SYRIZA and Elections in Greece: Crisis, Challenges and Potential
Portions of this essay of my 2013 essay The Crisis in Greece and the Prospects of SYRIZA are reprinted here generally unchanged, particularly on the background to the crisis, since I believe the analysis stands.
Few countries have been harder hit by the economic crisis than Greece. Since 2008, the European Union, International Monetary Fund, and the European Bank (popularly known in Greece as the Troika) have instituted devastating austerity measures which gut social programs, sweeping privatizations and a general attack on the working class in order to bail out the financial system. These cuts have been implemented by the two historic main parties in Greece – the social democratic Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) and New Democracy. Austerity measures have met with fierce resistance by Greek workers and social movements. On January 25, SYRIZA (Coalition of the Radical Left), formed only a decade previously and opposed to austerity measures is poised to win the elections and become the governing party in Greece. While the prospect of SRIZA dominating the election excites leftists and revolutionaries, there are real pitfalls, possibilities and revolutionary challenges should they actually win.
The crisis in Greece can be traced back at least a decade, during which time huge debts were piled up .When the economic crash of 2007 occurred, the Greek government became unable to pay back these massive debts, mostly owed to Greek and European banks. To prevent the utter collapse of the economy, the “Troika” made up of the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund “bailed out” Greece to the tune of hundreds of billions. Canadian activist Paul Kellogg says: “The word “bailouts” must be put in quotation marks, because what in fact are being bailed out is not the Greek government, let alone the people of Greece, but rather financial institutions, particularly key European financial institutions, which stand to lose heavily should the Greek economy go under.”
To pay for the bailout, the Greek government has been imposing austerity on the country. Government spending was drastically lowered on public services such as unemployment insurance (when tens of thousands were thrown out of work), health care, public service jobs, and education. At the same time, taxes were increased on most of the population. The Greek government is not only instituting austerity to pay for the bailouts, but also to stay in the European Union. International creditors fear that if Greece leaves the EU, it will lead to economic collapse across Europe and the world economy.
The austerity measures have had a devastating affect on the Greek economy, shattering the social fabric and leading to large-scale despair. Since 2010, Greece has seen only contraction of gross domestic product and in the last quarter of 2012, GDP went down 6.9%. In other words, Kellogg says, “absolutely all of the growth experienced in the first years of this century in Greece has been wiped out by five years of slump.”
In 2010, wages were cut by 22 percent. Public services from health care (half of the public hospitals are closing) to education are being reduced. Factories and public jobs are vanishing. In June, there were 350 suicide attempts and 50 successes in Athens. The unemployment rate rose from 8.5% in 2007 to 27% in October 2012, with an unemployment rate of 56.6% among those aged 15 to 24 . What the crisis shows is that the social democratic compromise of a welfare state that has characterized Greece has ended. Greece looks like it has lost a war in 2009 and is paying the consequences. By the end of 2012, GDP had declined more than 21% since 2008. Austerity package raised the retirement age from 65 to 67 years old and slashed pensions by an average of between five and 15%. Yet the Greek military has been spared any cuts in order to be in a strong position to deal with social unrest.
These austerity measures have not been suffered silently by the people of Greece. There has been an eruption of rebellion. Since 2010, there have been more than 20 general strikes that have brought hundreds of thousands into the streets. A few years ago, a massive outpouring of worker strength would be enough to stop government cutbacks, but now the situation is different.
The Rise of SYRIZA
The crisis has created an unprecedented opening of radical realignment as the main parties of PASOK and New Democracy, who have loyally carried out austerity, have lost credibility and led to the rise of SYRIZA. So what exactly is SYRIZA and where did it come from? SYRIZA was originally founded in 2004 as an anti-globalization as an electoral coalition based on coalitions of left reformers, revolutionary communists, Trotskyists, and radical Greens has emerged as a place for resistance by representing the hope for a way beyond austerity.
Unlike other formations on the left, SYRIZA was actively involved in the fight against austerity from the beginning. This was shown most clearly in 2011 when Greek youth and students began the Movement of the Squares, which was reminiscent of the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement. Large numbers of people with no previous political experience gathered in people’s assemblies declaring themselves a real democracy and challenging the PASOK-led government.
The Squares Movement was also a challenge to the whole Troika, telling them to “GET OUT!” and posed the people as the legitimate rulers of Greece. While other groups such as the ANTARSYA and the Communist Party (KKE) stood on the sidelines, denouncing the Squares Movement for not falling under their preconceived notions of how a revolution was supposed to unfold, SYRIZA activists played a key organizational and political role.
SYRIZA was also involved in trade union, immigrant and student protests. They built support before the crucial May and June elections of 2012 on a program of nationalizing the major banks, raising taxes on the wealthy, expelling military bases and saying no to the crippling austerity measures. In the 2009 elections, SYRIZA only managed to win under 5%of the vote–six seats in Parliament. By June 2012, SYRIZA was the second largest party in Greece with 28%of the vote and 71 seats in parliament. A new government was formed by New Democracy in coalition with PASOK and the Democratic Left (DIMAR) which continued to administer austerity measures.
While the June 2012 election did not see SYRIZA win, the coalition, it did frighten elites and their mouth-pieces across the world. Bill Frezza of Forbes magazine said that the Greeks deserve their fate, that Western governments should stop loaning Greece money and should “give the country what many of its people have been violently demanding for almost a century… Let them have Communism.”
