Andrew Burgin writes on the current crisis in Greece and the prospect of SYRIZA coming to office
Greek prime minister Antonis Samaras has called a presidential election, which will take place this month. It’s the parliament that elects the president but if the electoral sums don’t add up – which so far they don’t – and no president is elected, then the government must call a general election. In the event of a general election, it is likely that SYRIZA – the party of the radical left – will be the largest party and will form the government. Concerns about a SYRIZA victory are expressed clearly by the stock market: the Athens exchange closed 12.8% down the day the presidential election was announced.
The markets may be down, but there is great popular enthusiasm for a SYRIZA victory. Support for the party has grown hugely over the last few years because it rejects the austerity policies which have brought Greece to crisis point and will it break with neoliberalism.
This will be the first workers’ government elected in Europe since the Popular Front took office in Spain in 1936. It would be a government in which the working class holds office in the parliament while the other institutions of state will remain in the hands of the ruling class. This will create a highly unstable political situation. Take the police force for example – at the last election it is said that nearly 50% of the police voted for the fascist Golden Dawn party and some in the military have close links with the fascists and have helped train their combat units. The British establishment bears a good deal of responsibility for the existence of Golden Dawn as it was Churchill’s shameful decision to turn on the communist partisans who fought Nazi Germany alongside Britain in the second world war which sowed the seeds for the rise of the extreme right in Greece today.
What will this government face and what will our responsibilities as socialists in Britain be?
A radical left government will face an enormous and deepening economic and social crisis. As it implements social and economic reforms, breaking with the policies that have wreaked disaster on Greece, it will immediately come under pressure from the Greek ruling class and the extreme right. It will also face external pressure too from the European Union and the international financial markets.
Its central defence will come from mass support in the streets and in the communities. The social solidarity centres that have been created by the movement in the last few years will also have an important role to play. A SYRIZA government will be rebuilding a country whose economy has been almost destroyed by the demands of international capital and whose social fabric has been ripped apart.
Over the last five years the Greek economy has been attacked on all sides. It has been the laboratory rat for austerity Europe. Greece has been the testing ground for the most extreme neoliberal policies contrived by the Troika – the IMF, the European Central Bank and the European Commission – which is attempting to definitively end the era of the welfare state, stamping out all social spending in the interests of the international financial system.
The social and economic results are heartbreaking: the health service has been decimated. Primary health care has almost been wiped out and public health care is also non-existent. Vaccinations have stopped leading to epidemics of malaria. The budget for medicines has been cut by 70%. Pregnant women without private health insurance receive no care and are turned away from hospitals even in labour. Unemployment remains at 26% with youth unemployment almost 60%. Salaries and pensions have been slashed. More than half a million children are malnourished.
Despite the harshest austerity measures the Troika are promising further deep spending cuts and a further slashing of pensions. The people of Greece have reached the end of the line with austerity and thus anti-austerity SYRIZA has become increasingly popular. Rising from 4.8% in 2009 to 27% in June 2012, the party now consistently polls higher in public opinion polls. SYRIZA had the largest single party vote in the recent European elections.
A future SYRIZA government has pledged to reject the EU’s austerity Memorandum and has said it will seek to introduce significant social and economic reforms. It has promised to launch emergency programmes for food and healthcare, raising wages and pensions etc. It will repudiate the debt burden which is strangling the country. The mere election of such a government will create a wave of expectation not just in Greece but throughout Europe. Millions will be moved to action.
Already the markets are anticipating a SYRIZA victory and are increasingly worried about the reforms that the party has promised to introduce. The Financial Times reported on December 9th that senior SYRIZA politicians had recently presented their economic programme to a meeting of hedge funds and banks. One senior analyst from Capital Group, a fund with $1.4tn of assets, described the programme as ‘worse than communism’ and ‘total chaos’: ‘Everybody coming out of the meeting wants to sell everything in Greece.’ Bank of America Merrill Lynch described the SYRIZA economic programme as a ‘Greek Tragedy’. There is no doubt that international investors will attempt to frighten the Greek people into rejecting SYRIZA in a re-run of the project fear that enabled the conservative New Democracy party to gain a narrow victory in 2012.
The Wall Street Journal has called SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras ‘the Hugo Chavez of the Balkans’ saying that his economic programme will set him on a ‘collision course with the rest of Europe’. This will be true in terms of the European elites – but not with the people of Europe.
