Confronting the concessions to austerity

The Greek government's agreement with the Eurogroup for a four-month extension of the bailout of the financial system and accompanying austerity measures ignited a passionate debate among members and supporters of the Coalition of the Radical Left, or SYRIZA.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis say they did the best they could in negotiations with Eurogroup finance ministers, who unanimously rejected all appeals for a relaxation of the austerity agenda imposed on Greece. Now, they claim, with a bank run averted, that the government has four months to prepare to be in a stronger position for the next battles with European political and financial leaders.

But a strong left current within SYRIZA and outside it is critical of the agreement as a wholesale retreat from SYRIZA's conference declarations and promises made before the election--like the program of initial measures to be taken by the new government that was announced by Tsipras last September at the Thessaloniki International Trade Fair. Dissent among SYRIZA members of parliament at an 11-hour-long meeting apparently convinced Tsipras not to put the Eurogroup agreement to a vote. At a Central Committee meeting of SYRIZA over the weekend, an amendment rejecting the deal that was put forward by supporters of the party's Left Platform was defeated, but by a narrow margin of committee members, having won support even among currents within SYRIZA that support Tsipras.

Sotiris Martalis is a member of the Greek socialist group Internationalist Workers Left, one of the co-founding organizations of SYRIZA a decade ago and a part of the Left Platform today. He is a member of the SYRIZA Central Committee. In this interview conducted last week, he answered questions about the political situation in Greece after the Eurogroup deal and the struggles that lie ahead to continue the fight against austerity.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras (right) and Finance Minister Yanis VaroufakisPrime Minister Alexis Tsipras (right) and Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis

CAN YOU describe the expectations for the SYRIZA government coming out of the January 25 election?

THE HOPES that people placed in the new government were and are great. But we should realize that their expectations were more limited. The phrase we hear again and again in workplaces is: "I will be happy if SYRIZA can carry out 30 percent of what they promised." Greek workers have lived through the conditions of the last several years, and they know difficulties and obstacles that a new government faces.

Certainly, support for the new government grew with the initial statements of different ministers--that privatizations like the sale of the power company would be halted, that the minimum wage would be increased, that collective labor agreements would be restored--as well as important symbolic actions like removing the metal fences around the parliament building and pulling back the buses full of riot police that were stationed permanently outside each ministry building.

During the negotiations with the Europeans, there were two different days of demonstrations in support of the government in all the major cities, with hundreds of thousands of people participating all over Greece. At that point, opinion polls showed that 83 percent of people judged the early performance of the new government positively or mostly positively.

But as the agreement began to take shape--and then after SYRIZA put forward a member of the center-right New Democracy and former minister to be president, and parliament voted him into office--there were a lot of questions among people on the left. Meanwhile, the bourgeois political parties and the mass media celebrated SYRIZA's maturity and realism.

After the agreement with the Europeans was revealed, there were two reactions. On the one hand, there was relief that Greece didn't suffer a financial meltdown because of a bank run, which would have required measures to restrict bank withdrawals. But on the other hand, there was disappointment at the easy retreat of the government.

Workers are aware that the agreement is a clear retreat by the government from what it promised to do, and they are waiting to see what other promises will be broken--and what will happen during the next four months of the extension of the Memorandum.

WHY DID the Eurogroup have such a hard attitude in negotiations? Why was it not willing to consider relaxing austerity?

THE EUROGROUP took a very hard attitude in negotiations and refused categorically to relax the austerity measures imposed on Greece. There are two reasons for this, I think.

The first one is that the Eurogroup was representing the political consensus of the ruling class in Europe. Austerity has, until now, enabled them to pass the burden of the crisis onto those at the bottom of society.

The second reason is that the example of a Greece defying austerity could be followed by other countries. At the end of November, Spain will hold elections, and the radical party Podemos is currently ahead in the polls. The rise of Sinn Fein in Ireland is another example of an anti-austerity party gaining support. By strangling Greece and leading it back to the "the corral" of austerity, they wanted to undermine the hopes for relief from austerity that SYRIZA's victory produced across Europe.

In this sense, we can say that Wolfgang Schäuble's camp won the first battle of this war. The negotiations with the lenders have unfortunately already put limits on SYRIZA's program and the possibilities for implementing it.

During the election campaign, the leadership of SYRIZA promised that the program of initial measures announced at the Thessaloniki International Trade Fair--restoring the minimum wage to 751 euros a month, exempting the first 12,000 euros a year from income taxes, re-establishing collective labor agreements, etc.--would be implemented immediately by the new government, independent of any negotiations with the creditors. Now the elements of the Thessaloniki program that most impact the working class will be postponed for at least a year.

GIVEN THE tough negotiating stance of the Eurogroup, was there an alternative to the proposal to basically accept an extension of the bailout and the Memorandum for four months?

