Greece after the electionsIssue: 136
Posted: 9 October 12
Less than three months into its term, the new Greek government is faced with a “hot autumn” of resistance. Helena Smith predicted this in the Guardian in early August and by the end of the month it was more of a reality than a prophecy.1
Bank workers at the Agricultural Bank (ATE) and the Hellenic Postbank (TT) came out on strike against privatisation. Then 24 August saw the largest anti-racist/anti-Nazi demo in Athens yet, as thousands of immigrants and locals (5,000 according to the police, probably four times as many in reality) took to the streets to protest against mass arrests, beatings and one murder. A national demonstration against the cuts on 8 September in Thessaloniki set the tone, and on 12 September, the day primary schools started, a teachers’ strike turned into a broader movement involving hospital and local government workers. The unions have called for another general strike on 26 September to coincide with the vote in parliament on the new austerity package.
Back in June there had been a collective sigh of relief in the ruling circles across Europe when the Greek Tories of New Democracy (ND) narrowly beat the Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza) into first place at the polls. The coalition government of ND with Pasok (the Greek equivalent of New Labour) and Dimar (the Democratic Left party that had split from Syriza) was formed on the basis of renegotiating the terms of the Memorandum of Understanding with the Troika (the European Central Bank, European Commission and International Monetary Fund) with a view to lightening the unbearable burden of austerity.
In practice, the new prime minister, Antonis Samaras, promised to try to convince the Troika to agree to an “elongation”, ie spreading the next round of cuts over four rather than two years. But, he argued, before the Greek government can convince its creditors, it has to prove its credibility by showing determination in the implementation of the existing memorandum.
This means a package worth about €11.9 billion in cuts in 2013-14. The cuts may have to be revised for the worse, as the recession is hitting the fiscal deficit and the memorandum insists on its reduction. There is a clause in the memorandum that opens a window for an “elongation” and Samaras was pinning his hopes on the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, agreeing to activate this. An official visit to Berlin and Paris on 24-25 August drew a predictable reply: first must come the pain and then we shall see.
So Samaras is stuck with the same old task that proved the undoing of his predecessors, George Papandreou and Lucas Papademos: lifting the economy out of recession while imposing massive new cuts in the face of bitter resistance from the working class. In private he must be praying that the Financial Times got it right when it wrote at the end of August:
If markets doubt that the euro will survive intact, it is because they are pessimistic about Germany’s willingness to let the ECB deploy its full power to keep the governments of peripheral Europe liquid. More than many appreciate, that disagreement has been settled-and won by Mario Draghi [president of the ECB]... Madrid’s and Rome’s short-term borrowing costs have dropped precipitously.2
Apart from keeping his fingers crossed, Samaras has set about attacking workers’ resistance viciously. He sent the police to attack the steel workers’ strike and to tear gas local government workers when they tried to lead a demo with garbage collection vehicles. But the worst campaign was against immigrants. Nikos Dendias, the minister for public order, has tried to disorient anger with such an attack. “The country is perishing,” he claimed on television. “This is the biggest invasion since the Dorians entered Greece 4,000 years ago.”
During the first three weeks of August police rounded up 7,500 black and Asian people and detained 2,000 for deportation. This gave the signal for a series of attacks by Nazis, some in police stations. A young Pakistani worker in the oil refineries of Aspropyrgos had his nails squeezed with a pincer by police. Nazi thugs carried out other attacks on the streets. A young Iraqi was killed on 12 August in a knife attack near Omonoia Square in Athens.
It was this brutality that provoked the anti-Nazi explosion on 24 August and put the government on the back foot. It is now up to the left to seize the initiative as the strike movement revives.
How is the left responding? The Communist Party (KKE) is in retreat after its poor showing in the parliamentary elections. It doesn’t see the class advancing after the massive swing to the left. Accordingly, it instructed the steel workers’ leadership to call an end to the strike. It also supported the ATE union officials stopping the bank workers’ strike in the middle of August. There was a tiny report of the 24 August demo in the party daily, Rizospastis.
What about the victorious wing of the left, Syriza? Here it is the right wing of the leadership that has made the running. The party spokesperson Panos Skourletis instructed Syriza cadre that they must be careful when they make statements to the press: “We cannot speak in the same way as we did when we had 4 percent of the vote now that we have 27 percent.” This piece of advice was targeted at left wingers who spoke of a “people’s default” as a last weapon for the poor.
There was no similar rebuke for George Stathakis, a new deputy and one of Syriza’s key economic strategists, who argued in an interview that the best course is to support EU plans for a banking union. Syriza had campaigned on the promise that there must be a strong nationalised sector in the Greek banking system, but Stathakis watered this down, explaining, “This wouldn’t be a nationalisation properly speaking, just one person to supervise the system”.3
Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras had been interviewed by Reuters immediately after the 17 June election:
Asked about strategy after Sunday’s election, Tsipras signalled that Syriza would not call its supporters onto the streets to protest against the austerity measures. The bloc of 12 leftist groupings would instead focus its energy on creating “a shield of protection for those on the margins”.
