SYRIZA's struggle continues

Lee Sustar reports on elections in Greece--and the extraordinary challenge against austerity policies mounted by the Coalition of the Radical Left.

SYRIZA supporters gather in the streets to mark the results of a second parliamentary election (Mehran Khalili)SYRIZA supporters gather in the streets to mark the results of a second parliamentary election (Mehran Khalili)

AN ALL-out fear campaign by Greek and European capitalists helped conservatives eke out an election victory over the surging Coalition of the Radical Left, known as SYRIZA by its initials in Greek.

Bankers and establishment politicians across Europe celebrated the fact that SYRIZA's principled anti-austerity program wouldn't become Greek government policy. As the Financial Times noted: "In spite of SYRIZA's strong performance, European governments were sure to be relieved that a party dedicated to overturning the terms of Greece's international financial rescue appeared to have fallen short of victory."

The European ruling class feared that a SYRIZA-led government coalition, while pledging to keep the euro as Greece's currency, would be forced to leave the common currency shared by 17 countries if it refused to abide by the so-called "Memorandum"--the agreement that obliged Greece to make sweeping cutbacks in government spending, wage cuts and higher taxes in exchange for a bailout by the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund.

It was growing anger over these austerity policies that propelled SYRIZA from the margins of Greek politics to a second-place finish in the inconclusive May 6 elections. Then, the party got 16.78 percent of the vote. This time, despite an all-out effort by the mainstream media and politicians to undermine SYRIZA, the party scored 26.89 percent, only a few percentage points behind the leaders, the conservative New Democracy party.

Moreover, SYRIZA obtained twice as many votes as the center-left PASOK party, one of the two main parties in Greek politics for four decades, which has been discredited by its central role in implementing austerity policies since 2009--first as the governing party, then as the senior partner in a coalition government of "technocrats."

By tapping into the popular fury against austerity that has led to 17 general strikes and countless protests, SYRIZA upended Greek politics. Now, with an expected 72 members in the Greek parliament, it is well placed to build further resistance.

"This was a great result, even though we weren't able to defeat New Democracy," said Antonis Davanellos, a member of the socialist group Internationalist Workers Left, a cofounder of the SYRIZA coalition in 2004. "It was better than we could have hoped for before these elections began. We are out of the discussion of creating a government, but we are in a position to help lead the serious fight against the memorandum and austerity."

The radical left could have emerged as the dominant electoral player if the Greek Communist Party (KKE, according to its initials in Greek) had blocked with SYRIZA in an electoral alliance. But the KKE is an old-school Stalinist party with a sectarian refusal to collaborate with other left-wing groups.

The political polarization in Greece hasn't only benefited the left. The Nazi Golden Dawn party scored nearly 6.92 percent of the vote, enough to gain 18 seats in parliament. Golden Dawn, an openly pro-Hitler party, made a name for itself by physically attacking immigrants and blaming them for Greece's crisis. Its rise is ominous--and underscores the importance of both confronting the right and building a left-wing alternative to attract those who are deserting the main parties.

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WORRISOME AS the rise of Golden Dawn may be, the left clearly has the momentum in Greece right now. The pressure from SYRIZA forced New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras to make promises that he almost certainly can't keep.

To reassure Germany--the dominant power in the eurozone and its debt collector--Samaras told international audiences that if he were elected, Greece would make good on more austerity measures that are required as a condition of getting bailout loans. But in his election speeches, Samaras suggested that he'd be able to renegotiate the Memorandum to gain relief for Greek workers.

Samaras said that he wants "to add to our commitments the necessary policies for growth and to combat unemployment," and wants to seek a longer time in which to make the fiscal adjustment--that is, budget cuts and tax increases--demanded by creditors.

But while the next round of cuts may come more slowly, they will come--and with devastating effect, if Samaras has his way.

To understand why Greece's political turmoil will continue, look at the numbers: 48 percent of Greeks live at or below the poverty level, following a 30 percent drop in wages. Unemployment stands at around 22 percent--and is far higher among youth. The expected coalition government of New Democracy and PASOK will pursue policies that will only worsen those numbers--and spark new protests and resistance.

The challenge now for SYRIZA is to transform its electoral appeal into a political vehicle that the mass movement can embrace and make its own. SYRIZA's leader Alexis Tsipras pledged to keep up the fight: "Overthrowing the bailout is the only viable solution. From Monday [after the election], we will resume the struggle against it."

There will be no shortage of opportunities for struggle. Even if the dominant European Union (EU) powers give Greece some breathing room in the short run, they intend to keep squeezing, as the Financial Times reported:

Publicly, EU leaders have studiously avoided comment on their plans. Just by acknowledging that they may be willing to rework the bailout, they feared that they would validate Mr. Tsipras' argument, and boost his standing.

Yet behind the scenes, they have been busy debating a package of concessions to dangle before a new Greek government. The catch is that the government would have to recommit to the main outlines of the bailout.

Some of the benefits on offer could include lower interest rates and extended maturities on the loans, but not changes or extensions to the fiscal targets, according to senior officials in Brussels and Berlin.

If negotiations bog down, the EU may squeeze Greece. Member states withheld 1 billion euros [$1.2 billion] from a loan disbursement last month, pending the outcome of the elections. Without such funds, Greece will not be able to pay salaries and pensions--let alone bond redemptions.

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A SYRIZA government would have challenged this "bailout," which, after all, is aimed only at funneling money through Greece's accounts and back out to the European banks that hold Greek government bonds. That's why European capital went all-out to prop up Samaras and New Democracy.

But if the mood of European financiers and politicians was brightened by New Democracy's win in Greece, the eurozone remains mired in crisis. Government finances in Spain are unraveling after the $125 billion bailout of Spanish banks only added more debt to the government's books and raised the specter of more Greek-style austerity in that country.

That's why SYRIZA's election result looms so large. By showing that it's possible to mount a political appeal against austerity, SYRIZA can emerge as a reference point for Europe's left, labor unions and social movements, which face their own struggles in the weeks and months ahead.

And the struggle in Greece will continue. Capital has made it clear that the austerity agenda will continue unless and until working people are organized enough to stop it. SYRIZA's rise highlights the potential to do just that.