It may be odd to use a Roman metaphor to describe a Greek political event, but in this case, it’s apt. Just as Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon river because he could, in spite of the warnings of the Roman Senate not to, so Alex Tsipras, leader of the anti-austerity party, Syriza, has decided to try to end austerity in Greece, in spite of Europe’s leaders saying he shouldn’t. Whether Tsipras will succeed is still unclear, but whatever happens, his victory represents a crucial turning point for Europe—a signal that time has run out on austerity policies.
A “Tsipras” had to happen somewhere eventually, because there’s only so long you can ask people to vote for impoverishment today based on promises of a better tomorrow that never arrives. If voting for impoverishment brings only more impoverishment, eventually people will stop voting for it—and the timing of “eventually” will depend on when people’s assets run out. In the Greek case, backers of the incumbent New Democracy party and its austerity policies constitute that quarter of the electorate who still have assets (pensions, paper, and portfolios) after five years of depression and who want to preserve what they have. The 36 percent that voted for Syriza were the young, the asset-less, and the unemployed—people who either lost what they once had or never had much to begin with. Greece’s 1.9 percent of growth last year means essentially nothing to a society that has lost nearly 30 percent of GDP in a little over half a decade; on the current course, it would take, by latest estimates, two generations for the country to get back above water.
Syriza’s victory presents two lessons for the rest of Europe. First, no one votes for a 15-year-long recession. Second, you can’t run a gold standard in a democracy. Either the gold standard goes, or democracy goes, and that is the choice Europe may face sooner than it thinks.