THE BLOG
01/27/2015 04:18 pm ET Updated Mar 29, 2015

Europe's Populism and Greece's Far-Left Victory

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Although Syriza's victory in Greece's election will inspire leftists and galvanize populist parties throughout Europe, the magnitude of its triumph is unlikely to be replicated or cause an enduring chain reaction across the European Union (EU). Greece's far-left triumph was fundamentally a reaction to extreme conditions marked by economic depression considerably different from the rest of Europe. Despite sharing many common adversities, particularly Europe's troubled south, the political futures of EU member states will be primarily determined by local and national dynamics. However, the continuing rise of populist parties across the EU may increasingly force centrist coalitions forming national governments.

Regardless of Syriza's success, its leader Alexis Tsipras is neither the standard bearer nor the new face of Europe's anti-establishment movements. This already remains a well-traveled road. In France, the LePen family, and its National Front (NF), has been a fixture on the French political scene since the 1970s. Unlike Syriza, the NF emerges from the far-right and not far-left. Although it may never win power, the NF's current leader, Marine LePen, has shaken the foundations of French politics. The NF is setting the terms of France's national debate and impacting wider Europe.

Like France's NF, Britain's far-right UKIP party made impressive gains in European parliamentary elections in May 2014. Although it will not win upcoming elections, UKIP will gain parliamentary seats. Fundamentally, it is shifting the boundaries of Britain's political discourse to the right while siphoning off support from the center-right Conservatives. Whereas Tsipras vows to keep Greece in Europe, UKIP's leader Nigel Farage is pushing for Britian's exit from Europe.

After shocking and peaking in Italian politics through its meteoric rise in general elections in February 2013, the populist Five Star Movement's electoral fortunes have ebbed and flowed. In contrast, since becoming Prime Minister in early 2014, Matteo Renzi has dominated Italy's political landscape. Although the jury is still out on whether he will ultimately succeed, the 40-year-old leader has indisputably usurped the mantle of change and reform in Italy. Contrary to Tsipras' far-left political roots, Renzi is essentially a centrist in the old Christian Democratic tradition but recycled for a new era. While technically the leader of Italy's center-left Partito Democratico (PD), Renzi's government survives through the direct support of a center-right splinter party and the indirect, external backing of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. Although the PD's far-left elements may be inspired by Tsipras' historic victory, its impact will prove largely negligible in Italian politics. They presently have no alternative to their centrist PD leader. Without Renzi, Italy's far-left remains politically marginalized.

The most keen to follow in Tsipras' footsteps is the academic and television presenter Pablo Iglesias, who heads Spain's ultra-left Podemos party. Within less than a year from its creation in January 2014, Podemos made considerable gains in European parliamentary elections. As the public face of Spain's anti-establishment movement, Iglesias enthusiastically joined the Syriza campaign bandwagon in Greece. He exploited any opportunity to make his presence known to international media, including public embraces with Tsipras.

Iglesias is hoping to leverage the Syriza euphoria at home and convert it into political capital. Although Podemos currently leads opinion polls for Spain's parliamentary elections in late 2015, Iglesias has yet to translate these numbers into a coherent and sellable agenda beyond his core political base. Furthermore, despite their political romance, Tsipras is a seasoned campaigner, while Iglesias is still developing. Regardless of his party's impressive European poll performance, Iglesias and comrades remain untested at the national level, by far a more demanding contest. Despite growing public animosity toward Spain's traditional duopoly of Socialist and Popular parties, their formidable electoral machineries will still prove competitive. A tough road lies ahead for the Podemos leader, and Hugo Chavez admirer.