Of course there is a possibility that the stakes are so high – support for Podemos in Spain indicates that the trend of resistance to neoliberalism is not confined to Greece alone – that European capital will seek a compromise. Some reports suggest that Angela Merkel will agree to a comprehensive Greek bailout if SYRIZA sticks to its position on debt write off. Such an option is fraught with problems for Mrs Merkel, not least the boost it would give to far right German nationalist forces, objecting to what they see as payouts to southern Europe.
If this happens it would be a remarkable development: European capital would have been forced to end its ultra-neoliberal experiment in Greece and thus its death knell would be sounded elsewhere too. There would be a potential for the unravelling of the austerity narrative that the left must be ready to seize upon.
But as things stand currently, we must be prepared for a SYRIZA government to come under enormous attack. And if and when it does, the defence of this government – that has pledged to increase public spending, renationalise services and restore pensions, wages and jobs – will doubtless be the priority for the whole movement in Greece. And it will have to be so throughout Europe too. The anti-austerity measures that a SYRIZA government will seek to introduce can only be won and defended through mass struggle.
The might of international capital has to be confronted – a potentially overwhelming task, but the last two years of surviving and fighting back in the context of extreme hardship mean that the Greek people have already built strong foundations and structures of community solidarity and resistance. The self-organising social solidarity centres and initiatives which have sprung up all over Greece, in which SYRIZA plays a major part, provide social pharmacies, food distribution with farmers bringing food directly to the people, mental health care, drop-in centres, social kitchens, skills shares and much more. In essence, everything that communities need to support and sustain themselves: already these are centres of working class social and economic resistance and will no doubt develop as centres of political resistance in the event of a state onslaught on a SYRIZA government. It is in this arena that a government of the people will be defended by the people. The Greek people have led the struggle against austerity in Europe organising no less than 35 general strikes over the last four years.
SYRIZA will be under tremendous pressure and there may be those within SYRIZA that succumb to those pressures. Should there be such a capitulation by the party as a whole then this would be a disaster for Greece, and would also be an enormous setback for the European Left project. It is a situation that we must all work to avoid by extending active solidarity and support.
There are those on the left who seek to write the obituary of this government before a shot has been fired – they claim that SYRIZA represents only a somewhat more radical version of the Wilson governments of the 1960s and 70s in Britain. And further they argue that SYRIZA has already capitulated to capital. If this is the case then capital, as noted above, hasn’t noticed. The challenge to these left critics of SYRIZA is whether they will support the formation of such a government and whether they will fight to defend it – it constitutes the front line in the struggle against the system which will destroy us all unless, collectively, we resist. As SYRIZA activist Stathis Kouvelakis states, ‘The moment of truth is near! For SYRIZA, the radical Left and the popular forces, things are quite clear: fight to the end, win the battle or perish!’
The defence of a workers’ government in Greece will not just be a test for those in SYRIZA itself but it will be a test for all who consider themselves socialists across Europe. A defeat in Greece will open the path to Golden Dawn, an openly neo-Nazi organisation and that would strengthen reaction across the continent.
It will be the responsibility of the labour and trade union movement here and elsewhere to come to the aid of this government. We will need to support the measures it takes and work to strengthen it against its enemies, to help it withstand those pressures. We will need to build international networks of support and political and material aid.
In 2011, the Greek resistance veterans Mikis Theodorakis and Manolis Glezos launched a ‘common appeal for the rescue of the peoples of Europe.’ This appeal called for a united European front of action to turn back the tide of austerity sweeping through Europe. In Britain, that appeal led to the founding of the Greece Solidarity Campaign (GSC). The GSC has built strong links with the movement in Greece. We have organised a number of important delegations and have organised solidarity aid through our Medical Aid to Greece campaign. The Trades Union Congress and many individual unions support the work of the GSC. The ground has been prepared for the scale of solidarity that is required. The movement in Britain is well placed to engage with the work of supporting the people of Greece in what will be their hour of need.
Support for a government of the Left in Greece will also come from the new parties of the left throughout Europe including our own party, Left Unity. Our recent party conference took the decision to become a sister party of SYRIZA through seeking affiliation to the European Left Party. We will rally to support a government that promises to break with austerity.
We must all now urgently rise to this challenge.
Left Unity is active in movements and campaigns across the left, working to create an alternative to the main political parties.
Events and protests from around the movement, and local Left Unity meetings.
Sat 2 Mar, 9.30-17.00
Confronting the Rise of the Far Right, European Conference
Organised by Transform UK.
Bloomsbury Central, 235 Shaftesbury Ave, London WC2H 8EP.
Sign up to the Left Unity email newsletter.
Get the latest Left Unity resources.