SYRIZA faces a decisive test

A moment of truth is approaching quickly for Greece, for the new government elected on a promise to reverse austerity, and for the radical left party SYRIZA that won those elections less than four months ago. The Greek government could soon run out of funds to pay both wages and pensions, and the required repayments on international debts.

European financial and political leaders have been demanding that the government capitulate to further austerity measures before the bailout of the Greek financial system is extended under the terms agreed to by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in February. As a result, the government has had to scrape together all available funds in the public sector to meet its obligations. Each week brings new speculation and rumors about Tsipras and other officials agreeing to further concessions demanded by the bankers, followed by other reports that the government has vowed not to retreat on measures, such as deeper wage and pension cuts, that it has called "red lines" it will not cross.

Within SYRIZA, the debate over the government's strategy in negotiations with the lenders has been intense, with a strong left wing that is highly critical of the government's concessions. Antonis Davanellos is one of the leading voices of SYRIZA's left wing. He is a member of the Internationalist Workers Left (DEA), which cofounded SYRIZA as a coalition of left-wing organizations in 2004, and he is a member of the party's Central Committee and Political Secretariat. Davanellos talked to Lee Sustar about the debate over Greece's future and the hardening battle lines in the discussion of what comes next.

Demonstrating against austerity in front of Greece's parliament (Ben Folley)

HOW WOULD you describe the dynamic in the negotiations between the SYRIZA-led government and the European elite, and what is the discussion like within SYRIZA about the retreats that the government has made?

THERE ARE discussions and meetings every day about the negotiations between the government and the lenders, and the difficult position we find ourselves in.

The lenders are demanding that the government to go far beyond the "red lines" that the government said would not be crossed. The question of privatizations is now on the terms dictated by the lenders, who want them to continue as quickly as possible. Plus they are making demands for taxes that will be a heavy burden on the population--especially a cruel increase in the VAT, which will affect goods that are consumed by the mass of the population.

These kinds of demands are unacceptable to SYRIZA as a party. And so there is a discussion going on inside the party, including within the Central Committee and other leading bodies of SYRIZA, where we are trying to state again, and bluntly: We must not take any more steps backwards, we must not allow ourselves to be blackmailed.

One of the next crucial meetings will take place this coming weekend, after the summit of Eurogroup leaders on May 21-22 in Riga, Latvia. At that meeting, we are to decide whether or not we will accept the agreement being negotiated by the government. Many possibilities remain, and I don't think that anyone really knows what the result will be.

SOME OF the media speculation was that the government decided to pay the debt this month to the IMF and avoid sanctions from an international institution with the U.S. behind it--and then wait to default, if necessary, to the European Central Bank. Is this one of the calculations being discussed?

THERE IS a discussion about how to take advantage of the disagreements between the creditors, where they exist. But it's not exactly the case that the IMF is more friendly to the government. In reality, the IMF has made the harshest demands for neoliberal counter-reforms in Greece.

The IMF does have a difference with the Europeans on the question of whether the Greek debt is viable--the IMF says no and is proposing to change its plan for how it will be paid. But at the same time, the IMF is proposing very harsh neoliberal measures--for example, its plan for the public pension system in Greece would destroy that system.

So you can't really say that the policy of the IMF is more friendly toward Greece--and in fact, every strategy based on the idea that the IMF has differences with the European Central Bank and with Wolfgang Schäuble has proven to be an illusion.

WHAT IS the likelihood that the Greek government, having paid the IMF, will be unable to pay salaries and pensions in the short term?

THAT IS a difficult thing to discuss, because it is part of the method of the lenders' strangulation tactic against Greece to keep things focused just on what happens next.

The IMF was paid on May 11 by scraping together the last funds known to be available in the Greek public sector, and so the first question is whether the government will be able to pay pensions and wages at the end of the month. The government says that it will be able to pay pensions and wages, and I think they will.

But that means nothing, because once you get past this immediate moment, the question returns again next month. So this isn't a new dilemma. In the end, we have choose between paying money toward the debt or concentrating all our efforts on changing the internal situation for Greek society. That means taking concrete measures to change the lives of workers and the poor for the better.

This is what is being debated right now, and I think that the moment of truth is arriving.

CAN YOU give us an outline of the different positions within the party?

AS YOU can imagine, this is not so objective--it's my own point of view.

There is a right tendency within the party that says we must stay in power by any means necessary, and that means we will have to sign the agreement from the lenders, whatever that agreement contains.

There is a large center--let's say, a majority--around Tsipras that is saying we should fight for an agreement that is connected to the SYRIZA program, but not the whole thing, and that means not crossing the "red lines" that the government has said are non-negotiable--for example, no more cuts in wages and pensions imposed as a condition of the bailout. I think this majority is in a quandary now because the creditors aren't accepting these "red lines," and the government will have to announce by the end of the week what they have decided to do about it.

Then there is the left wing of the party that is saying the negotiations with the creditors has proven to be a huge trap, and we must get out before it's too late. That means not only defending the "red lines" that the government has insisted on but also supporting other measures that SYRIZA promised during the election campaign. When this debate comes to the Central Committee, the question will be what influence the left has and how much support it wins from a part of the center.

