This article is a translation of a piece that originally appeared in Spain's El Pais on 22 January. José Ignacio Torreblanca also discussed the matter in a recent ECFR podcast that you can listen to here.
Each vote deposited in a ballot box reflects a strictly individual decision. That decision may reflect different considerations of the political situation, the economy, or personal expectation. But in a democracy that is, after all, the government of the people, by the people, and for the people, we like to think that the sum of all these individual decisions must equal something coherent. So on Monday, we will say “the Greeks have spoken”, followed by “they want to end austerity and bipartisanism” if Syriza wins, or by “they don't want to jump into the void just at the beginning of the recovery” if Syriza does not succeed.
Politics, particularly during the campaign season, consists of creating meanings and then filling them with facts.
But things are not quite so simple, nor is democracy a system where the winner takes all. Because, regardless of who wins, life will remain a set of imperfect decisions made with insufficient information, little power, and very little ability to anticipate the consequences. It sounds depressing (there are those who call it reality) but it is what it is.
But it doesn't end there. As the meanings of things are not clear nor established beforehand, politics, particularly during the campaign season, consists of creating meanings and then filling them with facts. Words – as Iñigo Errejón (head of the campaign for Podemos, a radical left-wing Spanish party) likes to tell us – are hills from which one dominates the field and from which political battles are won. Hence Spain's Prime Minister Rajoy has campaigned in Greece for reform while Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias has urged the Greeks to understand the election as the first step in the liberation of the peoples of southern Europe from the colonial yoke imposed by Berlin and the Troika.
The bad bit about claiming sovereignty is that they could very well just give it to you, so best not to insist too much.
To the competition for government in Greece, which in theory only concerns the Greeks, is added an entire series of disputes that concern us as Europeans. A victory for Syriza would send a powerful message because, until now, none of the anti-system parties that emerged in Europe during the heat of the crisis have achieved a victory that has enabled them to reach government. That they achieved it in the weakest link of the chain, Greece, could be an exception, but also a sign that those parties, as they themselves like to say, have managed to occupy the centre of the political chessboard. That centrality means that if Syriza wins, Tsipras will have to negotiate and compromise with Greece's creditors, many of which, we must remember, are also democratic governments that exist due to their constituents and who also make their decisions with their own political future in mind. The other option available to Tspiras and Syriza is to regain sovereignty, but here is where the rhetorical game ends: the bad bit about claiming sovereignty is that, if you are just a bit too demanding, they could very well just give it to you, so best not to insist too much.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.