BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Leftist Alexis Tsipras’s re-election as Greek prime minister carries a mixed message for Europe’s battered center-left and for anti-capitalist radicals hoping to overturn the continent’s austere economic orthodoxy.
His victory on Sunday shows left-wing parties can still win elections in Europe, after reverses in Britain, Denmark and Finland this year. Seven years of financial crisis and euro zone debt woes have mostly benefited the center-right in the European Union, along with anti-EU populists.
It also shows that with charismatic leadership and after putting up a good fight, a left-wing government can sign up to unpopular economic reforms and spending cuts without being wiped out at the ballot box.
Yet many would say it also shows that leftist radicals have to bow to economic reality once in office and are unable to change policy significantly, however bold their promises.
Conservative governments in Spain, Portugal and Ireland, facing elections in the coming months after implementing tough EU/IMF bailout terms, may take comfort from the fact that it is possible to drink the poison and survive politically.
Despite efforts by the mainstream European left to embrace him, Tsipras is still eschewing the “you’re one of us now” message from center-left Socialist President Francois Hollande of France and European Parliament President Martin Schulz, a German Social Democrat.
Even as Tsipras grudgingly implements a bailout program he once promised to scrap, his strategy is to continue the rhetorical fight against German-led austerity policies.
“In Europe today, Greece and the Greek people are synonymous with resistance and dignity,” he told a victory rally on Sunday. “The struggle will be continued together for another four years.”
Tsipras faced down Marxist hardliners in his Syriza party and crushed a splinter group led by his former energy minister, but he still prefers the company of radicals to suit-and-tie social democrats.
Syriza applauded the election of hardline leftist Jeremy Corbyn as leader of Britain’s opposition Labour party this month as “a message of hope to the people of Europe”, seeing him as a kindred spirit in trying to roll back austerity policies.
The star guests at Syriza’s final campaign rally in Athens were Pablo Iglesias, pony-tailed leader of Spain’s youthful far-left Podemos party, and Pierre Laurent, secretary-general of the French Communist Party.
And Tsipras opted immediately to renew a coalition with the nationalist hard-right Independent Greeks rather than take up offers of partnership from the center-left Pasok party which used to run Greece or the centrist opposition To Potami party.
The Greek leader’s U-turn, accepting stringent bailout conditions imposed by euro zone leaders days after he had won a referendum rejecting similar terms, split his comrades at home and abroad.
Jean-Luc Melenchon, who was the presidential candidate of France’s Left Front in 2012, denounced Tsipras for surrendering to what he called a German “diktat”. Melenchon threw his support behind the Popular Unity party, the Syriza breakaway which failed to win the three percent minimum required to enter the Greek parliament.
Other radicals, hoping for a political coat-tails effect from Tsipras, tried to bask in his victory.
“The success of Syriza in the general election is all the more remarkable given the appalling treatment of the Greek government by the EU and ECB during the recent negotiations,” said Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, whose radical party is wilting in polls before Ireland’s election next year.Three months before a Spanish general election, the two parties vying for left-wing voters – Podemos and the mainstream socialist PSOE – both rushed to congratulate Syriza on its win.
But while the anti-austerity Podemos tweeted a picture of Iglesias on the phone with Tsipras, the socialists warned Syriza against a coalition with the far-right and said Podemos should not try to turn this victory of “new Syriza” into their own.
“In Spain this is going to help Podemos, that is very clear. They are an alternative that is attractive now in Europe,” said Juan Diez, president of the think-tank Analisis Sociologicos, Economicos y Políticos (ASEP). “It does not mean Podemos are going to win the elections, but they might get a boost.”
European Parliament president Schulz, who telephoned Tsipras to congratulate him, also said it was “bizarre” that the Greek leader was sticking to his coalition with the hard right.
In Portugal, where a tough bailout program has not generated the same support for anti-austerity radicals as in Spain or Greece, the opposition Socialist candidate for prime minister in the Oct. 4 election played down any connection between the two votes.
“What is being decided in Portugal has nothing to do with what is being discussed in Greece,” Antonio Costa told reporters.
His centre-left party, which led a minority administration that was forced to seek a bailout in 2011, is neck-and-neck with the centre-right ruling coalition in opinion polls, with support for smaller leftist parties ranging from 2 to 10 percent.
Costa proposes boosting incomes, hiring and economic growth while easing austerity measures but says he would still be able to cut public deficits in line with European rules.
Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho also drew a distinction with Greece, saying that Portugal under his rule was now preparing for intensifying economic recovery and employment, while Greece still faced a difficult bailout program.
Additional reporting by Padraic Halpin in Dublin, Michele Kambas in Greece, Raquel Castillo, Robert Hetz and Andres González in Madrid and Andrei Khalip in Lison; Writing by Paul Taylor; editing by David Stamp