A political earthquake in Greece

May 9, 2012

The results of last weekend's elections in Greece sent a message that has been heard around the world: Working people want an end to the austerity agenda that has plunged Greece's economy into a depression and slashed living standards everywhere.

The highlight of the vote was the result for the Coalition of the Radical Left--known as SYRIZA, by its initials in Greek--an alliance of left-wing parties and organizations, both reformist and revolutionary. SYRIZA finished second on May 6, ahead of the center-left PASOK party that controlled the government until late last year, and close behind the main conservative party New Democracy (ND). ND was unable to form a coalition that could command a majority in Greece's parliament, and so SYRIZA has been given a chance to do so. But SYRIZA spokesperson Alexis Tsipras insists that the next government in Greece must reject the austerity measures that have caused so much harm.

This election is the first time the people of Greece have had a chance to vote on the policies instituted in the wake of Greece's debt crisis. The savage cuts in public spending, wage cuts for public-sector workers, privatization drive and other austerity measures are conditions for an ongoing financial bailout engineered by the European Union (EU), European Central Bank (ECB) and International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Austerity has caused a devastating crisis in Greece. But the so-called "troika" and its backers on Wall Street and in powerful governments like the U.S. want even more cuts, and the economic and political elites of Europe and the U.S. are warning of dire consequences after Greece's election results.

The Greek socialist group Internationalist Workers Left (DEA, by its initials in Greek) helped to found SYRIZA in 2004. In this editorial from the group's newspaper, DEA celebrates the victory for the left on May 6--and looks at what comes next.

IN THE elections of May 6, the message of resistance and struggle put forward by SYRIZA was vindicated.

The result is, first of all, a subversion of the political status quo. The Greek people voted massively against the right-wing New Democracy (ND) and the social-democratic PASOK.

These two parties were the guardians of the so-called "Memorandum," the anti-worker loan deal between the Greek government and the IMF, EU and ECB. They were also the major partners in the technocratic government of the Prime Minister Lucas Papademos, a former ECB official who took over during the upheaval against PASOK's drastic austerity measures. The third member of the coalition government, the far-right Popular Orthodox Rally, was also crushed, ending up with 2.9 percent of the vote, beneath the threshold to qualify for representatives in the next parliament.

The ND leader Antonis Samaras said his party's goal was to win a governing majority on its own. In the end, it lost 1.1 million votes from its result in 2009. It won only 18.9 percent of the overall vote, compared to 33.5 percent two-and-a-half years ago--and that 2009 total was a record low and considered a crushing defeat.

Crowds of SYRIZA supporters gathered in Syntagma Square in Athens to celebrate the election result
Crowds of SYRIZA supporters gathered in Syntagma Square in Athens to celebrate the election result (Adolfo Indignado Cuartero)

The leader of PASOK, Evangelos Venizelos, hoped that his party would at least remain in first place among the parties. In the end, it lost 2.2 million votes from its 2009 result, shrinking to 13.2 percent of the total, from 43.9 percent in the last election. PASOK ended up in third place, behind SYRIZA.

The main means that people used to express their massive shift to the left was voting for SYRIZA. The Coalition of the Radical Left increased its showing from 4.6 percent and 315,000 votes in 2009 to 16.8 percent and 1.1 million votes in 2012.

SYRIZA was rewarded for its radical left-wing politics--a loud and clear "NO" to the Memorandum and the loan deals, its constant attacks against the bankers, its demand to tax the rich. It was rewarded for its unity, as it targeted the real enemies and avoided the civil war inside the left. It was mostly rewarded because it didn't hesitate to challenge the blackmail of Samaras and Venizelos that any vote which wasn't for austerity would destroy the Greek economy. SYRIZA talked about the need to get rid of the current government right now, and it steadily proposed the solution of a government of the left.

The Communist Party remained at about the same level of influence--it won 517,249 votes in 2009 and 536,072 votes in 2012. The increase was negligible, despite a period full of great struggles and a massive shift to the left.

So there was also a message in the May 6 results for the leadership of the Communist Party. These leaders chose to direct their criticism mainly against SYRIZA. Above all, they chose to proclaim to the people that any effort they make to change their lives today, rather than in some sort of "people's power" regime of the distant future, is a dangerous illusion.

