Syriza’s stunning victory is a remarkable event. For the first time in generations we have a government of the radical left in Europe that makes as its starting point the defence of the oppressed. It is a victory for the left and for the anti-austerity struggle across Europe.
Within days the hopes of the European elites, and Greek capitalism, in the immediate aftermath of Syriza’s victory, that the new government would quickly backtrack on their anti-austerity commitments, were dashed when the new Government hit the ground running.
On its first day in office it announced its first tranche of measures to roll back the brutal austerity of the past 5 years. Privatisation will be halted forthwith (including the port of Piraeus and the main energy company) and pensions and the minimum wage reinstated. Prescription fees and hospital visit fees abolished. 15,000 workers who had been sacked in the public sector will be reemployed. Collective bargaining will be re-established. Migrant children born in Greece will have automatic Greek citizenship. The cleaners of the Ministry of Labour building (who had become a symbol of the struggle) will be reinstated and the barriers in front of the Parliament, that had protected the previous government from the population, removed.
It followed this with an announcement that not only was the Memorandum dead, as far as it was concerned but that it was not prepared to discuss with or negotiate with the representatives of the Troika, which is charged with its implementation. They would only discuss with individual member states.
The new government is absolutely right to make the reversal of the worst effects of the hated Memorandum and the defence of the most oppressed—the unemployed, the low paid, the sick, the migrants and the victimised—their first priority on winning office, because it was the hatred of these measures, and those suffering arising from them, that generated the mass support that took them into government. As Tsipras said, not to do so was not an option. If Syriza had reneged on this it would have no future.
This represents a massive challenge to austerity across Europe and a huge challenge to the Eurozone and the EU. It is also hugely popular. Support for Alexis Tsipras has risen since these announcements were made to a remarkable 72%. Even 40% of ND voters support what he is doing.
The reaction of the European elites, and of Greek capital, was entirely predictable of course. Stock markets fell sharply, particularly the banks, and European Union leaders lined up to attack the new Government and what it stood for. Standard and Poors followed up by downgrading Greece’s credit rating.
The election result, however—which exceeded the expectations of even the Syriza leadership—was a shattering blow for the previous ND-led government, the Greek ruling class, and for the Troika, the European elites. It was a huge victory for the Greek working class, the social movements, the most impoverished sections of society, the anti-austerity forces across Europe, and the European left.
It was also a shattering blow to Pasok, which ran the country for many years. In 2009 PASOK won 44% of the vote and 160 seats now it won just 4.7% of the votes. George Papandreou, who became Pasok prime minister in 2009, formed a breakaway party for these elections, and won only 2.5% of the vote.
It reflected a big shift to the left in Greek society since the previous election in June 2012, and during the election campaign itself. And it was not just Syriza that benefitted from this. Both the KKE and Antarsya (despite their sectarian policy of standing against Syriza) saw their votes increase. Though of course if they had both supported Syriza it would have given Syriza a comfortable overall majority.
This shift to the left, however, gives Syriza an even stronger political mandate than is indicated by its 149 seats in parliament—which is just short of the 151 seats needed for an outright parliamentary majority. At the same time the Left Platform inside Syriza remains very strong with 30 members as MPs in the new government and another 10 who closely support it.
The victory was the product of a long period of struggle in Greece after the introduction of austerity in 2009. The European elites had tuned Greece into a laboratory for austerity policies that are designed to make the working class pay for the capitalist crisis. Greek society was torn apart in the process.
Unemployment rose to 27% with 60% amongst young people. The economy shrunk by 25%. People were faced with rising unemployment, particularly amongst the young, rock bottom wage levels, a collapsing healthcare system and escalating homelessness: i.e. a humanitarian crisis. In response there were over 30 general strikes, hundreds of smaller strikes, demonstrations, occupations of city and town squares, social movements and student mobilisations. By voting Syriza into office the Greek people have drawn a line in the sand and said ‘enough is enough’!
It is something that opens up a new period of opportunity for the European left. Suddenly we have a government in a European country that makes the interests of the working-class, and the poorest in society, its point of departure. Syriza is not a revolutionary party, of course, and this is not a revolutionary government. Capitalism in Greece has not been abolished. But the election of a government that takes the interests of the working class as and the defence of the vulnerable and the impoverished as its first priority is a huge step forward and opens up completely new possibilities for the European workers movement.
There are, however, problems and dangers ahead. No one on the left can be happy with the coalition that Syriza has made with the conservative Independent Greeks (ANEL)— who have the defense and tourism ministers and Macedonian regional affairs—but the question is whether there was a viable alternative, once the KKE (who have 15 seats) refused to join a coalition demanding exit from the EU as the key demand. Probably not. Certainly to force fresh elections after such a vote would not have been understood. The advantage of forming the coalition—given that the ANEL accepted Syriza’s full anti-austerity agenda—was that the new government could then move quickly to reverse the austerity measures of the previous government. No other scenario would have allowed that.
The ANEL, however, is a right-wing party. It split from ND because it disagreed with the introduction of austerity. It is socially conservative including on immigration—though it is important (and hopefully significant) that they have supported the move to give the children of migrants automatic Greek citizenship. (The ANEL is not a party comparable with UKIP since it does not make anti-immigration a central plank of its policy in the same way.)
