Greece: Syriza close to office, elites close to panic

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December 30, 2014 Written by James Meadway Published in Analysis

Syriza Party leader Alexis Tsipras at a party rally in Athens. Photo: Milos Bicanski Getty Images

published originally at Counterfire.org

Greece could be about to elect the most radical government of the left in Europe since the 1930s – the outcome could shape European society for decades to come
Greece could be about to elect the most radical government of the left in Europe since the 1930s. Syriza, committed to ending the brutal austerity regime, leads the opinion polls there. It is the absolute duty of every socialist and progressive internationally, but most especially in Europe, to give their full support to the organisation. The situation, however, is fraught with complications.

The failure of the Greek Parliament to choose a new President for the republic, after the third attempt since the start of December, has triggered the constitutional requirement for a general election, to be held on 25 January.

The ruling New Democracy (ND) party, confronted with demands for further austerity from the “Troika” of the IMF, European Central Bank and European Union that has imposed unprecedented cuts on Greece since 2010, and faced with the need to make multi-billion loan repayments next year, took a gamble on forcing the Parliamentary process to reselect the President. Their expectations were either to win the necessary super-majority in Parliament or, if a general election was forced, to reassemble a Parliamentary majority with a pro-austerity mandate.

It is a high-stakes bet. ND currently trails Syriza, the Coalition of Radical Left, by a significant margin the opinion polls, 23.5% to 29%. A peculiarity of the Greek constitution (originally intended to weaken the left’s influence) is that, whilst most seats are elected on a roughly proportional basis, the leading party gains 50 extra seats. Estimates from polls on 28 December put Syriza on 144 seats – a whisker shy of an outright majority in the 300-seater parliament.

Syriza has risen from a vote of 5% in 2009 to the verge of winning office 5 years later because of two factors: first, the overwhelming impact of austerity, demanded by the Troika, which has seen the economy shrink by 25%, unemployment push past 25% (and up to 50% for the under-25s), and average real incomes plunge by around one third. The exceptionally severe spending cuts, and the devastating effects on Greece’s economy and society – with an estimated one Greek man a day killing himself, directly as a result of austerity measures, over the last three years – were the price for Greece receiving “bailout” funds and remaining a member of the euro.

It is important to note that these bailouts were explicitly not intended to help ordinary Greeks; the assistance provided, under various Troika schemes, was to ensure Greece could continue to meet the demands of its creditors for repayment of their loans. Combined with a write-off of a small portion of Greek debt, the theory was that “restructuring” on this scale would allow Greece both to reform its economy and bring its skyrocketing public debt back under control.

On this measure, and this alone, the Troika can claim a “success”. The Greek government is now boasting of a small “primary surplus” on its spending, meaning that, excluding interest payments, it is receiving slightly more in taxes than it is spending. The costs, however, have been truly astronomical, and worsened precisely by Greece’s continued membership of the euro.

Previous austerity regimes have been able to use the devaluation of a country’s currency, allowing the economy to (hopefully) regain competitiveness by making exports cheaper and so boosting earnings from abroad. Trapped inside the Euro, Greece has been denied that option, resulting in what the economists have delicately called an “internal devaluation”: an economic collapse on the scale not seen, in peacetime, since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

With further austerity demanded, the Troika expecting a primary surplus of 3% of GDP next year, and further loan repayments totalling at least 17 billion Euros due over the next 12 months, the willingness of Greeks to tolerate these measures has reached its absolute limits.

The second factor behind the rise of Syriza should stand as a stark, urgent warning to the centre-left across the rest of Europe, including our own Labour leadership.

It was Greece’s own Labour Party, Pasok, elected in October 2009, that oversaw the implementation of the austerity programme: turning on its own supporters, and, with Troika diktat ruling economic decision-making, critically weakening Greece’s own democracy.

The result, for Pasok, has been devastating: from polling 44% in 2009, they fell to 12.28% in the June 2012 elections, and today register 3.3% in opinion polls – scarcely above the 3% needed to be allowed in parliament at all. As protests and strikes mounted, Syriza (eventually formed via a somewhat circuitous process in 2004) was adroitly able to position itself as the main anti-Troika political force able to defend Greek society. Key to this was Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras’ promise ahead of the May elections in 2012 to not just act as a voice for protest, but to form an anti-austerity government capable of taking on the Troika. Its vote rose from 3.4% in 2004, to 16% in May 2012 and to 26%, topping the poll, in the 2014 Euro elections.

This rise cannot be understood separately from the collapse of Pasok, the force largely responsible for the shape of the modern Greek state and an organisation that, up until 2009, consistently polled in the region of 40% in elections.

However, in parallel with Syriza’s rise has been the steady decline of the social movements. As the effects of austerity chewed further and further into Greek society, demoralisation has set in. From a peak over 2011-12, the first general strike by Greek unions in six months was called in November. This seeming contradiction is not unfamiliar in European history. The weakening of the social movements can give a renewed impetus to the electoral struggle.

Expectations around Syriza will be sky-high – understandably so, after four years of social calamity. Its programme, is light-years to the left of anything contemplated as a programme for government in any European country since the early 1980s: arguably more so, since the direct confrontation with European powers implicit in the demand to halt debt repayments and (in effect) write off chunks of Greek debt is far to the left of anything Francois Mitterrand offered. It is backed up by a social programme aimed at restoring wages to their pre-crisis levels and shoring up social spending, ending the humanitarian crisis. It is, as Financial Times columnist Wolfgang Munchau has pointed out, an eminently sensible set of demands, given the dire economic straits Greece remains moored in.