The electoral gains of ANTARSYA, a smaller coalition of far-left organizations, were also very limited. From 24,687 votes (0.36 percent) in 2009, it reached 75,439 (1.19 percent) in 2012. In a period full of struggles and radicalization, this far-left coalition failed to achieve a major advance in its influence and its political role in Greece. It failed to do what the neo-Nazis, the "radical" wing of the right, did achieve.

This is the darkest side of the elections--the big increase for Golden Dawn, which is not just a far-right party, but hard-core neo-Nazis. The disciples of Hitler managed to win 438,910 votes, for 6.97 percent of the total. This gang of thugs--which poses as an anti-Memorandum force, even though it was, is and always will be a loyal hound-dog of the ruling class--has the potential and the financial means to become a real political party.

The far right has become an even more serious threat to immigrants, the left and the labor movement. Confronting them becomes one of the basic tasks for the resistance movement and the left. The effort to drive back the Nazis must be a conscious, organized and constant struggle.

OVERALL, THE election result was a body blow to the system. It caused an unprecedented paralysis for the political representatives of the ruling class, who were left with neither legitimacy, nor any options for winning support for their austerity policies. This happened at a time when the intensifying global crisis demands that they act faster and more decisively against workers.

The result also raised the potential for an escalation of resistance from below. It has opened up the possibilities for a more radical shake-up of the status quo, since the slogan for a "government of the left" has the support of a crucial part of the population.

This is a fact that can't be ignored. SYRIZA came first in the working-class vote, both public and private sector, among the unemployed, and among voters aged 18 to 34 and 35 to 54. It was also the leading party in the working-class neighborhoods of Athens and Pireaus.

This result is also a message to Europe--one that isn't isolated, as was proven in the presidential elections in France.

The leaderships of EU countries responded with a contradictory message of their own.

On the one hand, they hope to control the situation after the elections--to scare people with the threat of "chaos" if the Greek state doesn't respect the commitments signed by Samaras and Venizelos.

On the other hand, they are maneuvering in the hopes of opening up negotiations. They claim they would be willing to discuss adjustments to the terms of the Memorandum--for example, extending austerity measures from a two-year basis to a three-year basis, in order to make them less drastic. They say they would be willing to negotiate a new policy that combines austerity with some promise of stimulus measures.

In reality, Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel and Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble are terrified, because they realize that Greece may now actually become the "weak link" of the European chain of austerity. The left must remain focused on this prospect.

The results of May 6 didn't come out of nowhere. This political upset has its roots in the waves of struggles of the last several years--the massive general strikes, the militant demonstrations, the occupations of the squares. It has its roots in the accumulated political experiences of the people, from the youth revolt of December 2008 to the militant explosion of class anger in the streets of Athens in February 2012.

But the part that SYRIZA played to crystallize this dynamic and give it a political expression shouldn't be ignored.

THE ESTABLISHMENT is already trying to subvert this dynamic with threats about no party being able to form a government--and by pushing for a "national salvation" coalition government that includes all parties. SYRIZA is right in refusing such a scenario. It is resisting all the pressure and blackmail, and it should keep on resisting until the end.

Only through a government of the left can the Memorandum can be overthrown in a manner that is in the interests of workers. Such a government would cancel the Memorandum and the loan deals as the first step toward a program with completely different priorities. The central concerns of such a program must be wages, pensions, public education, public health and support for the unemployed. To find the financial means for such policies, this government would stop paying off the loan sharks, whether Greek or international; it would nationalize the banking system; and it would impose heavy taxation on corporate profits and the rich.

The two mainstream parties will inevitably go into a deep crisis. In ND, there are already voices demanding that Samaras resign. In PASOK, even Theodoros Pangalos--a leading member of the party, notorious for his attacks against rivals in defense of the party's policies--has publicly questioned if it is worth it for PASOK to continue to exist.

The left has the potential to shake up this rotten political system at its roots. The leadership of the Communist Party, as long as it insists on remaining on the sidelines, will be providing Samaras and Venizelos a political lifejacket. Still, even if this attitude doesn't change, SYRIZA has no reason to be afraid of a new election.

Toward this end, we will once again repeat our call for a united front of the left, both in the various struggles across Greece and in the electoral field. We make this call to all left-wing forces, and especially to the comrades of ANTARSYA.

DEA has actively participated in the struggles that SYRIZA has fought to reach this point, and today, we are proud of that choice. We thank all the people who honored our candidates with their vote for SYRIZA, and we commit ourselves once again to doing anything we can to keep SYRIZA moving in a radical left-wing direction, which is the aim of the vast majority of its members and allies.

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