“Solidarity and resistance are both important, but right now solidarity is the most important,” he said. “Our role is to be inside and outside parliament, applauding anything positive and condemning all that is negative and proposing alternatives”.4
A little later Tsipras went on to have a meeting with Shimon Peres, the president of Israel, without any official statement on what was discussed. This provoked an angry letter from Tasos Kourakis, a Syriza MP who was on the flotilla that tried to break the blockade of Gaza in May 2010. Nine activists were killed when Israel attacked the flotilla.
All in all, the Syriza leadership has been trying to formulate the familiar tactic of posing as a “government in waiting”, an opposition that has responsible policies and calls on people to use their vote rather than mobilise to change things through direct action. This, of course, is a line that is difficult to impose on an angry, militant and radicalised working class. Syriza trade union officials too called for an end to the ATE strike. This did not stop Postbank workers from starting their own strike. Tsipras joined the demonstrators in Thessaloniki. It will be a tug of war between a rebellious rank and file and a leadership set on winning over the
Where should revolutionaries stand on this? Richard Seymour suggests that the characterisation of Syriza as “left reformist” is a reasonable depiction of the rough balance of forces but thinks that it may be glossing over important details. I agree that we need to move from the general to the concrete but when he attempts to do that his sources let him down. He seems to have an idealised version of Syriza in mind.
Synaspismos is by far the dominant component of Syriza and was created on an explicitly reformist strategy that remains to this day. The founding father was Leonidas Kyrkos, the architect of a coalition government with the Greek Tories back in 1989. The Maoist group, the Communist Organisation of Greece (KOE), is not the second largest organisation in the coalition. The people who had the courage to break from Pasok and join Syriza play a far more important role, but it is not fair to say they represent a non-reformist element.
Finally, we have to keep in mind that the proposal for a government of the left was addressed mainly and concretely to Dimar, as the only other pro-European section of the left. Syriza’s position on the EU and the euro means it can work with Dimar but not with the KKE. The thought that Dimar ministers who now serve under Samaras would be part of a government of the left is not very encouraging.
I agree with Richard that the question of governmental power may be difficult for revolutionaries. All the more reason why we should be careful to avoid the mistakes of the past. Chris Harman reminds us what happened in Italy and France back in the 1970s when revolutionaries tried to base their perspective on an electoral left victory leading to socialist or revolutionary change. We need to take that experience on board.5 Richard’s argument that it is a mistake for revolutionaries to highlight the necessity of breaking with the eurozone because this currently lacks popular support is a dangerous one because it assumes that consciousness will remain static in a situation that continues to polarise between the radical left and the extreme right.
The Front of the Anticapitalist Left (Antarsya) with its small forces and the Socialist Workers Party (SEK) among them have been at the forefront of the efforts to bring the movement in Greece back onto the streets, and to build the strikes and occupations. Our role in developing the anti-Nazi movement and defending immigrant communities from racist attacks is widely acknowledged. The urgency of this task became even clearer as the first opinion polls after the summer show Golden Dawn rising to near 10 percent of the vote. This is the result of a desperate government pushing a viciously racist agenda through both propaganda and police attacks. But the same polls show the swing to the left continuing with Syriza overtaking New Democracy and KKE above Dimar. The potential both to resist the austerity onslaught and to counter the fascist threat is there.We are actively seeking to involve every force on the left for joint action in this direction, so that we can make the Samaras government even more short-lived than its immediate predecessors.6
1: Smith, 2012.
2: Financial Times, 2012.
3: Perrigueur, 2012.
4: Stott and Kyriakidou, 2012.
5: Harman, 1979, and 1988, chapter 16.
6: Just to set the record straight, a delegation of Antarsya met with Tsipras three days after the 6 May elections, while Alexis had a mandate to form a government, after Samaras had failed to do so (the Greek constitution empowers the President of the Republic to invite in turn the leaders of the first, second and third parties in that order to form a government). Tsipras was attacked by New Democracy for this meeting, as Antarsya was not a parliamentary party and therefore “he was wasting everybody’s time”. Contrary to what Richard suggests, no electoral pact was on the agenda. The main point of agreement between the two sides was a decision to mobilise people if the pro-memorandum parties attempted to form a government. Eventually such attempts failed and fresh elections were called for 17 June. The report on this meeting in Avgi (the daily of the left that supports Syriza) is here: www.avgi.gr/ArticleActionshow.action?articleID=687642 and the communiqué of Antarsya is here: www.antarsya.gr/node/354.
Financial Times, 2012, “A Berlin-Frankfurt Alliance for the Euro” (30 August), www.ft.com/cms/s/0/5337f500-f295-11e1-86e0-00144feabdc0.html
Harman, Chris, 1979, “The Crisis of the European Revolutionary Left”, International Socialism 4 (spring), www.marxists.org/archive/harman/1979/xx/eurevleft.htm
Harman, Chris, 1988, The Fire Last Time: 1968 and After (Bookmarks).
Perrigueur, Elizabeth, 2012, “Syriza est favorable à une union bancaire en Europe”, La Tribune (29 June), www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/aug/09/greece-braced-protests-spending-cuts
Stott, Michael, and Dina Kyriakidou, 2012, “Greek Rage to Force Bailout Changes”, Reuters (19 June), www.reuters.com/article/2012/06/19/us-greece-election-tsipras-idUSBRE85I13820120619