Greece: what prospects for a SYRIZA-led left government?

by Christos Kefalis

The parliamentary elections of May 6 have produced a sensational result, opening a new chapter in the political history of Greece. It will have important repercussions on the European political situation as well.
The result shows a clear polarisation between left and right and a break-up of the hitherto ruling political forces, the Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) and New Democracy, the so-called “two party system” that has dominated Greek political life since 1974.

The two traditional parties, pillars of neoliberal policies, lost more than half of their previous vote. Combined they now have the support of just 32% of the electorate, compared to 77% in the 2009 elections. New Democracy dropped from 33% in 2009 to 19%, whilePASOK has sunk even more dramatically, from 44% to 13%, losing more than 2 million votes.

This was punishment for their reactionary austerity “memorandum” policies, which they implemented in cooperation with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. These policies led to vast impoverishment for the majority of the people and mass unemployment officially already at 23%, resulting in a plethora of suicides by desperate men and women.

The vote for the broad left rose from a modest 12% in 2009 to an impressive 35.5% — 17% for SYRIZA (Coalition of the Radical Left), 8.5% for the Communist Party (KKE), 1.2% for the anti-capitalist left party ANTARSYA, 6.1% for the moderate Democratic Left and 2.9% for the Greens. However, the prospect of a left government is doubtful since the KKE, an ultra-Stalinist party, ruled out beforehand any cooperation with “opportunists”,by which it means all other left parties except from itself. Moreover, the Democratic Left and the Greens are moderate centre-left parties that do not differ radically from PASOK. Even so, the collective result of the three radical left parties, SYRIZA, the KKE and ANTARSYA, was an impressive 26.5%.


The other significant feature of the May 6 elections is the abrupt rise of the ultra-right, jumping together to an astonishing 20.5% of the vote. Formerly represented by just one party, LAOS, which scored a modest 6% three years ago, the ultra-right’s three major parties — the Independent Greeks, LAOS and the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn — gained respectively 10.6%, 2.9% and 7% of the vote. LAOS paid for its support for the government, falling short from the required 3% to enter the parliament.
However, the 7% achieved by Golden Dawn, an openly neo-Nazi and racist anti-immigrant party, is shocking. It is the first time that such a party has entered parliament with mass support in Greece, famous for its resistance movement against the Nazis in 1941-45.

This result had been anticipated by left activists and publications, including Marxist Thought, which devoted its entire last issue to the problem of fascism, neo-fascism and the new ultra-right. There was a mass mobilisation by left organisations during the last three weeks of the election calling attention to the danger of the neo-Nazi gangs. However this proved largely ineffective, as the far right has gained a foothold during the last few years in degraded neighbourhoods and among the unemployed youth. The KKE not only is doing absolutely nothing to fight the ultra-right but gives shelter to nationalists like the notorious journalist Liana Kanelli; it even went so far as to welcome Golden Dawn representatives at the Halyvourgiki strike through the local workers’ union it controls.

It is true that the ultra-right gathered together “only” 20.5%, in comparison to the radical left’s 26.5%. However, it more than tripled its forces, while the radical left“only” doubled theirs.

The ensuing balance of forces coming out of the elections has been interpreted by conservative media commentators as an illogical expression of anger, pushing people to the “extremes”.According to this reading, people were carried away by the false promises of demagogues, promises that are impossible to fulfill. The correct path, they argue, would have been to foster the reactionary “reforms” that would eventually overcome the crisis through development, higher productivity and an improvement of democracy. Dora Bakogianni, the leader of the ultra-neoliberal (and misnamed) Democratic Alliance, which failed to enter parliament by a narrow margin, has many times argued this.

This type of argument has a double purpose. On the one hand, it attempts to equate the ultra-right menace and the prospect of left-wing change as two complementary facets of the problem facing Greece, presenting the radical left also as a danger and denying beforehand that there can be any positive radical left solution to Greece’s crisis. On the other hand it seeks to embellish the corrupt Greek parliamentary system and present the parties of the establishment as the guarantors of stability and improvement, when in fact they are the cause of the problem.

In Greece the corruption of leading politicians and public officials is extremely widespread and of enormous proportions; but practically none are ever punished. Anger at this political decay is one of the main reasons for the rise of the ultra-right and neo-Nazism. Yet, we are urged now to believe that the very forces that produced this situation can magically lead the country out of the crisis, by following recipes that have made the crisis so deep. In fact, when reactionary politicians like Bakogianni are talking about “improving productivity” they only mean more lay-offs and new rounds of wage cuts in the public and private sectors, thus making the existing bad situation even more desperate for the majority.


SYRIZA has successfully countered this, by proposing the formation of a government of the left. This attracted much support from the people. The charismatic personality of its president, Alexis Tsipras, played a part. The KKE and ANTARSYA failed to make an equivalent impression.

