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WALL STREET JOURNAL: Syriza’s Rise Fueled by Professors-Turned-Politicians - Syriza a crescut alimentata de profesori de extrema stanga deveniti politicieni
Party in Lead in Greek Election Polls Hones Economic Platform With Cadre of Left-Wing Academics-Turned-Politicians
Foto: Costas Lapavitsas - dreapta. Cariera sa politica a inceput doar acum cateva saptamani. El a fost candidat al partidului de extremă stîngă Syriza. Timp de mai bine de 20 de ani, Dl. Lapavitsas azi in varsta de 54 de ani, a predat economia la Londra la University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. Acum, el este parte a cadrelor academice carea s-au transformat peste noapte in politicieni intarind si consolidand gandirea economica a Syriza.
NAOUSA, Greece—Wearing suit pants and a jacket, Costas Lapavitsas stood Wednesday afternoon on the floor of a steel-fabricating shop here and addressed a few dozen workers and small-business owners who smoked while sitting in plastic chairs. “I am not a career politician,” he began.
Indeed. Mr. Lapavitsas ’s political career is only a few weeks old. In Greece’s elections Sunday, he is a parliamentary candidate for the leftist opposition party Syriza, which leads Prime Minister Antonis Samaras ’s conservative party in the polls and could roil politics throughout Europe if it wins.
For more than 20 years, the 54-year-old Mr. Lapavitsas has taught economics at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. Now, he is part of the cadre of academics-turned-politicians forging Syriza’s economic thinking.
Greece's future in the eurozone could hinge on the outcome of Sunday’s national election. Find out why. European economic orthodoxy, led by Germany, has fought Greece’s debt crisis with painful austerity—public-spending cuts and tax hikes—and other strict reforms. Syriza’s rise is the most potent challenge yet to that orthodoxy.
If Syriza wins, it could embolden left-wing parties in other countries, especially Spain, where political tensions also are boiling. It could even result in a rift with Germany that ruptures the euro.
The economic plan advanced by Mr. Lapavitsas and other professors aligned with Syriza is rooted in the core principles of debt forgiveness and higher government spending, which Germany has rejected.
“We need to renegotiate the logic,” says Yanis Varoufakis, a visiting professor at the University of Texas at Austin until a few days ago. He describes himself as a “libertarian Marxist” and has been recruited by Syriza to run for a seat in Greece’s parliament. His wife is heading to Austin to pack up their belongings for their move back to Athens.
A few years ago, Syriza was a fringe coalition of leftists. It jumped into the political mainstream in 2012 because of populist fervor and the party’s charismatic young leader, Alexis Tsipras. But a muddy economic message left Syriza in second place—and out of power.
It has honed its focus since then, and Mr. Lapavitsas describes the party’s platform as “a Keynesian program with redistribution attached, with some Marxist view of the world.” He adds: “We are not ashamed of that.”
In the tradition of John Maynard Keynes, Syriza advocates public spending to reignite economic growth. Greece can afford to spend more if some of its debt is forgiven by other countries.
Nikolaos Chountis, a Syriza candidate in Athens, ticks off the party’s spending priorities: food and electricity subsidies for impoverished households, a pension boost for the poorest retirees, a hike in the minimum wage and tax cuts for low earners. “The legislation is ready,” he says.
Since 2010, Greece’s economic policy has largely been dictated by the “troika” of technocrats appointed by Europe and the International Monetary Fund to supervise Greece’s €240 billion ($280 billion) bailout.
The troika wields a memorandum that minutely details what Greece must do in return for the rescue. Section 220.127.116.11.ii. commits Greece to reviewing customs procedures for canned peaches and four other products.
More significantly, the bailout put ceilings on government spending and floors on revenue. It has cut pensions, subsidies and the public payroll.
“It has to be over,” says George Stathakis, a University of Crete economist who won a parliamentary seat for Syriza in 2012 and is an economic adviser to Mr. Tsipras.
The party’s first message to Europe would be “let’s get rid of the memorandum,” Mr. Stathakis says. Syriza is willing to agree to a balanced budget, adds John Milios, another Syriza economist, but he says it is “impossible” for Greece to pay down its debt while the economy is stagnant.
Naousa, where Mr. Lapavitsas is running for parliament, is in the steep foothills of the Vermio mountains in northern Greece. Naousa became a cotton-spinning center under Ottoman rule in the late 19th century. Its mills were powered by a stream that cut through town, tumbling to the wide Macedonian plain below.
The son of a doctor, Mr. Lapavitsas grew up in the area. He left to attend university in England. The area’s cotton mills have steadily closed.
“Greece has been de-industrializing for 30 years, ever since Greece joined the European Union,” he says Mr. Lapavitsas. “The period of the bailout has finished it off, basically.”
From his academic perch in London, Mr. Lapavitsas challenged the German-led approach. In 2010, he began writing articles advocating that Greece leave the euro. He is close to Panagiotis Lafazanis, the leader of an anti-euro bloc inside Syriza, though Mr. Lapavitsas says he accepts Syriza’s pro-euro position.
When elections were called in December, Mr. Lapavitsas says, local officials asked him to run. So he trundled Wednesday from a hospital visit past peach orchards and grapevines to the area’s last cotton mill. He watched machines spin bales into ropes, ropes into strings, and strings into threads.
“We believe there are big political changes coming,” he told workers, promising to raise Greece’s minimum wage.
Mr. Lapavitsas then drove to the steel-fabricating shop. He told workers and small-business owners that “we’ll die” unless Greece can renegotiate its debt and unwind austerity.
Charalambos Kotsidis, one of the shop’s owners, says he will vote for Syriza in Sunday’s elections. Sales for the supplier of steel girders and plates to construction companies are down 80% in the past five years, he says. The number of employees has shriveled to 12 from 60.
“In a country where values have dropped 80%, you cannot demand that payment,” he says of Greece’s bailout debt. “It is the same in business.”
A default in 2012 on Greek bonds wiped out most of what was owed to private investors. Much of Greece’s remaining debt is owed to other eurozone countries. It expires decades from now and carries low interest rates.
But the European Central Bank holds about €7 billion in bonds that are due this summer and could become a flash point. Greece doesn’t have enough cash to repay the bonds but can borrow the money if it sticks with the bailout.
“They know we can’t pay it back, so they want to lend us the money,” says Mr. Varoufakis, the former Texas professor. “I’ll be damned if I’m part of a government that says yes to this.”
Persuading Germany to change its mind seems like it will be a daunting challenge for Mr. Tsipras if Syriza wins and he becomes Greece’s next prime minister. But Syriza could splinter if he backpedals on the party’s promises.
On Wednesday evening, Mr. Lapavitsas prepared to address a rally at Naousa’s auditorium. In the lobby, songwriter Kostas Kaldaras compared Greece’s two once-dominant parties, which followed the troika’s dictates, to the Symplegades, the mythical rocks at the mouth of the Black Sea that smashed passing ships.
“They crushed culture and social cohesion,” Mr. Kaldaras said. Syriza would “start to change the form of the European Union from a primitive neoliberalism.”
Mr. Lapavitsas told the crowd that Europe is a “continent of economic asphyxiation” with Greece at the “cutting edge” of the decline. “It has to be written off,” he said of Greece’s debt, acknowledging that the negotiations would be tough.
If the answer is no, “we will not back down,” Mr. Lapavitsas said. “It is simple. We will not back down.”
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