Hopefully the overwhelming predominance of Syriza in the coalition can mitigate the effects of the ANEL. In any case whilst the KKE will not support Syriza as such they will not vote against it on anti-austerity measures, which ensures Syriza a majority.
The looming issue is the matter of the Greek debt—which stands at €317bn, most of which is to the Troika. At the end of February the current stage of the Memorandum is over. There are then outstanding repayments due by the first of March, July and August.
Some on the left are calling on Syriza to immediately default on it repayments, which is something the Syriza leadership has never signed up to. What they have signed up to, and the basis on which they were elected, is the cancellation of the “greater part” of the debt and a moratorium (a pause) on the repayment of the remainder whilst they implement a major programme of investment in the economy of at least €4bn. They also call for a European Debt Conference of the type that happened for Germany in 1953 after the Second World War.
Syriza’s policy is not to seek an early confrontation over the debt if they can avoid it (though they are aware they may not be able to ) but to challenge its legitimacy and demand relief from it. They want to intervene into the wider debate over austerity at a European level in order to win the argument, create divisions, and win allies.
This approach might seem modest but it is totally unacceptable to the Troika, Angela Merkel, and the European elites. Even such proposals as extending the maturity of the loans, reducing the interest rate, and a long phase of payment suspension would in the end be unacceptable to the elites as long as Syriza continues to implement its pro-working class programme. It is also a stance that corresponds to the current level of class-consciousness across most of Europe today and can connect most directly to it.
And there are already divisions amongst the elites on this to be exploited. Bank of England Governor Mark Carney, speaking just after Syriza’s victory, attacked eurozone austerity warning that the Eurozone was caught in a debt trap that could cost it a second lost decade.
The hard fact, of course, is that it is impossible for the new Government to pay back the debt even if it wanted to do so. Ozlem Onaran puts it this way recently on the SR website:
“The fact that the Greek debt cannot be paid is clear to many right wing European politicians as well. Syriza leadership is trying to explain the same thing to the German and other European citizens that austerity policies made it impossible for Greece to pay back the debt and the Troika loans were indeed used to bail out the European banks or the corrupt tax avoiders and not the Greek people themselves, hence their tax money has been wasted while delivering only devastation for the Greek people. Members of Die Linke in Germany or Podemos in Spain understand and spread this message.”
The Syriza leadership wants to use its anti-austerity stance to generate a European-wide struggle and change the dynamics of politics across Europe. And they are absolutely right about this. Solidarity with Greece is now the key issue for the European left. Already the possibilities of this are opening up. Just a week after Syriza’s victory Podemos held a massive mobilisation in Madrid. Every left party in Europe is following its actions.
Podemos is not the same as Syriza, of course. It has a less developed programme on a whole range of questions – crucially including the national question in the Spanish state— and it does not come from a long left tradition in the way that Syriza does. There are also reasons to be concerned about its decision making process which involves a rather passive system of electronic voting which favors’ the leadership’s position. But it is strongly anti-austerity and in that sense represents an alternative in the same way as Syriza. It is also ahead in the opinion polls and is likely to be the next government in Spain.
Not that the European elites have a strong hand to play in all this if they want to drive Greece into a default. The Eurozone is locked into a deflationary crisis that is not about to go away. The Euro itself is fragile and the possibility of surviving a Greek default and exit from the Euro without the contagion effect spreading in particular to Spain to Portugal but also Ireland and Italy is slim. No one can say what the effects of a Greek default would mean for the Euro, it could well call into question its continued existence.
Looming over this is the issue of the Euro—should Greece stay in the Euro or leave and under what conditions should it leave. The majority of Syriza’s supporters do not see an exit from the Euro as a solution but in the end it might unavoidable.
Susan Pashkoff puts it this way on the SR site:
“Tsipras has not called for leaving the Euro and has asked the renegotiation the debt to get 50% of an unserviceable debt relieved. So Greek exit is not a demand of SYRIZA, but that does not mean that the Eurozone will not ask them to leave. Also, if they get the renegotiation and still remain in the Eurozone, the question of the rules underlying the Euro come into play as they require caps on fiscal deficit and debt and hence limits to government spending. This is then compounded by economic fears of debt renegotiations affecting the financial markets as they find instability nerve-wracking and fears of what may happen lead to uncertainty.
The issue is one of a domino effect whereby Italy (on deflation and why financial markets are worried, see: http://uk.businessinsider.com/…), Spain and Portugal will face the same thing following the election of a left that has raised the issue of a rejection of austerity and debt repayments. That is the fear of the ruling classes, a popular rejection of austerity and neo-liberalism; that is a political fear of the ruling class in Europe and in the advanced capitalist world.”
The election of Syriza in Greece is a massive vindication of the policy of building broad left parties under today’s conditions in Europe. It is also a massive vindication of the decision (of its founding conference) to launch and build Left Unity under what are still quite difficult conditions for such a project. We as SR have a very big responsibility to support Left Unity in every way we can as by far the best opportunity to build an organisation in England and Wales on the lines of Syriza in Greece.
Building broad left parties, however, is not just to provide a political dimension to the struggle against austerity (though of course they should provide that) it is to provide a governmental alternative in periods of heightened class struggle when the election of such parties becomes possible.
This was agreed by the Socialist Resistance conference on February 7 2015 in London