Greece: a coalition of left and right?

Stuart King of Lambeth Left Unity gives his view.

What are we to make of the new Syriza-led government in Greece? Within six hours of becoming the largest party in parliament it announced a government coalition with a rightwing anti-immigrant party – the Independent Greeks (ANEL).

Yet at the same time the first cabinet meeting announced a series of measures the international left could only dream about – suspending privatisation plans, re-instating sacked public sector workers, raising the minimum wage, providing free electricity to the poor, restoring collective trade union rights, extending health insurance to the third of Greeks living without it.

The European left rightly greeted the Syriza electoral victory with jubilation. Everybody who has watched and read about the disastrous impact of the EU imposed austerity measures on the life of ordinary Greeks could only cheer as an avowedly anti-austerity party came to power; one promising to end the misery that since 2008 has seen the economy shrink by 25%, has halved many peoples wages and seen unemployment levels rise to 25%, with youth unemployment anywhere between 50-60%, producing widespread poverty, debt and despair in the country.

It is not just a Greek victory that we are looking for. Greece can be the starting point for the rolling back of austerity measures across Europe, starting with the countries most deeply traumatised by these policies – Spain, Portugal and Ireland – and quickly spreading to the rest of Europe. The stakes could not be higher.

Why the coalition?

None of this jubilation should make us blind to the problems of the new government or silent about them. Most socialists were shocked when they heard about the alliance with ANEL. And we should not hide it – it has damaged Syriza’s reputation and made winning the solidarity that Syriza needs from the left in Europe more difficult to achieve.

Many of us went to the recent London Greek Solidarity rally at Congress House (reported elsewhere on the LU site) expecting some explanation as to why Syriza had entered this coalition. There was very little said beyond one of the speakers saying we should blame the Greek Communist Party (KKE) not Syriza. Yet this argument does not hold up. Certainly the KKE is well known for its extreme sectarianism towards Syriza and the rest of the Greek left and was never going to join a Syriza-led government. However there was nothing to stop Syriza forming a minority government, something it was constitutionally allowed to do, and putting its immediate legislative programme to the parliament. Syriza is only two votes short of a majority and all the other parties would have to combine in a vote of no confidence to trigger a new election – a very unlikely prospect.

The coalition with the Independent Greeks is likely to be short lived. ANEL is a deeply unpleasant and racist, rightwing party that split from the conservative New Democracy over the terms of the Eurozone debt bailout. It is anti-German, anti-immigrant and a staunch supporter of the Greek Orthodox Church and its privileged position within the Greek state. Already Syriza has had to abandon its promise to separate church from state, not an unimportant issue in a country where last year a young man was sentenced to ten months in prison for satirising a deceased Greek Orthodox Monk on his Facebook page.

The prime basis of its coalition with Syriza is an agreement to campaign against the debt agreement made by the last government with the “Troika” – the Eurozone, IMF and ECB. It is not clear how far ANEL is willing to go along with all the economic promises made in Syriza’s emergency Thessaloniki Programme (see which Syriza has started to implement.

Challenging the EU

Its first week in office has seen Syriza taking immediate measures to alleviate poverty, debt and the tax burden on the working class and small farmers. It has, despite its coalition with ANEL, proposed giving citizenship rights to children of immigrants born in Greece (Obama granted something similar recently in the USA). Promptly fulfilling of its immediate programme is vital to show to its base and electoral supporters that it is capable of delivering on its promises.

Indeed there are some important lessons for Left Unity from Greece on how to organise ourselves. In the past period Syriza has built up an impressive network of support, not just by electioneering, but by its members being involved at every level in helping working class Greeks survive the ravages of austerity. Its involvement in the Solidarity for All movement of food banks, cooperatives and community organisation is just one example. Its national campaign for the laid-off Finance Ministry cleaners, the “revolt of the rubber gloves”, was another. Now it needs to deliver to, and mobilise this movement in its struggle with the Troika – bringing the trade unionised workers, the small farmers, the communities, youth and unemployed into an organised mass movement that can defend and push forward a government in struggle with the IMF, the banks and the Eurocrats.

We should be in no doubt that the Syriza government has taken on a huge struggle. Much of its economic programme, including the measures already announced, rely for their financing on debt relief. If Greece wasn’t loaded down with paying off an impossible €320 billion in debt and the interest that goes with it, it would be running a budget surplus – it would therefore not have to make the massive cutbacks, swinging tax increases and sell offs of public property the EU is demanding of it. But the Troika is in no mood to offer debt relief, fearing “contagion”, with other countries like Spain and Portugal demanding the same.

