The conclusion of the Second World War led to a global rivalry between the USSR and the United States of America. This rivalry spanned almost four decades and was called a ‘cold war’ by the American security establishment. It was like a gigantic game of chess in which two major world powers jostled for influence and control in different territories of the world. It was called ‘cold’ because no actual fighting took place between the two protagonists. Events before the start of the Second World War (such as the Spanish Civil War), pointed towards a polarised global order where forces representing capitalist democracy were pitted against countries favouring a socialist system. The cold war shifted theatres across continents and involved diverse personalities on both sides of the divide.

Greece was the place that introduced the world to the concept of democracy and provided a blueprint (alongside the Romans) for the predominant western European civilisation. Greece also became the first country after the Great War to be caught in the throes of cold war machinations. Between 1936 and 1941, Greece was ruled by the Metaxas regime, under the leadership of General Ioannis Metaxas. In April 1941, Nazi forces invaded the country and took over. In 1944, German forces withdrew from Greece and a new era in the country’s history began. In light of a possible post-war alignment, an agreement was made between Stalin and Churchill that the Soviet Union would not intervene in internal matters of Greece.

During the war, British troops had played an important role in fighting the Nazi invaders alongside the Greek Army. Resistance had also been mounted by communist forces under the banner of ‘Greek People’s Liberation Army’ known as ELAS. In March 1946, elections took place in Greece which were rigged in favour of the British-backed nationalist group. The communist parties resorted to violent means and the Greek civil war started between the Greek army—supported by Great Britain, the United States—and the Democratic army of Greece backed by Yugoslavia, Albania and Bulgaria. The civil war was the result of a highly polarized struggle between left and right that started in 1943 and targeted the power vacuum created by the eviction of the German-Italian occupation. The conflict raged on until 1949 and resulted in the defeat of Greek Communists. In the aftermath of the civil war, Greece received aid from the United States as part of the Marshall Plan.

From 1950 to 1980, Greece underwent dramatic economic recovery, reversing the losses incurred during and before the Second World War. Since the turn of the millennium, Greece saw high levels of GDP growth above the Eurozone average, peaking at 5.9% in 2003 and 5.5% in 2006. During the financial crisis of 2008, Greece was hurt economically because of a massive amount of loans taken out by the government. Lack of a tax-paying culture, a burgeoning bureaucracy and the absence of proper records exacerbated the debt crisis. Greece received bailouts from the ‘troika’ (European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund) in 2010 and 2012 totalling 240 billion euros.

The bailout plans were accompanied by belt tightening or austerity measures meaning loss of jobs for government employees and a reduced role of government. These policies have led to a state where unemployment is high, investment is low, the tax base is narrow, and educated people are leaving in droves. Spain is another European country facing similar financial conditions. In both these countries, two major political parties have been taking turns to govern for the last three decades. Latin American countries were facing similar financial and political crises during the 1990s. Enter Ernesto Laclau, an Argentinian political philosopher whose ideas about radical democracy and populism influenced politicians from Latin American ‘New Left’ and political activists elsewhere. He drew upon the works of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci and paved the way for left-wing politicians in South America. Laclau argued that the left should not be embarrassed by charges of populism.

The current breed of European politicians—including Syriza’a Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis and Spanish Podemas party’s Pablo Iglesias—came to the fore after economic collapse in the last few years. Their ranks include educated professionals, academics and left-wing ideologues. Global Economic Crisis of 2007-08 greatly affected countries in Southern Europe. The event has been hailed by left-wing economists as the death knell of capitalism and the European Union project. In Western European states, the crisis gave impetus to right-wing nationalist parties (UKIP in England, Front National in France, and NPD in Germany).

Nationwide elections were held in Greece last week, in which the Syriza party gained a majority and formed the government. Syriza contested the election on mandate of reversing austerity measures, resisting the policies of ‘Troika’ and giving public sector jobs back to people. Alexis Tsipras, the newly elected Prime Minister, unveiled his cabinet, consisting of ‘academics, human rights advocates, mavericks and visionaries’ according to The Guardian. It has been hailed as Europe’s first anti-austerity government. Finance Minister Varoufakis has vowed to continue negotiations regarding bailout packages with the government and not with the technocrats representing the ‘troika’ of EU, ECB and IMF.

People in Greece have given the Syriza party a chance to improve their fortunes. Their lack of governing experience and idealism can become a boon as well as a bane. Spain may soon follow suit with Podemas’ party topping the poll charts ahead of the upcoming local elections. Both of these left-wing parties have demonstrated authoritarian tendencies reminiscent of the old left. Syriza made a pre-electoral alliance with an anti-Semitic party while Podemas has supported Putin’s stance during the Euromaidan protests. Even in Latin America, the ‘Chavez experiment’ was a disaster after the initial years. It is a high-risk game in Europe that is either going to end in an economic revival for Greece and Spain or is going to break the European Union. We can only wait and see.