There is an open discussion in the Greek media asking Tsipras to confront the left within SYRIZA. There have some awful articles in the media demanding that Panagiotis Lafazanis, the best-known leader of the Left Platform, be expelled, along with DEA and others.

This shows that the Greek ruling class and its media understand the reality inside SYRIZA--that there is a strong left opposition. But it also needs to be said that for the moment, nobody has been expelled from SYRIZA, and there aren't even steps being taken in that direction.

HOW HAS the pressure of expectations among Greek society made itself felt within SYRIZA? Can you give some examples of how the government is under pressure?

THE LEVEL of strikes and mobilizations continues to be lower today. After the election, we didn't experience an explosion of demands and struggles--on the contrary, what began was a period of waiting and passivity because people wanted to see what SYRIZA would be able to accomplish, especially in the negotiations with the lenders.

It's absolutely necessary to break through this passivity because the precondition of government resistance to the lenders is a working class and popular mobilization. But we haven't had any real examples of this happening in the period following the election.

Nevertheless, the pressures from society are being felt clearly inside the party and inside the government. I will give you an example--in the public health care system, there are huge problems and huge needs. It's absolutely clear that the hospitals need new doctors and nurses, and so this is one of the demands that the government had to promise it would meet.

The pressure on the government until now has mainly come from within the party, based on local chapters and organizations discussing this demand and pushing the government in that direction. But at the same time, the discussion has been going on in the hospitals and the health care system as a whole.

Now, for the first time, workers in the hospitals have decided to go on strike on May 20 to demand more personnel and more money for the public health care system. Organizations of SYRIZA will take part in this strike. This will send a new message to the government that it isn't possible to ask people to wait for so long when there are basic needs that have to be met.

IF GREECE is forced into default and possibly out of the euro, what kind of steps will need to be taken in that situation?

THERE ARE some concrete political decisions that would have to be taken that depend on a different orientation to carrying out popular measures to improve the lives of working people.

For our part, we don't start from the question of which currency, but with the government adopting a new attitude in which it places the highest priority on carrying out measures that improve the lives of workers and meet their demands. That requires a new policy to confront Greek capital and the Greek ruling class, and also a new policy to break with the creditors. It will be absolutely necessary to be ready to control the banks and to stop capital from fleeing the country. Then, in the end, there is the question of the currency to be confronted, which will depend on the circumstances.

IS THE discussion about staying in or leaving the euro taking place in society at large?

YES, IT is in many forms--out in the open and also in subterranean ways. The question is present in the opinion polls, of course. The media always point to polls that show a huge majority in favor of staying inside the euro. But it depends on how the question is asked.

If the question is whether people prefer to stay inside or outside the euro, the answer is yes. But if the question is connected to austerity, then the answers change. If the question is put clearly about whether people prefer staying inside the euro and losing their pensions as a result, there is a majority who favors keeping pensions.

So, yes, this is a big public question. I think the right is attempting to organize an alliance--they call it the Front of the European Orientation--that includes New Democracy, PASOK and Potami, knowing that at the end of the day, they will have to confront SYRIZA.

CAN YOU talk more about what the debate and discussion is like inside SYRIZA?

THERE IS a discussion inside the party, which has a democratic culture, so it's an open and honest debate. I think that the left has had some good outcomes in this internal discussion, but at the same time, the discussion is becoming public in many ways.

Most obviously, the media are following the discussion inside SYRIZA and presenting it to the wider society. I doubt that there is any other European country where you will find, in the front pages of big bourgeois newspapers, articles about what an organization like DEA--a Trotskyist organization and part of the revolutionary left--is planning to do in the debates within SYRIZA. This happens every week.

I'm not saying this to talk about our importance. I'm saying this to talk about the importance of the discussion inside SYRIZA.

But there are also serious and important ways in which this discussion within SYRIZA is also going on in the wider society. After all, this party is a network of social and political organizations. So what is discussed inside SYRIZA ultimately arrives in discussions inside hospitals, inside neighborhoods, in local organizations, unions and movements.

So that is the situation. We, of course, don't know the outcome of that discussion and debate--we will see.

HOW ARE developments in Europe and beyond affecting Greece?

THIS IS a very important question. I think some comrades outside Greece don't understand how important is for us to see serious efforts outside Greece to be in solidarity with Greek workers and the Greek people.

At the beginning, after the elections in January, there was enthusiasm here, not only because we had the new government, but because there was optimism about Spain. The slogan "SYRIZA, Podemos, Venceremos!" reflected a real feeling. Now, though, after some weeks, there is a greater understanding that the questions in Spain aren't so easy, and that other countries in Europe with very important working class traditions, like Italy or France, have not seen much struggle. This puts limits here on the discussion of what is possible, and it dampens the hopes of people.

This is a major argument used by the right with SYRIZA. They're saying that we are alone in Europe, and what can we do alone--so we must turn to policies of national unity and so on. So the question of solidarity is obviously a very important one for Greece.