Anti-austerity Party’s Greek Election Win Is a Worry for EU, and Maybe Israel

The change of government in Greece is expected to affect its relations with Israel, which had improved beyond recognition in recent years.

Arye Mekel
Arye Mekel
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New Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.
New Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.Credit: AP
Arye Mekel
Arye Mekel

Greece’s far-left Syriza party achieved a wider margin of victory than predicted by opinion polls leading up to Sunday’s election. The self-proclaimed radical left-wing coalition Syriza received 149 of the Greek parliament's 300 seats (with 36.3 percent of the vote). That includes the 50-member bonus given to the winning party to guarantee governmental stability.

Although Syriza did not achieve the 151 seats needed in order to govern alone, it wasted no time forming a government after agreeing a deal with the centre-right Independent Greeks.

Alexis Tsipras, leader of Greece's Syriza party, centre, greets supporters in Athens.Credit: Bloomberg

Outgoing Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’ New Democracy only managed 27.8 percent of the votes, for 76 MPs.

The battle for third place ended in a tie between To Potami – a new centrist party headed by journalist and television personality Stavros Theodorakis – and the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party. Each has 17 MPs.

This is a great accomplishment for both parties, for different reasons. For To Potami, it is because this was its first election. For Golden Dawn, it’s because the party chairman and several of its MPs have been in jail for almost a year, and the party campaigned. Once again, it is clear that Greece’s neo-Nazi party has taken root.

The Communist Party came in fifth, with 15 seats, while PASOK, the socialist party that ruled for many years, reached only joint sixth place, with 13 MPs, along with the Independent Greeks.

Syriza’s victory is expected to shake European financial markets and rattle the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, which have already pumped more than 300 billion euros into Greece, in the hope of stemming the worst financial crisis in the nation’s history.

Syriza is demanding the repeal of the austerity programs and reforms imposed on Greece. It wants to raise the minimum wage, restore the “13th-month salary” bonus to many sectors of the economy, issue food and electricity vouchers to the poor, and introduce free medical care, among other things. It is not clear where the funding for all this would come from.

Syriza announced before the election that it would initiate talks with the EU over abolishing the austerity and reform agreements, and would draw up a new, more lenient economic recovery program before the summer. Germany and its EU partners insist that Greece must continue to meet its commitments.

New Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, 40, has no prior administrative experience. He is a charismatic leader who knows almost no English and usually goes without a necktie and socks in summer [he turned up at the swearing-in ceremony on Monday without a tie – he’s said he won’t wear one until Greece lands a debt reduction deal].

The change of government is also expected to affect Greece’s relations with Israel, which have improved beyond recognition in the past few years.

While Syriza is not a monolithic bloc, some of its members have been involved in organizing anti-Israel protests, including during last summer’s Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip. At least one senior MP – Theodoris Dritsas, a possible candidate for defense minister – joined one of the anti-blockade flotillas to the Gaza Strip.

It won’t happen right away, but Greece’s current close relationship with Israel, including on defense, could certainly be compromised.

Tsipras has had only one significant meeting with Israeli leaders, meeting with then-President Shimon Peres in Athens. I introduced Peres to Tsipras, who had just become head of the opposition. The meeting was very good and Tsipras, who is 50 years Peres’ junior, listened to him like a pupil before his teacher, and avoided criticism of Israel. I later met other Syriza members, who said that while they were critical of Israel, they were firmly opposed to anti-Semitism.

The author, Israel’s ambassador to Greece from 2010-2014, is a senior fellow at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

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