The KKE insisted on an ultra-sectarian policy, calling for a front to be formed for the direct overthrow of the system by “popular power”, connecting every fight for bettering the sad lot of the people with this prospect and denying harshly that anything could be done before establishing “popular power”. This meant condemning itself to passivity and a bureaucratic break with reality under the deceptive guise of fighting for the revolution.

ANTARSYA had a much better approach and has played a vital role in the fight against the Golden Dawn neo-Nazis. Yet it paid for its lack of strong links with the people and its inability to cooperate with other left forces. This it failed to do not only with SYRIZA, with which it has a number of programmatic differences, but even with the Front of Solidarity and Overthrow, a small radical left formation led by Alekos Alavanos, a former eminent SYRIZA leader who broke with SYRIZA but remained largely out of these elections.

The KKE has accused SYRIZA of being opportunist and spreading illusions among the people by proposing a government of the left, since such a government would be no better than the existing ones. Aleka Papariga, the dogmatist general secretary of the KKE, even went so far as to suggest that taking part in such a government would mean betraying the people for some ministerial “chairs” and stated that the KKE would not give a vote of confidence to it, should it be formed in parliament. The KKE’s political analysis after the elections was that the rise in support for SYRIZA signifies an attempt by the system to thwart the radicalisation of the people and channel it into a path acceptable to the ruling class. Moreover, Papariga bluntly refused to meet with Tsipras following the elections to discuss forming a left government.

KKE dogmatism

All this and the assertion of the KKE leadership that no change at all can be achieved in a parliamentary way is highly sectarian dogmatism. Of course socialism cannot ultimately be established via parliament, to achieve that a revolution by the people is needed. Yet the experience of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela shows that with the support of a mass movement big radical changes can be initiated using the parliament as a lever; there is no real reason why this should, in principle, not be possible for Greece.

Real problems however start from this point on. To enforce such a radical change with the help of a left government based on a parliamentary majority, a mass front is needed, which would lend support to the project. This is all the more essential in Greece, in order to be able to withstand the strong pressure by foreign lenders, European governments and imperialist institutions. However, neither such a majority nor such a front exists presently. And while the numbers might make a government of the left abstractly possible at a later stage, it is not at all certain that it will materialise.

The KKE stance is the main reason for that. This KKE has the support of a significant part of the industrial working class, fighting elements that would strengthen and cement the proposed front.

The KKE, after a break in 1991, for two decades has followed an increasingly Stalinist course. It has not only recently rehabilitated Nikos Zahariadis, the authoritarian and cynical Stalinist general secretary of the KKE (1931-56), but also presents Stalin as one of the greatest of all Marxists, accepts the validity of the Moscow show trials and continues to accuse Trotsky, Bukharin and the other Bolshevik leaders of being agents of the Gestapo. A number of hardline Stalinist pseudo-theorists like politburo members Makis Mailis and Stefanos Loukas have formed a circle directing the party’s inner political and ideological life, thus lowering the political level of its members and making it vulnerable to all kinds of careerists and opportunists. Alekos Halvatzis, son of Spyros Halvatzis, KKE spokesperson in parliament, left the KKE a couple of years ago accusing the Papariga leadership of having filled the party with“stowaways”.

The KKE has repudiated the revolutions of the Arab Spring and the great movements of the“indignados” in Greece and Europe as being suspect, perhaps even guided by organs of the imperialist secret services. Instead of taking part in such movements, it calls on the people to unite in KKE-fabricated “fronts” that are directed from above and have little connection with the people.

Recently it went so far as to ignore the dramatic suicide of 77-year-old Dimitris Christoulas, who shot himself at Syntagma and left a moving message to the younger generation, urging them to fight against the corrupt rulers. Christoulas was a member of the “indignados” movement, so Rizospastis, the official organ of the KKE, in the few lines it devoted to the incident, did not even mention his name (calling him “the 77-year-old man”) and shamelessly censored his message. Rizospastis even hurled the accusation that his action was in the interests of the ruling class, which wants the people to commit suicide.

Left unity

SYRIZA, on the other hand, is a coalition of various groups, including Marxists, Trotskyists, Maoists, left and moderate reformists, greens and a number of other tendencies. The party has a genuinely democratic character and this variety of views contributes to its liveliness, as a centre of discussion and production of ideas. However, in the grave situation facing Greece, it could also prove a problem by preventing at a critical moment a unified stance on crucial questions on which the various components hold different views. For the moment, of course, the electoral success strengthens the unity of the party, but this cannot hold indefinitely.