“Sensible”, however, is not the first word that springs to mind when thinking about the Troika’s actions over the last five years. Syriza’s programme will encounter committed external opposition. But the force that could help sustain a government of the radical left – the social movements, with the workers’ movement at its head – looks, today, weakened.

Trouble ahead
The 25 January is still a month away. There should be no doubt that the kind of pressures being applied to Greek electors over the last month will be redoubled, and redoubled again. Current President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker has warned Greeks against voting for “extreme forces” and the “consequences” of a “wrong” election result. Despite some efforts by Syriza’s leadership to present a more moderate face to European elites – and their continued insistence on remaining as members of the Eurozone – the onslaught can be expected to equal that mounted over the 2012 elections.

This may have precisely the opposite effect to that intended; it’s not clear any potential Syriza voter is, by this point, inclined to pay much attention to finger wagging via Brussels. Opinion polls currently suggest that the fears of a “Grexit” – an exit from the euro – have diminished sharply in the minds of voters, Syriza’s leadership having successfully persuaded at least its own voters that it will endeavour to remain within the single currency.

This committed stance has, naturally, attracted criticism on the left. Faced with the prospect of a radical left actually attaining office, some have written off a Syriza government before the first ballot has even been cast. Citing its leadership’s support for the eurozone, assorted pieces of the European left have been content to provide lectures about the dangers of “reformism” and “left Keynesianism”.

In the world of pure abstractions, much favoured by parts the far left and almost all of academia, sitting on the sidelines and stroking one’s beard can appear as a terribly sophisticated criticism. In the world in which Greek infant mortality has risen by 43% from 2008-10, it is worse than useless.

Of course, Syriza won’t be making a break with capitalism and instituting workers’ power: but since when has a parliamentary election ever seriously offered that prospect? The challenge here is not to pre-write the history of Syriza as Another Glorious Defeat, or just preach about the Need For Revolutionary Organisation in the abstract, but to insist that any such government sticks to its original commitments.

The attitude revolutionaries should take is that of the 1915 Clyde Workers’ Committee, organising unofficial workers’ actions across Glasgow and Clydeside in the teeth of wartime repression: “We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately they misrepresent them.” As for trade union officials, so for a Syriza government.

More specifically, criticisms of the kind offered above underestimate the willingness of Syriza’s leadership to contemplate an exit, on one side, and the willingness of Europe’s elite to contemplate meeting their demands. The bluff on Syriza’s side is to insist that they would be willing and able to leave the euro, if forced to a choice, with the anti-euro left recently gaining ground inside the party; the choice on the EU’s side is to weigh the immense sunk costs of the bailouts so far with the prospect of using a Syriza government to actively manage the continued stabilisation of the eurozone.

It is by no means clear that the argument is settled, inside Europe’s ruling circles, in favour of a decisive confrontation with a (still theoretical) Syriza-led government. Having stabilised, in broadly satisfactory fashion, the economic crisis in Greece and across the eurozone more generally, the call to avoid rocking the boat is gaining ground: the ECB itself has softened its own stance over the last two years.

The major risk for Europe’s elite will be a demonstration effect across austerity-riddled Europe – if Greece can win serious concessions, why not Spain? Why not Portugal? The arguments in Brussels and Frankfurt have not, yet, been resolved.

However, this is an extraordinarily delicate situation for the party itself. Syriza’s leadership is betting on the basis that they will both look radical and serious enough about leaving the eurozone to call the Troika’s bluff, but at the same time moderate enough to persuade the European leaderships that they can manage the situation better than all other forces on the ground. This is, needless to say, an unstable balance, and one that is unlikely to last beyond the first major crisis any such government is confronted with. It is precisely here that both the movement inside Greece, and solidarity action across Europe, matters greatly: alternate political pressure, to that applied by the Troika and its Greek allies, intended to bolster a government in power – an unusual situation for the European left, but one it may need to get used to.

This is, however, even before contemplating the Greek state itself. Syriza remains mercifully free of the clientelism that otherwise distinguishes parts of the Greek state and its historic parties: a potentially major advantage, in attempting to deliver meaningful reforms that do not disappear into multiple pork barrels. But its very inexperience in office is a problem, if confronted with ranks of senior civil servants – and, more distantly as yet, the armed wing of the state itself.

The police may be a particular problem here; Greece has a large army, and, notoriously, was ruled by military dictatorship until the mid-1970s. Any direct intervention by the military would be likely to provoke enormous crises within the rest of the EU. But reportedly 50% of the Athens police force voted for the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn in 2012. Golden Dawn is diminished as a force, having ended up on the wrong end of a state clampdown and mass protests, but retains substantial support and a large membership.

And should Syriza fall short of an outright majority, the Greek constitution provides for rounds of attempts by the leading party to form a coalition, suggesting all manner of compromises with various “independent” forces could be in the offing. It is certainly highly likely that Greece would be returning to the polls shortly thereafter.

Support Syriza
All those caveats and serious dangers noted, 2015 looks set to be a major turning point in the common European struggle against austerity. A Syriza victory, even on the narrowest basis, would electrify the movement across the continent. The left must rally to its cause, without losing its critical faculties. A loss for Syriza would merely continue the slow grind of the last few years; an unstable decay, interrupted by fresh crises.

The question, not just of raising a protest or making principled opposition, but of power and the left’s relationship to it is being forced open across the continent – Syriza at the front, followed by Podemos in Spain, Sinn Fein in Ireland, and then, more distantly, Slovenia’s United Left, and Die Linke in Germany. How the left chooses to answer that question will, over the next few years, shape European society for decades to come. For now, we must stand with Syriza.

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