Lessons from the Greek elections

By KEITH LESLIE

The results of the national election in Greece, which produced a government led by the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), hit European capitalism like a sledge hammer. With Western European nations facing the prospect of tumbling into recession, SYRIZA’s demand for a “significant moratorium” on debt payments was the last thing they wanted to hear. Sixty percent of Greece’s 323 billion euro debt is held by the European Union (EU).

The new SYRIZA prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, began discussions with EU officials, calling on them to draw back from their insistence on austerity measures, which have drastically reduced jobs and living standards.

The Jan. 25 election victory seemed a plausible scenario for at least a year, following SYRIZA’s first-place finish in the May 2014 Europarliament elections. But the scale of its current victory is quite impressive: SYRIZA received more than 2.2 million votes (36.3% of the total, up 9.4% from the June 2012 elections) and 149 of 300 seats in the Greek parliament; two short of a majority.

The former governing party and main right-wing party in Greece, New Democracy (ND), placed second, receiving 27.8% of the vote; a drop of 1.9% from the last elections. The neo-Nazi Golden Dawn (GD) party placed third with 6.3%, down 0.6%—still a disturbing result, given that its leadership and half of its MPs were in prison during the campaign. The River (To Potami), a relatively new party which, similar to the Five Star Movement in Italy, has very vague and unclear liberal politics centered on a popular figure, placed fourth with 6.1%.

The Greek Communist Party (KKE), a longstanding Stalinist party, placed fifth with 5.5% of the vote, up 1%. Independent Greeks (ANEL), a right-wing populist party, which split from New Democracy over ND’s support for austerity programs, placed sixth with 4.8%, down 2.7%. The Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK), the old ruling social democratic party, dropped to 4.7%, a decline of 7.6%.

All other parties placed under the 3% threshold for entry into parliament. Of note in these parties, the Movement of Democratic Socialists (KIDISO), a split from PASOK led by its former leader, George Papandreou, received 2.5%; Democratic Left (DIMAR), a rightward split from SYRIZA that had participated in the previous coalition government with ND and PASOK, declined to 0.5%, dropping 5.7%; and ANTARSYA, a coalition of far-left parties in which the Greek section of the Fourth International, OKDE-Spartakos, participates, received 0.64%, up 0.31%.

For ANTARSYA, the gain of nearly 19,000 votes from the June 2012 election (20,416) to 2015 (39,455) was significant, although it remains well below its May 2012 total of 75,416. Turnout was 63.9%, up 1.4% from the June 2012 elections (though still significantly lower than the average in Greek elections since 1974, about 76.3%).

Since SYRIZA fell two seats short of a majority, it required support in order to form a government. The KKE, notorious for its sectarianism, had already ruled out a coalition with SYRIZA in advance of the election, stating that it would vote for bills “friendly to the people” but without backing a SYRIZA government. As such, SYRIZA turned to two other parties, Independent Greeks (ANEL) and To Potami. To Potami initially supported forming a coalition with SYRIZA, but balked at the participation of ANEL, which they described as unacceptably “anti-Europe.”

SYRIZA thus turned to the right-wing ANEL alone. The two parties announced the formation of a coalition less than a day after the elections. Alexis Tsipras, the head of SYRIZA, was made prime minister while Panos Kammenos, the leader of the Independent Greeks, became minister of defense. In a TV interview on Jan. 26, Kammenos described “red lines” that ANEL would demand as part of a coalition, which SYRIZA is reported as having accepted—support for their Greek nationalist position on the Macedonia naming dispute, disputes with Turkey about Thrace and other issues, and support for Greek Cypriots.

The coalition with ANEL is certainly a very troubling development, given the history of the party. ANEL split with New Democracy in 2012 to oppose the austerity measures being imposed by the ND government, and ANEL has taken a stance against the harsh conditions placed on Greece by the “Troika” of the European Commission, European Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund. The party, however, is strongly nationalist and anti-immigrant, demanding the deportation of undocumented immigrants and for a maximum cap of 2.5% of the country’s population for immigrants. It has close ties with the Greek Orthodox Church, is pro-NATO, and homophobic; and its leader Kammenos has made anti-Semitic comments—accusing Greek Jews of paying less in taxes than Orthodox Greeks.

It is yet to be seen how this coalition will resolve these contradictions—for example, whether the government will try to ignore or downplay them in favor of a focus on negotiations with Europe over austerity—or how stable this coalition will prove. Some commentators have suggested that SYRIZA might seek a new coalition with To Potami after negotiations with the European Union.