THE GOVERNMENT portrayed the agreement with the Europeans as a matter of necessity, caused by the position it was left in by the previous government and the imminent expiration date on the bailout of February 28. They claim that they won time--four months to prepare for further negotiations where they can make more gains.

But the truth is that they didn't prepare for any other option. Since before the election, the SYRIZA leadership has shifted from the party's former slogan "No sacrifice for the euro" to "We will fight to stay in the euro." They spread illusions that the Europeans would retreat before the proposals of a democratically elected government with a recent popular mandate.

They signaled their willingness to compromise from the beginning, with the formation of the government. The alliance with the Independent Greeks [a right-wing party known by the acronym] was a unilateral decision of the party leadership, without any input from its elected bodies. The same is true about the appointment of people with a social-democratic, and not a radical, outlook to positions of authority in the new government, particularly in the area of the economy and the banks. Plus, there is the nomination of a right-winger as president of the republic.

These decisions gave a very clear signal of what the government was willing to do--of the compromises it was prepared to make. Needless to say, the leaders of SYRIZA didn't prepare the party nor society at large for the likelihood of rejection by the Eurogroup, nor the possibility of a break with the euro.

CAN YOU describe the reaction to the retreat on the left and among the working class movement generally?

I ALREADY described the first reactions in society and among the working class. On the left, the majority of people regard the agreement as a retreat. A portion among the majority tendency in SYRIZA that supports Tsipras justifies the agreement as a necessity, while others reject it.

Outside SYRIZA, the anti-capitalist ANTARSYA called a protest in Syntagma Square against the agreement--it's reported that 500 people attended. The Communist Party has also called a demonstration that will take place after this interview is completed.

The more substantial opposition is within SYRIZA itself. There was a meeting of the SYRIZA parliamentary group [on February 26] that lasted 11 hours, with 140 of the 149 members of parliament speaking. Many objections were expressed, and in the end, more than 30 members of parliament voted against or abstained among the 120 who were still in attendance by the end of the meeting.

The agreement will be the subject of a special meeting of the Central Committee of the party to be held [on February 28-March 1, after the interview was conducted]. The Left Platform has expressed its opposition to the agreement--this represents the views of between 30 and 35 percent of the party, and also of a left wing among the majority tendency in SYRIZA.

Apart from these meetings of the leading bodies of SYRIZA, there are discussions planned in dozens of chapters and organizations among the party's base.

WHAT ARE the possibilities for organizing a left challenge to the concessions made by Tsipras and Varoufakis? Is it something that will take place within SYRIZA, or will it need to be a wider mobilization?

AT THIS point, there are still no planned protests by the unions or the social movements. The forces of the Left Platform within the unions are adding their voices to the call for the government not to give in and to keep its promises. A few days ago, the main labor confederation for workers in the public sector decided to hold general assembles in all the unions in the confederation, and to organize a rally. But these moves are proceeding slowly. To be honest, workers are still waiting to see what the government will do next.

There are more debates that will take place in leading bodies of SYRIZA like the Central Committee, and among the base of the party. But we should bear in mind that this isn't a 100-yard dash, but a long-distance race.

The government is also moving in the other direction by announcing the first laws it plans to bring for a vote in parliament. It will start on Monday with a law to deal with the humanitarian crisis. The legislation will provide free electricity and food subsidies to the poorest 300,000 households, and it will create a housing program to help 30,000 people who are currently homeless.

Another law would bar imprisonment for debts up to 50,000 euros and stretch out repayment terms for those behind on their taxes. There are planned proposals to tax and otherwise restrict the financial activities of those who transferred large sums of money abroad--based on exposes such as the "Lagarde list," a spreadsheet with the names of several thousand people with undeclared accounts at the HSBC bank in Geneva. [The list was provided to the Greek government in 2010, but never acted on by the pro-Memorandum parties that controlled the government before.]

Another would restart ERT, the public radio and television station that the former government led by New Democracy closed down, laying off all employees.

Apart from these proposed laws, the government announced it was setting up a parliamentary committee to investigate how Greece entered into the Memorandums with the Troika, and whether those responsible are guilty of criminal wrongdoing.

I would like to point out that the compromise with the lenders is obviously a dramatic concession, but it is one episode on a path that will have many others. The contradictions of the compromise with the lenders are enormous. Mobilizing the mass of people, with their demands, grievances and hopes for an alternative that were accumulated during the years of Memorandum barbarism, is the factor that can change all of this in a positive direction.

Besides this, the role of SYRIZA itself should not be underestimated. The party is a nationwide network of union militants and political activists who in previous years fought within the working class and popular resistance. Now, in the new conditions, these members can lead the way and open up the paths of resistance to others, by putting forward radical left politics and insisting on the objective of overthrowing austerity.

Translated by Antonis Martalis