Greece: Syriza victory sparks hope

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The significance of Syriza’s victory in the Greek general election of 25 January cannot be over-estimated. For the first time in Europe since the beginning of the current crisis, an explicitly anti-austerity party is in government. The Greek people will no longer put up with plunging living standards and empty promises of a rosy future from the ruling class. The fight is on. Syriza will be under intense pressure from European imperialism to meet Greece’s debt repayments and continue where the last government left off. However, within 48 hours of taking office, the new government enacted several key anti-austerity measures which will undoubtedly provoke imperialist opposition. Across Europe, anti-austerity movements will gain heart: our message of resistance and struggle can win the support of the working class and oppressed to become a real force. Robert Clough and Michael McGregor report.

On a turnout of 64%, slightly higher than the 62.5% of the June 2012 election, Syriza took 36.3% of the vote, up 9.4 percentage points on the 27.9% it gained then. It won 99 seats, but as the leading party it was awarded an extra 50 seats. The 149 seats left it two short of an absolute majority in the 300-seat parliament. Pasok, the pro-austerity equivalent of the Labour Party, received just 4.7% of the vote; its share of the vote in 2007 when it obtained an absolute majority just before the crisis was 44%. The conservative New Democracy, which had led the coalition government formed in June 2012, came second with 27.8%. The fascist Golden Dawn was third with 6.3%, slightly down on the previous election. Three other parties crossed the 3% threshold necessary to win seats: the newly-formed To Potami (The River, 6.1%, 17 seats), the Greek Communist Party (KKE), 5.5% and 15 seats and finally the right-wing populist Anel (Independent Greeks) which lost a third of its electoral support, ending up with 13 seats. In a stunning rejection, the Democratic Left, which had been part of the outgoing New Democracy coalition, lost all its 17 seats.

Why a coalition with Anel?

Short of an absolute majority, Syriza needed to form a coalition to create a government. Pro-austerity parties (Pasok and New Democracy) and the fascist Golden Dawn were automatically ruled out. The KKE had itself rejected any possibility of entering a Syriza-led coalition: it has consistently put its own interests before the needs of the movement. Its argument is that Syriza will sell out, but this isolates the KKE from any struggle to ensure that Syriza keeps to its promises. It is a thoroughly sectarian and reactionary position. While preserving its political independence, a genuine communist organisation could have had no hesitation in joining a Syriza-led coalition given the obvious support it has from the most conscious sections of the working class (see Greece and the United Front, FRFI 228 August/September 2012).

The liberal To Potami had already stated it would not repudiate the debt; its stance from day one would be one of compromise. Anel’s position in the election had been one of ending austerity and EU membership and describing Greece as an ‘occupied zone, a debt colony’. Its leader, Panos Kammenos, has declared that Europe is governed by ‘German neo-Nazis’: the party is xenophobic and Kammenos himself is clearly anti-semitic. Short of re-running the election, however, a coalition with Anel represented the only option for an anti-austerity government. It is a reflection of the current balance of class forces. Given concerns that Syriza might concede on issues of immigration, it is significant that the new government has already decided to grant citizenship to migrant children born and raised in Greece.

The impact of austerity

The brutal memoranda of the Troika – IMF, the EC and the European Central Bank – have had a devastating impact on Greek living standards. In return for doles of financial support to alleviate Greece’s debt of €240bn (175% of GDP), living standards have been driven down by 40%. Unemployment has doubled to 25.8% in October 2014 from 12.5% in 2010; youth un-employment is 57.5%. Public sector salaries have been slashed by 23% since 2010 and by 32% for young workers.

State benefits are only available to one in ten of the two million unemployed. Those benefits entitle the poor to only limited access to the failing national health system. 2.3 million people are uninsured for basic health care. This has meant the virtual elimination of free health care for 90% of the unemployed. Spending on hospital care fell by 26% between 2009 and 2011. Rates of HIV infection, tuberculosis, suicide, infant mortality and malnutrition have all risen as a consequence of austerity measures.

The Troika is completely unfazed by the fact that austerity in Greece has not worked. GDP fell by 25% between 2008 and 2013; there was only a very slight rise of 1% in 2014. Greece’s external debt has grown from 109% of GDP in 2008 to 175% today – this is despite a substantial write-down in 2012. The Troika will demand that the programme of deregulation and privatisation continues and will threaten to withhold the next €4.3bn tranche of bailout money due in March 2015. Eurozone ministers declared that the new government would have to meet the same conditions as its predecessors. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has ruled out cancelling any more of the Greek debt; German exposure is €56bn although, along with EU financial commissioner Pierre Moscovici, she says they do not want Greece to leave the Eurozone. Greek repayment of €7bn is due in June.

What next?

As we go to press, Syriza’s leader Alexis Tsipras has appointed his cabinet. There is one ministerial post for Anel; the remainder go to representatives of the various trends within Syriza. Thus Panaghiotis Lafazanis from the left of the party is to head a ministry covering energy, industry and the environment. Yanis Varoufakis, also from the left wing, becomes finance minister; he has refused to work with the Troika to renegotiate the bailout terms.

