Why Greek People Are Voting for Leftist Syriza

In a Europe where the outcome of most elections is predicted weeks before votes are cast, the triumph of left-wing Syriza in May’s Greek elections was one of the few shocks of recent years.

A man holds a placard bearing the Greek flag.
Anne-christine Poujoulat
A man holds a placard bearing the Greek flag.

The party often described as near-Communist in its rhetoric is neck-and-neck with right-wing New Democracy in the polls ahead of Sunday. Talking to people in Athens, it’s not difficult to see why foreign analysts and officials are afraid that Syriza will win most of the votes this weekend.

“What are the old parties doing? They’ve had their chance and look where we are,” Angelis, a waiter in a café opposite Greece’s parliament building, told CNBC. He’s planning to vote for Syriza on Sunday.

Syriza’s very newness is one of its advantages. The Greek people are increasingly fed up with corruption, which is one of many drags on their economy, and the older parties have all had their corruption scandals over the years.

They also have the advantage of never having backed the bailout — or the “memorandum” as it is known in Greece — which is the focus of much discontent in the country.

Measures which have been enacted by the technocratic government to try and meet the terms of the bailout often appear to have created more problems than they have solved. For example, electricity bills were raised by a controversial new property tax, but consumers were allowed to put off paying those bills.

Now, an estimated 500,000 households haven’t paid their electricity bills for more than three months and the state-run energy company needs to pay $657.2 million which it doesn’t have to its banks by June 22.

No to the Bailout Conditions

Thousands gathered at a rally where Alexis Tsipras, Syriza’s charismatic leader, addressed the country on Thursday night. Starting typically late, Tsipras vowed: “Things are going to change on Sunday. Not just in Greece, but also in Europe."

“No to the memorandum of bankruptcy! Yes to the euro and to a national plan for economic recovery that will protect the people from bankruptcy!” he said.

His promises to keep Greece in the euro while tearing up the memorandum have gained credence among Greek people who believe that Spain’s banking bailout, without austerity conditions, has let the Spanish off more easily than them.

Public sector workers — who account for around a third of the Greek workforce — are particularly attracted to Syriza after recent cuts to the hefty Greek public sector.

“Of course we will have to have a new memorandum whoever comes to power because the Greeks will not be able to pay back (the bailout) with this one,” charity worker George told CNBC.

This belief that Greece cannot continue under the current bailout conditions permeates Greek society on all levels. Yet it could come up against the brick wall of the troika — formed of the International Monetary Fund , the European Union, and the European Central Bankand which many say is led by Germany — maintaining its stance.

This week, German policymakers have taken every opportunity to warn that the bailout terms are here to stay. Central banks around the world have promised to act if the elections cause a market upset. Such intervention could make it less crucial to keep Greece in the euro zone, and therefore make the troika less likely to grant concessions to the new government.

Whether Syriza is able to form a government after Sunday’s results or not, they are going to continue as a political force for the future.

“If they don’t get in on Sunday, they’ll be in in a few months when the next election is called,” journalist Manolis told CNBC.

Watch CNBC's “A Greek Tragedy” anchored by Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, on Sunday, June 17th at 8 p.m. ET.

—By CNBC’s Catherine Boyle. Twitter: @catboyle01