The KKE, with its usual fanaticism, seems to “bet” on the possibility that a balancing of views will not be possible in SYRIZA and, after a probable failure to set up a left government or pursue it properly if it is established, the Greek people might turn to them. Such a hope can be sustained by the fact that SYRIZA does not have strong bonds with the masses that came over to it in the May 6 elections, and its foothold is not in the industrial working class but mainly among civil servants and the youth. It is a vain hope however; if SYRIZA fails to cope with the difficulties, chaos will be universal, and in such a situation the ultra-right and not the KKE will be the force most likely to benefit.

Challenge to austerity

The SYRIZA victory coincided with the victory of the Socialist Party’s Francois Hollande in France. It should be made clear that these are two events of an entirely different character. Hollande’s success, even if he has gained the support of many left voters, signifies just a shift of policy within the ruling class and its parties. It may lead to some partial changes and adjustments, a somewhat different tone and orientation, but it will leave the general foundations of European policies untouched. The popular turn to SYRIZA in Greece, however, has a potential to challenge the very foundations of austerity policies and the domination of the markets. It may serve as an example, especially if it is successful, for other countries facing similar problems, like Spain, Portugal, Italy and Ireland, and instigate a general and real European movement to the left.

The ruling European elites are fully conscious of this and have reacted nervously, either by intervening shamelessly before the elections to dictate the result, or by simply stating that the country’s obligations, signed by the previous government, must be fulfilled. Their fears are certainly justified, especially if a widespread shift to the radical left takes place in Europe. However, the really urgent question is: how will SYRIZA cope with the intensified pressure in the following months and what will it strive for and be able to achieve at a time when the reactionary forces remain stronger in Europe as a whole?

SYRIZA aims to rescind the “Memorandum” and renegotiate the debt, which will include cancelling a large part of it as odious. It also demands a three-year suspension of debt obligations, which would provide important relief, if achieved. SYRIZA’s aims include nationalising a number of banks, heavier taxation of the rich and restoring the people’s living standards. SYRIZA leader Tsipras has proposed a five-point program which concretises this.

Leave the euro?

Some left forces, including ANTARSYA, argue that this is not enough and that a unilateral repudiation of debt will be needed, which will mean that the country will have to leave the euro and return to its national currency. This position is also largely held by the Left Current, a significant component of SYRIZA headed by its parliamentary spokesperson Panagiotis Lafazanis, while a number of influential Greek economists, like Kostas Lapavitsas, have also argued this.

Significantly, the KKE connects the cancellation of debt to its “popular power” slogan, considering it to be impossible under parliamentary conditions. This, of course, is an absurdity, since repudiation of debt is a reform that concerns the system of distribution leaving untouched the capitalist system of production as such. Thus it is perfectly conceivable under capitalism, as a number of examples show (Ecuador, Russia).

The difficulty with unilateral repudiation of debt is that, although being in the long run most beneficial to the people, it will cause in its initial stages significant problems and disorganisation. To minimise this, and avoid an experience like that of Argentina in 2001, it is essential that the majority of the people are convinced of its necessity and that it is pursued in an orderly way by a left government that is determined and conscious of its aims.

This means that, while the European left is still on the defensive, the attempt to implement the “compromising” program of SYRIZA and reach an agreement with the EU should be made. If, as is quite possible, the neoliberal EU elites refuse to make any real and significant concessions, then this could convince the Greek people of the necessity of more radical steps. It would be ideal if this course coincides will a general revival of mass movements in Europe, especially in Europe’s south, leading to a “European Spring”.

This prospect is not as remote as it may seem. The ruling classes in Greece and Europe are taking it seriously and making preparations to face the challenge it will pose to their system. The recent rise of the ultra-right in Greece, openly supported by a part of the mass media, some capitalist circles and parts of the state security machine, is a part of this.

The breakup of the Greek political system has been compared in this respect with the downfall of the Weimar Republic in Germany and it is true that there is a number of striking analogies. Under a similar situation of deep economic crisis, mass unemployment and poverty, came the bankruptcy not only of the former leading political parties but of the parliamentary system as well. The Papadimos government was important in this regard, as it signified a first step away from normal democratic government, towards technocratic-bureaucratic administration reminiscent in many ways of the Brüning government in Weimar.

The program of the newly created Independent Greeks party, headed by Panos Kammenos (a former New Democracy minister), contains a number of even more dangerous reactionary points, combining an ultra-privatisation plan with proposals for appointing the chiefs of police and the army ministers of security and national defence respectively. This is clearly a Bonapartist plan, which would threaten the foundations of bourgeois democracy and of the labour movement. For the time being such measures are supported only by Kammenos’ party and those to the right to it, LAOS and Golden Dawn. But it is not to be excluded that, as the crisis intensifies, the traditional capitalist parties, PASOK and New Democracy, or certain groups within them, might turn in similar directions.


