markets have reacted “with moderation”.

This has much to do with the massive programme of quantitative easing announced for the eurozone by the European Central Bank last week.

Curiously, only the Greek stock market registered any significant falls, and this, claims Público, is due to the fears of what a face-off with Europe’s power-mongers could mean – particularly in key election years, as is happening both here and in UK.

British prime minister David Cameron was scathing of Syriza’s victory, tweeting that it “will increase economic uncertainty across Europe”. But in the US economist Joseph Stiglitz – one of 18 well-known economists who wrote an open letter to the Financial Times arguing that Europe would benefit from listening and working with Syriza – made some interesting points.

Talking on CNBC news he said: “The policies that Europe has foisted on Greece just have not worked. And it’s true in Spain and the other crisis countries. I think back to World War II. What enabled Germany to become what it is today? Basically the west said ‘we’ll forgive your debts’.

“Greece made mistakes, but I think Europe made even bigger mistakes.

“When this crisis began, the debt-GDP ratio was 110%. Now it is about 170%.”

In other words, Europe’s medicine of austerity “was poisonous”, he concluded.

For Portugal, where the debt-GDP level now stands at 129% and has risen every year under austerity (registering only 94% in 2011), Stiglitz’s last point easily explains the rising popularity for parties like “Juntos Podemos” and Marinho e Pinto’s Republican Democratic Party.

Thus Syriza’s “victory” wherever it leads is for now a shining beacon of hope that politics can be wrestled back by the little people.

Juntos Podemos’ Manuela Magno told RTP that the new party’s focus is on bringing transparency to public life and ensuring that decision-making passes through citizens.

“We have to believe we can be a force,” she stressed. “We are making a great effort to be an alternative in October” when Portugal goes to the polls.

By then, the real significance of Syriza’s victory in Greece last Sunday will be much clearer.

By NATASHA DONN [email protected]