To tighten up their ranks, in July 2013 SYRIZA went from being a coalition to a unitary party. As part of the reorganization, the participating organizations of SYRIZA were given three months to complete the transition. Alexander Tsipras, leader of Synaspismos was elected as the head of the SYRIZA with 74% of the vote. Tsipras represents reformist forces within SYRIZA who want Greece to stay within the Eurozone, although he has promised to renegotiate the terms of the debt and end the punitive terms if he is elected: “Austerity is both irrational and destructive,” he said. “To pay back debt, a bold restructuring is needed.” By contrast, the opposition Left Platform with approximately 25% support, put forward motions calling for repudiating all of Greece's debt, nationalization of large sectors of the economy, be prepared to leave the Eurozone and a united front with other left parties such as the Communists and ANTARSYA.
The Golden Dawn
The collapse of the traditional parties as a result of austerity has not only provided an opening to the far right. The principal beneficiary has been the neo-Nazi group Golden Dawn which won 7% of the vote in June 2012. The Golden Dawn draws its appeal from attacking a corrupt political system and defending national sovereignty. Despite their anti-system rhetoric, the Golden Dawn offers no alternative aside from attacking immigrants and leftists. The police also openly support the Golden Dawn, at least 50% of them supported the fascists in 2012. Leftists who have clashed with the Golden Dawn were arrested and tortured at the hands of the police.
The violence of the Golden Dawn grew so bad that in September 2013, the Greek state cracked down and arrested their key leaders on charges of supporting a criminal organization. However, the Golden Dawn continues to maintain their support and grow. In elections for the European Parliament in May 2014 the Golden Dawn came in third place with 9% behind SYRIZA with 26% and New Democracy with 22%. Although the Golden Dawn has gone down slightly in opinion polls (9% to 7%), the party continues to draw support.
The Road to Elections
In late December 2014, Greece was headed for early elections following the failure of Parliament to support Prime Minister's Antonis Samaras nomination for President. The elections are scheduled to take place on January 25 and all the polls show that SYRIZA is likely to win with 27.1% and 31.2% of the vote while the New Democracy currently has 22.6% and 28% support. The Prime Minister is desperate to rally support for his party and warning of chaos, but he has a record in office where a quarter of the workforce are still unemployed and three million remain in dire poverty. PASOK, running the country only two years previously has seen its vote collapse to sixth place. All this said, what are the challenges and pitfalls that remain ahead for SYRIZA.
Despite the efforts of SYRIZA to moderate some of their radicalism and pull back on some of their demands, such as nationalization of the banks, they remain committed to a basic anti-austerity program within the Eurozone. Efforts by DIMAR as part of the “soft austerity left” and SYRIZA to present a joint electoral platform have fallen through. The IMF has suspended aid to Greece until following the election, which represents a form of blackmail for Greeks to not break with the austerity model. Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission has warned Greeks to not vote the “wrong” way for fear of endangering the Euro Zone. There is a fear among the ruling classes of Europe not only that SYRIZA will take power, but that it could give impetus to other left and populist movements such as Podemos in Spain.
So this all brings us to the question: assuming that SYRIZA does win the elections, as all the evidence points to, what happens next? For one, SYRIZA would face not only the resistance of the Troika, the ruling classes of Europe, the conservative and social democratic parties of Greece, and the capitalists at home. For one, SYRIZA would probably have to form a coalition government, unless they were to gain 35-40% of the vote which would give them an absolute majority meaning they'd have to compromise with other parties. If SYRIZA were to come to power, they may face heavy pressure from the Troika that cause them to fail and toppling the government. Or the pressure could cause SYRIZA to temper its radicalism and continue the agenda of austerity.
Yet ruling class is not the only resistance SYRIZA faces. They also have to deal with the Greek people – millions of whom are jobless and have spent years fighting austerity. While the reformists in SYRIZA will try to play respectful, the masses of people, possessing a government that at least promises to improve their position, could push farther than Tsipras and the reformists are willing to go. This could lead to a revolutionary showdown with the forces of Greek capitalism and imperialism throughout Europe.
This road of confrontation is not without its own pitfalls. If the masses and SYRIZA challenge capital, they would face the resistance of police, army, fascists, banks and other powerful businesses who are only interested in their profits and do everything – from funding counterrevolution, blackmail, and capital flight - to make them cave in. And in the face of that choice, they would need to make a simple choice – move in or give in? When a reformist government actually comes to power and actually wants to provide benefits for the people, they bump heads with the logic capital. Normally the reformists choose to give in and compromise their promises to the logic of capital. Yet there is the other option – to decide to move in and determine what comes first - profit or the needs of working people? And this means breaking the power of capital by moving into those institutions and making them serve the interests of the people.
The Polish Socialist Oskar Lange summed up the challenges of what SYRIZA and the Greek masses would face if they went all the way and it is worth recalling:
“A socialist government really intent upon socialism has to decide to carry out its socialisation programme at one stroke, or to give it up altogether. The very coming into power of such a government must cause a financial panic and economic collapse. Therefore, the socialist government must either guarantee the immunity of private property and private enterprise in order to enable the capitalist economy to function normally, in doing which it gives up its socialist aims, or it must go through resolutely with its socialisation programme at maximum speed. Any hesitation, any vacillation and indecision provokes the inevitable economic catastrophe. Socialism is not an economic policy for the timid."
Doug Enaa Greene is an independent communist historian living in the greater Boston area. He has been published in Socialism and Democracy, LINKS International Journal for Socialist Renewal, MRZine, Kasama, Counterpunch, Socialist Viewpoint and Greenleft Weekly. He was active in Occupy Boston and is a volunteer at the Center for Marxist Education in Cambridge. He is currently working on a book on the French Communist Louis-Auguste Blanqui.