The May 6 elections have produced a stalemate. PASOK and New Democracy together have just 149 seats; a parliamentary majority requires 151. Even if they achieve this, such a government would be weak and without authority. One possibility is a government being formed between PASOK, New Democracy and the Democratic Left, which would produce a majority with 168 seats. Democratic Left has wisely excluded this possibility as it would identify itself with the big parties condemned by the people.
The broad left on the other hand cannot form a majority even with all its disunited components. The possibility of forming a “government of national unity” supported by a broad spectrum of forces except the ultra-right, as proposed by PASOK and New Democracy leaders, is also excluded since it would mean the involvement of the left in memorandum policies.

Therefore, Greece is heading almost inevitably for new elections, which will likely take place sometime in mid-June 2012. New elections have the potential to provoke a further impressive restructuring of the political scene.

SYRIZA’s tactics will be to unite around it the other left forces, including those that failed to enter parliament (the KKE of course has declared that it is against unity under all conditions). That includes not only the Greens and ANTARSYA, but possibly some other groups that broke from PASOK, such as the small (and fairly conservative) Social Agreement party. SYRIZA may also draw more votes from the KKE and improve its performance in the rural areas, which voted more conservatively than the big cities (SYRIZA got more than 20% of the vote in Athens but much less in the countryside). If all this materialises, SYRIZA will almost certainly come first and take advantage of the 50 seat-bonus that the illogical electoral law grants the first-placed party. This could augment its parliamentary force from 52 seats now to some 120, facilitating greatly the formation of a left government.

However, the ruling-class parties have also some options for countering this. New Democracy might be able to unite with two small ultra-neoliberal parties, Bakogianni’s Democratic Alliance and Stefanos Manos’ (a big capitalist) Action party, which together won a respectable 5% of the vote on May 6. Alternatively, it is possible that the two ultra-neoliberal parties might unite on their own, ensuring representation in parliament but not preventing SYRIZA from coming first.
There is also the possibility of mass desertions of New Democracy and PASOK voters to the far-right“Independent Greeks” party, which poses as patriotic and populist, claiming to defend the interests of the people. Certain sections of the ruling class and capitalist media, which still support the traditional parties, may decide to move towards Kammenos as their only viable representative. However, there is a 7% difference in favour of SYRIZA now, so such movement would have to be very pronounced in order for the Independent Greeks to take the lead. A convergence between the Independent Greeks and Golden Dawn is not very likely, since the Independent Greeks’ leadership takes pains to dissociate itself from Nazism. It will be very interesting though to see the results for Golden Dawn in any new elections.

One thing is certain. After the next elections, the hour of truth will come for Greece. It will also be the hour of truth for the Greek radical left. Developments will show if it is able to unite, withstand the enormous pressures the EU authorities will apply and open up a new progressive way for Greece and a window of hope for the rest of Europe.


May 11, 2012– Developments are rapid here in Greece, so that the situation changes abruptly and forecasts prove wrong or inexact in just a few hours.

After E. Venizelos, the PASOK leader, took the mandate from President Papoulias to attempt to form a government, he met with Fotis Kouvelis, the leader of Democratic Left. Kouvelis proposed forming an “ecumenical government” for the limited purpose of supposedly renegotiating the Memorandum. Such a government would hold office until the 2014 European parliament elections. Venizelos reacted positively to this, saying that it practically coincides with PASOK’s proposal for a government of “national salvation”.

So it seems that for the first time there is a real prospect of a government being formed after the stalemate of the last few days.

This government will in fact be a New Democracy-PASOK-Democratic Left government, which Kouvelis himself had excluded just a few days ago. SYRIZA almost certainly will not take part in it, nor will the other parties represented in the Greek parliament. However, for obvious reasons of legitimisation, the three parties will try to make it appear as something different, perhaps by appointing Kouvelis as prime minister and limiting or even wholly avoiding the participation of PASOK and New Democracy.
If this prospect materialises it will be a flagrant violation of the will of the people, as expressed in the elections. Its real aim will be to continue the Memorandum policies, albeit in a slightly different manner, by extracting a few rather insignificant concessions from the European Union and make it appear as a great achievement. It will be based mainly on the two former ruling parties that were condemned for their policies and represents just 37% of the total vote.

SYRIZA’s Alexis Tsipras has justly called this plan an attempt by PASOK and New Democracy to find a “left Karatzaferis” – referring to Giorgos Karatzaferis, the leader of the ultra-right LAOS party, who had supported the former Papadimos government– and his party failed to enter the new parliament for that reason. The plan to establish such a government shows how horrified the ruling circles are of the prospect of new elections, which might give a clear victory to SYRIZA and the left (some polls having already shown an increase of the support for SYRIZA after the election, to 25%). It is also a sign of how much European Union governments and institutions are worried about the prospect of a left government in Greece, strongly applying pressure behind the scene for this kind of solution.

Even if it is established, such a government will be patently weak and will not have any real prospect of solving the grave problems facing Greece.

Christos Kefalis is editor of the Greek journal Marxist Thought.

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