Socialist Action opposes all electoral and governmental coalitions with bourgeois parties. Throughout history, such blocs between workers parties and those of the capitalists have resulted in heavy concessions being imposed upon the workers movement. But this coalition is particularly disturbing given the reactionary nature of the Independent Greeks.

How did SYRIZA manage to become the largest party in Greece from a coalition that had gained only 4.6% of the vote in 2009? The answer lies within two phenomena: the devastating impact of austerity on Greece, and the strength of a number of social movements and fights against the austerity governments.

Since 2009, Greece has implemented seven major austerity packages, in addition to smaller cuts made as part of other bills. These packages have included pay freezes and severe pay cuts for public employees, hundreds of thousands of job cuts for public employees, a four-year raise to the minimum retirement age, very large pension cuts, a cut of 22 percent to the minimum wage, large tax increases—particularly on consumption taxes—mass privatization of publicly owned companies, and severe cuts to social services.

The impact of these programs on Greece has been devastating, with unemployment rising from less than 10 percent in 2009 to a high of 28 percent in late 2013, and it has remained over 25%. The youth unemployment rate has consistently been about double the total rate, remaining above 50% today.

A Nov. 14, 2014, article by Matt O’Brien in the Washington Post, “Greece’s recession is over, but its depression will be the worst in history,” noted that by European Commission predictions, the Greek economy would not reach its 2007 level again until 2022.

This calamitous development has been met with significant and often fierce resistance from sections of the Greek working class. These struggles include protests against the mass firing of cleaning workers for government ministries (the new government has promised to rehire them), the fight against the closure of the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation (ERT), and a fight against the Canadian mining company Eldorado Gold’s establishment of the Skouries gold mine in northern Greece.

There have also been a number of general strikes in Greece during the last six years, including one on Nov. 27, 2014. These movements have energized Greek workers and radicals and have provided the basis for SYRIZA’s meteoric rise and the collapse of the discredited pro-austerity social democratic party, PASOK.

What are the likely outcomes of this election? If one listened to the fear-mongering predictions of European bankers, they might predict that Greece is on the verge of a default—its helm seized by wild, radical revolutionaries. In point of fact, SYRIZA’s leadership is reformist; Tsipras has several times pledged to avoid a Greek exit from the Eurozone. Rather, SYRIZA is demanding changes to the terms of European financial support for Greece.

While SYRIZA initially demanded a partial writedown of Greece’s debt, the new finance minister has suggested as an alternative the swap of European Central Bank-held Greek bonds for new support. Disturbingly, he also claimed that the new government would pursue a budgetary surplus, even if it required reversing some of SYRIZA’s campaign promises.

The current setup for European support expires at the end of February, at which point Greece will seek billions in additional euros, although this deadline could be pushed back by European Central Bank action, such as the purchase of Greek bonds. So far, European financial leaders have declared their unwillingness to accept such a proposal, particularly as it could lead to similar demands by other EU members such as Ireland and Portugal.

On Feb. 4, the European Central Bank announced it would no longer allow Greek banks to use government bonds as collateral for loans, in essence requiring them to borrow from the more expensive Emergency Liquidity Assistance program, which itself requires the assistance that is due to expire. This move will accelerate the withdrawals from Greek banks that have been ongoing since December, and put the new government under even more pressure to reach a deal before the end of February.

One immediate step taken by the new government was to halt privatization plans that had been agreed to by the previous government, including the selling off of the port of Piraeus, the Public Power Corporation of Greece (the largest utility company in Greece), and Hellenic Petroleum, among other companies.

It is clear that these elections must not be seen as an end to the struggle. Hopefully, the election of SYRIZA will lead to a break from austerity and a step forward, but the danger is strong that the new government will give up significant concessions to EU and Greek capitalism. Moreover, SYRIZA has bound itself to the reactionary nationalist, anti-immigrant, and homophobic policies of its coalition partner, ANEL.

Unless SYRIZA repudiates ANEL and carries out a clear, principled program in the interests of the Greek working class, demoralization and setbacks are a distinct possibility. Thus, there remains a great deal of work ahead for working-class activists. A sustained victory for Greek and European workers can only come on the basis of continued mobilizations in their workplaces and in the streets.

Photo: Maximilien Nguyen / Flicker