Speculation in the bourgeois media about how the new government will approach negotiations over Greek debt ignores, as always, the balance of class forces. There are high expectations of the Syriza government. It may have compromised on the much tougher stance it adopted over the debt in June 2012, but it has already acted on some of its key election promises: all privatisation schemes have been halted, pensions reinstated and the minimum wage raised by 30% to €751 a month. Fees for prescriptions and outpatients have been abolished. Workers laid off in the public sector are being rehired. Other promises include the creation of 300,000 new jobs, food subsidies, free electricity to families with no income and free medical care to those without insurance. Syriza has also committed itself to ending a tax on heating fuel and an annual tax on properties which was aimed at a hard-hit middle class. Any backtracking will have political repercussions.

In 2012 Syriza’s stance was for a complete write-off of the Greek external debt. This time it wants a ‘substantial’ write-off, and the rate of repayment of the balance tied to economic growth with a ‘significant’ moratorium on repayments. Even in this diluted form this would constitute a significant challenge to European and especially German imperialism. It will be sharpened by Greek demands for war reparations: the Nazi occupation of Greece resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands from starvation and bloody reprisals against the communist-led resistance. In particular Syriza and Anel may demand repayment of a forced loan extracted by the Nazis worth around €10bn today. Although Syriza has verbally opposed EU sanctions on Russia, the government has gone along with a six-month extension of those already in place. Both these sanctions and Russia’s reverse sanctions have had a significant effect on the Greek economy and, with Russia offering Greece financial help, imperialism is concerned that Syriza will break EU ranks.

For the present, enthusiasm for the new government amongst ordinary people is evident: ‘you can almost feel the hope coming back’ said one interviewee. Another said Syriza represented ‘a new generation – the unemployed generation – and a new start for Greece. The social revolution started last night, and it will spread: Spain, Portugal and Italy. The rich countries are right to be worried. This is the new face of democracy in Europe.’ The early positive actions of Syriza will clearly reinforce this support and are a necessary preparatory step to the coming battles with the Troika and German imperialism.

Significance for Europe

On the morning after the election, the euro fell by 10% against the dollar. There is nervousness within the ranks of the European ruling class: the electoral annihilation of pro-austerity parties is not supposed to happen. The Greek stock market fell; Standard & Poor’s took the first step in downgrading the country’s sovereign debt rating, saying that capital flight might lead to a run on the banks. On the other hand, it has given a huge boost to anti-austerity forces across Europe. Podemos in Spain, formed only a year ago, has an average 25% support in opinion polls: elections are due in November. Just before the Greek election, Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias said: ‘2015 will be the year of change in Spain and Europe. We will start in Greece.’ Elections are due in Portugal in October this year, and Syriza’s example may force the Left Block to adopt a clearer anti-austerity stance than in the past. Left Block MP Marisa Matias told a rally, ‘a victory for Syriza is a victory for all of Europe.’ The people in both countries have suffered severely from the policies of pro-austerity governments, which have included social democratic parties. Syriza’s victory has also been hailed by anti-austerity forces in France and Germany.

Fighting austerity in Britain

In Britain the anti-austerity forces remain pitifully weak. The Labour Party has already committed itself to Coalition spending plans for 2015/16. It will not reverse any of the cuts that have been implemented over the past five years. It will maintain the public sector pay freeze. It will deepen the attack on those on benefits. Across the country Labour councils are implementing the fifth round of service and job cuts. Already they have lost 40% of their government funding without a semblance of opposition. Leader Ed Miliband pointedly refused to congratulate Tsipras on the Syriza victory. 15 Labour MPs issued a statement following the Syriza victory urging the Labour leadership to change political direction. There is not the slightest chance that this will happen, and those MPs know it.

The trade unions are determined to ensure there is no resistance, for example calling off a one-day strike over NHS pay two days before it was due to take place on 29 January. The supposed left leader of Unite the Union, Len McCluskey, calls on us to vote for Labour and argues in a letter to the Financial Times that ‘we need a tripartite solution – government, business and workers together building a better, fairer future for all’, pointing out that ‘The success of the British car industry is proof that businesses can and do work positively with trade unions to improve productivity together.’ (26 January). Published a day after Syriza’s victory, it is an abject message of collaboration.

The only significant electoral alternative proclaiming an anti-austerity stance is the Green Party, although its reputation has been compromised in Brighton where it heads a minority administration which has implemented cuts. However, in response to a huge increase in local membership, the local party has unanimously called on its councillors to set a no-cuts budget for 2015/16.

The Green Party’s stance is clearly a response to a growing wish to challenge austerity, a mood which must now be translated into action across the country. When the demand for Scottish independence was identified with the fight against austerity during the referendum campaign, a large section of the working class was rapidly radicalised and organised. Such a movement needs to develop now, not just across Europe, but across Britain too. Syriza’s victory must mark a turning point.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 243 February/March 2015