Syriza has already signalled that it is ready for compromise in its renegotiation of the debt. During the election campaign there was talk of demanding that 50% of the debt be written off but the new Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, stated in a Radio 4 interview on the day after the election “We will create a rational plan for our debt restructure so that austerity ends; [We are not talking about writing off 50% of the nominal debt] – this [earlier statement] was just a bit of posturing from our side ahead of the negotiation. What really matters is, that we now sit down and discuss a way in which the haircut to our debt is minimized. We do not want to pay back less than we can, but what we are saying is, [that] this debt repayment schedule, as we have in the moment, is completely unrealistic and utterly disconnected from Greek growth.”

Who holds the cards?

The question in any negotiation is “who holds the cards?” In this case the Troika has a powerful hand to resist the demands of the Greek people. Already they have put the standard measures into play they use against any debtor nation. There is a run on the banks as rich Greeks and businesses move their euros to safer countries, notably Germany, building up euro liabilities for the central bank. The credit agencies are threatening to downgrade Greek debt pushing up interest rates on loans and bonds. The Troika itself is threatening to withhold its next tranche of loans and quantitative easing measures unless Greece sticks to its agreements.

But the Eurozone itself has reasons to compromise. The austerity programme has been shown to be a complete failure not only in Greece but throughout the Eurozone, leading to low growth, stagnation and potential deflation. There are powerful voices advocating a loosening of austerity to try and promote growth. There are political risk factors as well. The Euro leaders know that imposing harsh austerity in Greece has destroyed the parties they relied on for support. While Greece might be small, similar events could take place in Spain and even France with the anti-EU Front National riding high in electoral polls. The combination of far right and left parties coming to power and challenging the euro austerity policies and the union itself is the EU leaders worst nightmare and one they want to avoid at all costs.

This is why solidarity movements with the Greek people struggle against austerity are so important. The Greek Solidarity movement in London has done excellent work to bring the importance of Greece before the trade union movement on the basis that their fight is our fight too. A European-wide campaign of support, especially in Germany and Spain, is absolutely essential to strengthen the Greek people in their struggle against austerity.

We should support the Syriza led government-in every action they take that is in the interest of the Greek workers. At the same time we should reserve the right to criticise and ask questions where we think they are going wrong, as in the case of a coalition with ANEL. But we do it always as unconditional friends and supporters of the Greek struggle against austerity.

Syriza has chosen to try and work within the parliamentary and EU system to end austerity and transform Greece for the better. It is a political project that of necessity will lead to many compromises and retreats on policy. Many of us on the anticapitalist wing of Left Unity believe that real change in Greece will only come about with a radical break from the system of capitalism. As the struggle unfolds in Greece we hope the masses themselves will take the fight against austerity into their own hands, establishing an anticapitalist, workers’ government that can defeat austerity, bringing about fundamental change and providing a beacon for a United Socialist Europe.

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6 responses to “Greece: a coalition of left and right?”

  1. Nick Wright says:

    Stuart King remarks that the KKE is ‘well known for its extreme sectarianism towards Syriza and the rest of the Greek left and was never going to join a Syriza-led government.’

    Because in British left wing political parlance the term “sectarian’ is often mistakenly used to describe impolite language, hostile behaviour or critical remarks made in relation to other left wing forces (and what we say about each other has little resonance among workers in general) we are unused to robust language that has real analytical force.

    Sectarianism, properly defined, is to place the narrow interests of one’s sect or party before the interests of the people i

    Thus it is nonsnensical to apply it to the KKE which has now begun to win back the electoral support it lost by adhering with great fidelity to its long standing analysis. It is worth noting that this so-called ‘sectarian’ stance increased its electoral support and represents more than one in twenty voters in total and a much higher proportion of workers and represents a growing audience for its principled position.

    By entering into a coalition government with ANEL Syriza immediately lent great force to the KKE political position. The appointment of the leader of ANEL as minister of defence (this in a country with millions of people alive who lived through the NATO backed military junta and suffered repression by the Greek military) is a clear indication that Syriza represents no threat to the bourgeois domination of the Greek state or its entanglement in the military alliance.

    Rather than take on face value what its opponents say about it we should take note of what the KKE actually says

  2. Tony says:

    ‘It is a political project that of necessity will lead to many compromises and retreats on policy.’ i.e. an utterly reformist enterprise. Syriza already firmly within the NATO and EU camp and it’s boosters such as Paul Mason and Left Unity getting in their excuses first. A classic case of talk left and act right.

