Greece's election marks the start of a momentous year

A win for Syriza would bring the first resolutely anti-austerity party to power in the EU

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The Independent Online

There are probably better ways for the European Union to overcome its long-lamented democratic deficit than appearing to tell electorates what to do. So when the European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, warned Greeks against the “wrong election result” in an interview late last year, the outcry was swift and inflicted yet another dent in the EU’s democratic credentials.

If Syriza does win the ballot and its leader, Alexis Tsipras, manages to form a coalition government, it would bring the first resolutely anti-austerity party to power in the EU, and could herald more political earthquakes in a year packed with closely-fought elections.

EU leaders can’t say they didn’t have ample warning. At European Parliament elections last May, fringe and Eurosceptic parties from the far left and right saw their support increase by around 50 per cent. Officials in Brussels, however, were at pains to play down the result, saying that mainstream centrist parties still dominated the parliament and therefore a full policy reboot was unnecessary.

While the word “growth” found its way into more speeches and “austerity” was more often whispered in the sidelines rather than shouted from the podiums, there were no seismic shifts away from the German-led fiscal policies of economic restraint and reined-in public spending.

“[The European Parliament elections] were marked by prominent placing for very extreme parties on the left and right, but they didn’t generate much of a change among national governments,” says Dr Christopher Bickerton, a politics lecturer specialising in Europe at Cambridge University. “Now if Mr Tsipras becomes an articulate defender of the idea that we need to find something else other than austerity as a basis for getting Europe growing again, that can have some impact.”

The shift would be most keenly felt if Greece becomes the first of a number of nations to strongly back parties with a more sceptical outlook on project Europe. May’s UK election could be the first step towards a British exit from the EU. Elections due in Denmark and Finland could also see a swing in support to anti-establishment parties.

A tumultuous year will end in December with elections in Spain. Right now, Podemos – a left-wing party which shares Syriza’s outlook – is polling well. If Mr Tsipras does come to power and manages to negotiate more favourable terms on Greece’s bailout, that could encourage voters in Spain and elsewhere to put their faith in similar parties. A strong showing for Podemos would further rock the EU establishment.

In research commissioned for the BBC, the Economist Intelligence Unit this week warned of a “political earthquake” across Europe in the coming year, beginning with a Syriza victory which they said would “be highly destabilising, both domestically and regionally”.

A Tsipras victory would certainly be another wake-up call. To what extent it would change the political landscape of Europe depends on whether the EU establishment chooses to listen this time.