New period for the left in Europe

It’s not every day that passers-by in London’s Camden Town can hear the strains of the socialist anthem ‘The Internationale’ drifting across the street on a Sunday evening, reports Harry Blackwell. Dozens of members of Britain’s Greece Solidarity Campaign (GSC) [1] were celebrating after watching with rapt attention the results come in from Greece’s historic general election. The visibly shaken reporter in Athens on the BBC’s 10 O’clock News aptly summed it up: “Far left win General Election … historic development … shockwaves through Europe … anti-austerity government”.

The victory of Syriza was widely expected but the margin of victory surpassed most expectations. Greece’s party of the radical left won 36.3% of the vote, eight-and-a-half percentage points above their conservative opponents, the former governing ‘New Democracy’ party. Under Greece’s undemocratic parliamentary system, designed to entrench two party rule as in Britain and the USA, the winner gets an extra 50 seats in the 300 member parliament. Syriza’s 149 seats put them within a whisker of an absolute majority in the parliament. It’s true that they will have to rule in coalition but it did not take long for Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to take office and set up a government with the small anti-austerity ‘Independent Greeks’ party, who have immediately agreed to support all the terms of Syriza’s economic programme against austerity and against the strait jacket imposed on Greece by the Troika of the EU, IMF and European Central Bank.

Syriza’s victory represented a massive improvement on their then sensational vote in the June 2012 General Election. Syriza won 2,246,064 votes, a massive increase on their vote of 1,655,022 back in 2012. It’s hard to believe that in 2009 Syriza won less than 5% of the vote, only 315,627 votes! It was Syriza’s hard line anti-austerity message that attracted massive support from the working class and young people, fed up with years of austerity. It won high votes in working class areas across the country, nearly winning a majority of votes, 48.5%, in the eastern mainland area of Rhodope.

The real loser was of course the social-democratic PASOK, sister party of the British Labour Party. It has ruled Greece for the majority of the 40+ years since the overthrow of the military dictatorship, winning over 47% of the vote during the 1990s. PASOK’s humiliation was completed as it slumped to seventh place with only 289,482 votes (4.8%) of the vote and 13 seats, just over a third of its vote in 2012 when it won over 750,000 votes (12.3%) and 33 seats. PASOK had been the junior partner in the conservative coalition of New Democracy since 2012 where it had enthusiastically implemented an austerity package that decimated the Greek economy with a 25% reduction in national wealth (GDP). PASOK had begun to fragment gradually losing MPs in parliament and at the dissolution in January former PASOK leader George Papandreou, former Prime Minister and son of PASOK’s founder, launched a split – Kidiso/Kinima, the ‘Movement of Democratic Socialists’. Kidiso/Kinima only won 2.5% of the vote and Papandreou failed to win any seats in the new parliament due to the 3% national threshold for representation. A new ‘liberal’ right wing party To Potami (‘The River’) had also taken votes from the corrupt and discredited PASOK winning 6% of the vote and 17 seats. Potami was formed in 2014 and won seats in the European Elections in Greece, surprising some by joining the ‘Socialist’ grouping in the European Parliament rather than the Liberals (in Britain the nearest political comparison to Potami would be the short-lived right wing SDP, Social Democratic Party, of the 1980s).

For the social democratic parties of Europe, including the British Labour Party, the collapse and fragmentation of PASOK creates a crisis that has been long in the making. Social Democracy has embraced the right wing austerity agenda but will now face a crisis in the ranks of its traditional supporters looking for radical alternatives along the lines of Syriza. In Denmark, Spain and Portugal there will be general elections in 2015 and the radical left parties of the Red-Green Alliance (Denmark), Podemos (Spain) and Left Bloc (Portugal) will be well placed to make gains in the movement against austerity. Sadly in Britain there is no significant left wing alternative yet, but the Green Parties in Scotland, England and Wales have moved significantly to the left and endorsed Syriza in the Greek elections. Left Unity, as the ‘sister party’ of Syriza and now taking a seat within the European Left Party, will be the most encouraged and have the most opportunity to put forward solidarity with the new Greek anti-austerity government. The crisis in Greece will set up ripples of discontent within the Labour Party – MP Peter Hain notably endorsed Syriza on the Andrew Marr show on BBC Television as the election was taking place – but more importantly within the trade unions. The rally called by the Greece Solidarity Campaign to offer support to the new Syriza-led government on Wednesday 28th January has been notably sponsored by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) whose President will address the meeting. TUC General Secretary, Frances O’Grady has endorsed Syriza’s anti-austerity programme and a group of Labour MPs will be supporting a motion in the House of Commons welcoming Syriza’s election.