  3. John Penney says:

    It is indeed quite shocking that Syriza is in a coalition with the ANEL rightists. This tactical manoeuver is, to my mind, at one with the apparent leadership strategy of Syriza to buy as much time as possible from the onset of the most vicious sabotage of the Troika powers and the indigenous Greek capitalist class in particular, and the international market in general, by a series of cunning gambits and postures which will confuse and disarm their mortal enemies

    . It has certainly flummoxed , not only those of us on the radical Left that Syriza has allied with ANEL – but the international capitalist media, and the “market” too. It also serves, short term to confuse and pacify the bloated and spoilt Greek military to have an ANEL Far Right nationalist minister overseeing their continued ludicrously privileged and cossetted budget (permanently preparing for war with fellow NATO member, Turkey !). Similarly the posture adopted by the new Finance minister in pronouncements , particularly to the German voters, to the effect that “of course you shouldn’t have lent us all that money – so lets work together though a range of sensible mutually acceptable measures to reschedule the debt and give Greece time to be a competitive partner of the EU family of economic units” , is on the one hand gobsmacking for a party originally committed to repudiating the “odious” Greek debt. On the other hand it is a “wizard wheeze” of a propagandist demobiliser of German and EU bureaucracy initial assumptions that they were dealing with a Far Left party with revolutionary intent – again buying Syriza time to stave off the “reckoning day of debt default and running out of money to run the state”. In this “breathing space, Syriza no doubt hope to deliver real gains for the working class – and hence build their support base – and then possibly call a snap election for a massively increased majority.

    I can buy into this short term “wizard wheeze” school of manoeuver and tactical slipperiness – Syria and the Greek people are not ready by a long chalk , whatever the KKE and Far Left believe, for the revolutionary confrontation with capitalism . They have to buy time – hoping for big Left gains in Spain and Portugal and elsewhere – to change the balance of forces within the EU. Will it work as a strategy ? I think it may for a time – I certainly hope so. Longer term however the stark reality is that , just as the Margaret Thatcher government in the UK in the 1980’s at the start of the global Neoliberal Offensive was quite prepared to implement a ferocious “slash and burn” economic policy – with deliberately engineered high unemployment and the destruction of key industries (Coal, Shipbuilding, Steel, indigenously owned car production) to break the power and will of organised labour – so as to implement the neoliberal offensive which is still rolling back all the post WW2 working class gains in living standards today – so the entire EU capitalist class is also using the current EU economic recessionary crisis to “discipline ” the working classes of the EU to be fully “labour market flexible” , to lower wage rates across the board – and massively reduce the “social wage” costs of the various welfare states of the EU. The desired end point is a “fully competitive” EU grand economic area – with labour costs fully competitive with the labour market in the USA, China, Vietnam. Indonesia.

    Given this long term EU ruling class objective there is no long term “historic compromise” possible between Syriza in particular or the working class across Europe in general with the gross ambitions of he Neoliberal EU regime. In that sense the overall long term analysis position of the KKE and the Far Left is quite correct. Unfortunately their tactical understanding of the needs of the moment is hopelessly wrong. The Syriza strategy and tactics may backfire spectacularly – and degenerate into servile collaboration with the Troika powers – thus demobilising the Greek working class . On the other hand, adroit tactics could provide space to build the struggle, build working class support for a fightback across Europe against Austerity – and allow time for new Left governments to emerge to support Greece.

    One thing’s for sure, there is everything to play for – the temporary alliance with the rightist ANEL is a tactical feint by Syriza – not a clear sign of overall political degeneration. The duty of all serious radical socialists , and the Left generally, is still to support the struggle of Syriza 100%, whilst reserving the right to express criticism of particular tactics which damage rather than progress the struggle in the interests of the working class.

  4. Stuart King says:

    In reply to Nick Wright, I was using “sectarian” in exactly the sense he outlines, putting a party’s narrow sect interest before those of the working class of Greece. You only have to read the KKE’s statement to have this confirmed. It starts off of course all about its own marvellous gains in the election – all of 1%. A rising tide, comrade, raises all ships, even the smallest (Antarsya).

    But what is the KKE’s overall assessment of the election? “Despite the positive trend for rallying around the KKE, the overall correlation of forces remains negative.” So the conservative austerity government has been driven out and a left government has come to power promising to fight austerity and taking immediate measures to help the worst hit and the only positive thing is the KKE’s performance! The response of a sect comrade.

    What the KKE could have done, despite its political differences with Syriza, was to support any and all measures it takes that combat austerity and aid the working class. It could have offered conditional support for all such measures in the parliament, such as the halting of privatisations, raising the minimum wage, restoring collective TU bargaining, and agreed to abstain on the first vote of confidence to ensure a Syriza minority government could survive. It could have done all this while maintaining its “intransigence” on the EU, the debt, capitalism etc.

    Instead it pursues a policy reminiscent of the German CP during the rise of Hitler, proclaiming Syriza the main enemy of the Greek people and no doubt thinking “our turn next” if it falls. We know where such a policy led the German communists – into the camps.

    That is why the current course of the KKE is sectarian.

  5. zachariadis says:

    The KKE made it very clear in the election period that it will vote for any legislation that provides relief to the workers’-people’s problems. This has always been its practice. Supporting and partiicpating in a pro-Eu and pro-NATO government is quite another matter.
    The KKE like every political party has the right to make an assement of its own performance.
    It does not agree that SYRIZA’s victory is something positive, for reasosn it explains.
    Not so difficult.

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