The Greek paradox and the left

by Matthaios Tsimitakis, a freelance journalist based in Athens.

Originally published at http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2012/05/201251081033640554.html

Greek voters sent Europe a message that austerity and deprivation are not an acceptable path forward.

Athens, Greece – The result of the Greek elections has caught stock markets and governments all over the world by surprise. The Greeks, finally given the right to democratically decide their future, chose to send a message: austerity and deprivation cannot be an acceptable way forward for Europe.

In simple words, the Greeks are saying “no” to austerity but “yes” to the euro. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, along with leaders of European institutions such as Mario Draghi of the Central Bank and Christine Lagarde of the IMF, rushed to reject the possibility of renegotiating the Greek bailout package. The dichotemy must have sounded like a paradox to them. But it’s a paradox that makes absolute sense.

 Continued deadlock in Greek coalition talks

During two years of tough austerity measures, the Greeks have seen their society break down into pieces. Homeless people began to appear on the streets in large numbers, malnourished children forced the ministry of education to start serving meals in some schools for the first time since World War II, the health system collapsed, drug addiction and HIV levels exploded, and crime rose – transforming some areas of the capital city, Athens, into ghettos.

On top of that, unemployment is above 20 per cent, one out of two young Greeks are out of work, wages are gradually falling towards levels prevailing in Bulgaria, the economy is in its fifth year of recession, and social insurance organisations such as the Institute of Social Insurance (IKA) are collapsing due to the haircut on Greek bonds - which critically reduced the organisations’ reserves.

According to OECD statistics, the Greeks have lost about 25 per cent of their income in just two years. This could be characterised as analogous to a humanitarian disaster caused by an earthquake of magnitude 7.0.

Not surprisingly, then, Greece’s political system has followed down the path of social decay. For the first time in Greece’s modern history, the extreme social fragmentation described above was reflected in Greek politics. For 37 years, Greece has been a two-party European democracy, with a conservative and a social democratic party succeeding each other in power. Two or three minor parties also typically made it into parliament.

But in this past election, 32 parties competed, out of which seven entered parliament. Not one of them managed to get 20 per cent of the vote. The parties have such big differences with one another that the formation of a coalition government seems unlikely. Αdd to this the high levels of abstention (35 per cent did not vote) and the almost 20 per cent of votes given to the 25 parties that failed to make it into parliament, and you get the picture.

Furthermore, the public was shocked by the entrance into parliament of the neo-Nazi group Golden Dawn, a para-state organisation whose members have been repeatedly accused of criminal offences, such as deadly attacks against immigrants. Some believe that they co-operate with extreme elements within the Greek police (but the emergence and rise of Golden Dawn is an issue that needs to be thoroughly analysed separately).

From this fragmented picture, a winner stands out. This is Alexis Tsipras, the leader of the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), a previously minor party of the left. In the May 6 election, SYRIZA came in second place, tripling its share of the vote from the 2009 election. SYRIZA received 16.78 per cent of all votes, just two percentage points fewer than the conservative New Democracy party. SYRIZA “won” the elections not just because it came to be the rising force against an inept and corrupt political system, but because it managed to persuade the Greek public of two things:

1. That Greece’s problem is really a structural European problem; and

2. That the troika (the IMF, the European Central Bank, and the European Union) are waging a class war against workers’ rights, in Greece as well as the rest of Europe, with fiscal discipline as their main weapon.

This is extraordinary not only because of the historical significance of having a radical left party leading the conversation, but because it managed to bypass attempts to polarise the political agenda around issues such as illegal immigration, national security and social order, instead bringing to the forefront the issues of economic justice and social coherence.

Despite the apparent fragmentation of the political system of this small but symbolically important corner of Europe, the elections – considered by some European leaders to be an unacceptable luxury – have already had a cathartic effect. The elections seem likely to undo the state of emergency that the country has lived through, when every two or three months it needed to ensure the next instalment of the rescue package by imposing further austerity measures.

The elections also restore, to a certain extent, the self-confidence and pride of a people who have been repeatedly slandered in an almost racist fashion – not only by parts of the international press, but by its own government and its representatives in European and international fora.

 Greek leftists in bid to form coalitionNo Greek can forget how the members of the cabinet led by former Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, a social democrat, accused their own people of being tax evaders, lazy, corrupt, and incapable of reform and progress.

Tsipras has managed to restore some dignity by turning the struggle for economic equality into a struggle for respect, justice, and democratic rule. Soon after he received the mandate to form a coalition government from Greek President Karolos Papoulias, Tsipras made the following statement:

“3,300,000 citizens abandoned the two parties of the memorandum and put an end to the plans for the elaboration of 79 new austerity measures in June, the plans for 150,000 lay-offs in the public sector and the extra measures of 11bn euro, which were supposed to be elaborated, starting next month. The Greek people decided: Neither 151 seats, nor 51 per cent, for the parties that support the memoranda.”

Tsipras also demanded that Greece’s two main parties (PASOK and New Democracy) withdraw their signatures from the bailout agreement before he negotiated a coalition government with them. He declared a set of five pre-conditions, among which were the cancellation of all anti-worker laws, the establishment of an audit committee to investigate the legitimacy of the Greek debt, and the cancellation of the bailout agreement.

As was expected, he failed to form a government. But he now dominates the political game in Greece, and is having an impact in the rest of Europe, too. During the two days that he held the mandate to form a leftist government, prices in stock markets fell, Fitch revised the possibility of a “Grexit” from the euro from 40 per cent to 50 per cent, and conservative European leaders felt forced to start putting pressure on newly elected French president Francois Hollande not to challenge the European stability pact.

Greeks are asking for a European Union that will not punish them for their politicians’ sins, but help them get their state together and put it back on the path of growth (one should not forget that Greece was the world’s 25th wealthiest state until a couple of years ago). SYRIZA might have a strategy to express this demand, and even achieve something for the benefit of the people.

As disenchantment with austerity policies becomes louder in both southern and northern Europe, time (and democratic procedures) might be working against the remedy proposed by Angela Merkel and Wolfgang Schäuble for Europe’s financial problems. If so, those opposing austerity have the political momentum, and SYRIZA is the first political party to understand and invest in it.

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