The vast majority of the left and working class in Greece endorsed Syriza, whose central message put forward a programme for government rather than mere vocal opposition to austerity. The highly sectarian Greek Communist Party (KKE) is still an important part of the anti-austerity movement and its vote increased slightly on its vote in 2012 as it gained one percent to win 5.5% of the vote and increase its seats from 12 to 15. However this is still a long way from its electoral high point in Greece in the 1970s and 1980s when it regularly won around 10% of the vote. The KKE embraces what used to be called ‘Third Period Stalinism’ (after the period in the late 1920 when communist parties described social democratic parties as worse than fascists) and refuses to countenance deals with Syriza. It puts forward a programme of nationalism, calling for immediate exit from the Euro and EU and reinstatement of the Drachma as Greece’s currency. So sectarian is the KKE that their MEPs refuse to sit in the United European Left group in the European Parliament, alongside Syriza (and their ‘sister’ Communist Parties of France, Portugal and Cyprus), and instead sit with the far right French National Front in the so-called ‘Non-Attached’ group. The left wing grouping within Syriza, the ‘Left Platform’, have repeatedly called upon the KKE to support Syriza in Government to no avail. The KKE has a short memory of course, as it has previously served in a Greek government led by New Democracy with four ministers. This is creating turbulence within CPs across the world, not least within Britain’s Morning Star daily newspaper where old-time Stalinists continually invoke support for the KKE alongside the more obvious enthusiasm of its readership for Syriza.

While a number of revolutionary left groups are active within Syriza’s Left Platform and have MPs in the new government, some of the revolutionary groups are organised in the Antarsya coalition which also stood in the election. However they are not only tainted with an ultra-left tinge towards Syriza, their electoral coalition was in conjunction with a group led by the former Syriza leader, Alvanos, who also puts forward immediate exit from the Euro and the reinstatement of the Drachma. Their vote marginally increased to 0.6% (from 0.3% in June 2012) but one has to ask whether this was a useful vote – if this vote had gone to Syriza, as happened with the Ecologist Green party, it may have made sufficient difference to enable Syriza to have an absolute majority programme in parliament and not rely on the votes of other parties to legislate. The Ecologist Greens won one seat within the Syriza platform and will now have a direct voice inside parliament and government. Hopefully there will be some soul-searching over electoral tactics and governmental programme within Antarsya as there needs to be an active revolutionary left in the current situation.

The wooden spoon of the election went to DIMAR – the ‘Democratic Left’ – a splinter from Syriza which had previously gained some support from former PASOK supporters. This party had stood in 2012 and joined the New Democracy coalition to help implement austerity. While it eventually left the coalition over the scale of job and wage losses, it tried to put a ‘left’ list together with a splinter from the Ecologist Greens that slumped to less than 0.5% of the vote and is now confined to the dustbin of history.

Despite the rightful euphoria over Syriza’s victory, the neo-fascist Golden Dawn party retained a significant number of seats in parliament falling slightly from 6.9% to 6.3% and from 18 seats to 17. At points over the recent years of hard austerity, opinion polls showed it growing to 10-15%. While its growth has been curtailed by the rise of a left wing alternative (and there’s nothing wrong with saying that some people who had been thinking of voting for the neo-fascists swung to Syriza), it remains a potent racist threat particularly in its violent acts towards immigrants, black people, and other minorities. There will be a continuing need to mobilise against its actions on the streets and taking strong governmental action to undermine the material basis of its support among the working class.

The central focus facing the government will be the economic crisis and the negotiations on debt with the Troika. However it is to be hoped that the new government will also raise the centrality of the ecological crisis and give official backing to the protests around the climate summit in Paris in December 2015 by for example providing state trains and paid time off for public employees to travel there. But for Europe’s only left government at present, it should also be able to put forward governmental level solutions to the climate crisis and stimulate the need for global action on the crisis facing ours and all the other species of the world.
And so we enter a new period in Europe. We must redouble our efforts to build anti-austerity action and new left parties across Europe. Social Democracy must be confronted for its complicity in the impoverishment of working people. There will be some who will sit on the sidelines and watch for any ‘backtracking’ by the Tsipras government and rush to say ‘I told you so …’. But the real task is to build the movement of solidarity, anti austerity and new left parties. In Britain that means redoubling efforts to build Left Unity and making 2015 the year that we can begin to turn the corner.

[1] The Greece Solidarity Campaign website is and its Facebook page is Please encourage your Trade Union, Left Unity, anti-cuts campaign etc to affiliate and invite a speaker.

  1. “with the small anti-austerity ‘Independent Greeks’ party, who have immediately agreed to support all the terms of Syriza’s economic programme against austerity and against the strait jacket imposed on Greece by the Troika of the EU, IMF and European Central Bank”

    Could you be a little more specific on the politics of this group (on immigration, the Orthodox church and women, for starters) and why it was necessary to form a coalition with them. Surely 149 seats was enough for a very confortable minority government without the need for any coalition.

  2. It seems that the reason Syriza formed the coalition with the far-right ENAL (importantly, giving them the ministry of defence) is that they needed to act quickly to form a government and cancel privatisations, raise pensions etc etc..

    I don’t know the ins and outs of parliamentary politics is Greece, but Syriza clearly did not want prolonged coalition negotiations as usually happens in these circumstances

    Perhaps Paul Mason’s blog sheds more light on this issue:

    It remains to be seen how long this coalition will last: hopefully something more palatable will emerge soon.

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