The struggle for the soul of SYRIZA

After a rebellion in parliament against Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras' surrender to European Union authorities, leftists in the ruling SYRIZA party are demanding a new course--even as Tsipras purges the left from his cabinet.

The Europeans turned the screws to pressure Greece to make ever-deeper concessions in exchange for bailout funds to help the government repay $270 billion in debt and stabilize an economy that has shrunk 25 percent since the first bailout in 2010. The radical left party SYRIZA was elected in January on the basis of its promise to reverse such austerity measures--encapsulated in the so-called Memorandums negotiated by previous governments in return for bailouts. That mandate was renewed on July 5 when Greek voters defied the blackmail tactics of the European powers and their allies in Greece and overwhelmingly voted "no" on the latest offer of harsh austerity.

But Tsipras, despite having called for a "no" vote, reopened negotiations with the Europeans with a proposal that accepted almost everything they had proposed. The agreement he came away with a week later after an EU meeting in Brussels was even worse--it imposes drastic cuts in pensions, lowers the retirement age, increases the value-added sales tax, requires the further privatization of state enterprises and repeals progressive measures passed by the government since it took office.

As Tsipras pressured parliament to approve the new Memorandum--by last Wednesday to meet another ultimatum from the European authorities--leftists on SYRIZA's Central Committee organized a majority of the body to sign a statement opposing the deal and demanding a Central Committee meeting. Regional bodies of SYRIZA passed resolutions in opposition to Tsipras' agreement on the basis that it abandoned not only the party's program adopted at its founding conference, but the more modest promises made by Tsipras during the January campaign. The vote in parliament came in the early morning hours on Thursday--nearly 40 SYRIZA members of parliament opposed Tsipras' surrender.

After Tsipras' "cabinet reshuffle" announced on Friday, the two main forces of SYRIZA's Left Platform--the Red Network, led by the socialist organization Internationalist Workers Left (DEA), and supporters of the Left Current of the former Synaspismos, one of the founding organizations of SYRIZA--held meetings to discuss their next moves. With Tsipras anxious to assert control, but weakened by the rebellion of leading SYRIZA members in parliament and the Central Committee, a struggle now looms.

Sotiris Martalis is a leading member of DEA, supporter of the Left Platform and member of the SYRIZA Central Committee. He talked to Lee Sustar about how SYRIZA's left wing is fighting back against the government's capitulation.

Supporters of SYRIZA rally in Athens ahead of national elections (Business Insider)Supporters of SYRIZA rally in Athens ahead of national elections (Business Insider)

WHAT IS the situation inside SYRIZA after the vote in parliament?

THERE WERE two big developments during the week. One was the 109 signatures of Central Committee members on a statement opposing the agreement and calling for a meeting of that body. And the second was the vote of 39 SYRIZA members of parliament (MPs) registering their opposition--32 voted "no," six voted "present" and one was recorded as absent.

That number of votes makes the left of SYRIZA the third-largest force inside the parliament. So this is huge. It's a big problem inside SYRIZA and has opened a major discussion.

Tsipras has now carried out a reshuffle of the government to get rid of those who opposed him in parliament. He asked for the resignation of the speaker of the parliament, Zoe Konstantopoulou. He also expelled the ministers who belong to the Left Current who voted "no" or "present" on the proposal. This includes Energy Minister Panagiotis Lafazanis, who was replaced by former Labor Minister Giorgos Stathakis; Deputy Labor Minister Dimitris Stratoulis, replaced by Pavlos Haikalis, an actor and member of SYRIZA's right-wing coalition partners ANEL, giving that party another post in the cabinet; and Deputy Defense Minister Costas Isychos, replaced by Dimitris Vitsas, a SYRIZA member loyal to Tsipras.

Tsipras also named one MP from the Left Current who voted "yes" as a minister: Yannis Amanatidis, who was promoted to deputy minister for foreign affairs. Tsipras also changed the main spokesperson of the government, Gavriil Sakelaridis, who was replaced by Olga Gerovasili.

HOW WOULD you describe the mood among the rank and file of SYRIZA?

THE MOOD in the party is for "no" to the agreement. We have 60 percent of the regional coordinating committees that have taken a stand for the "no"--in Thessaloniki and in the south of Athens, to name a couple.

I can't be sure about the mood of the population. They have a lot of questions. They believe that Tsipras fought hard against the Europeans. They believe that the European officials blackmailed him, and that he did the best he could do. But we will see what happens when all the new austerity measures begin to hit.

It was good that during the parliamentary vote, we had a strike call by the public sector union confederation. It was a decision taken just two days earlier, so we didn't have time to prepare the strike. But still, we had two calls for demonstrations--one in the morning on the day of the vote, and another open public meeting while the parliament debated the agreement. The confederation said that it would continue to strike and fight against austerity and to defend our lives. There were thousands of people there. It was a good first step.

HOW DID the left in SYRIZA respond when the agreement with the Europeans was announced?

THE RED Network within the Left Current took the initiative to make our criticism widely known and to call for a "no" vote on the Central Committee. We got 109 members of the Central Committee--a majority of the 201 total--against the agreement.

This was, in reality, based on the left opposition that was built in the last few meetings of the Central Committee. It was the Left Platform, along with forces from the left part of the majority, and the KOE.

There was no possibility of disciplinary measures being taken, because the party hasn't made a decision through its own bodies.

For the MPs, however, there was pressure to support the government. But despite this pressure, we had 39 MPs who didn't vote to support the austerity measures.

THE VOTE in parliament came a week and a half after 61.3 percent of Greek voters said "no" in a July 5 referendum on the previous austerity proposal from Europe. What role did the referendum vote play in building the left opposition in SYRIZA?

TSIPRAS' DECISION to call the referendum came from two main sources of pressure.

One was from the Europeans. They didn't want to see a government of the left succeed and offer an alternative solution for Europe. They wanted to set an example for Podemos in Spain and Sinn Fein in Ireland. So they pushed back very hard against the government, asking for measures that were worse than they had previously and demanding that Tsipras agree.

On the other hand, there was pressure on Tsipras by the very clear position of the Left Platform that its supporters wouldn't vote for such measures. It was a hard choice for the government. So Tsipras made the decision for the referendum.

The "no" vote was the voice of the rank and file--the people from below: senior citizens, young people, workers and so on. It built the confidence that we can resist--that we can build an alternative. All this prepared the way, I believe, for what we see now--the 109 Central Committee members who opposed to the agreement, and the 39 MPs of SYRIZA who showed their opposition.

WHAT'S NEXT in the fight inside SYRIZA?

NOW COME the difficult steps. We have called a nationwide assembly of Red Network and its sympathizers to make decisions about the next steps and how we can react under the policies of austerity.

The Left Platform is likely to call a public meeting. One of the first things it will discuss is our alternative solution. The big question that Tsipras publicly put to parliament is: If you don't agree with the deal, what is your alternative? He says that that without the agreement with creditors, there can only be bankruptcy and panic.

The Left Platform has made proposals for the nationalization of the banks and capital controls, and much more. This will be an answer to Tsipras' questions.

Beyond this, there are real questions. In local branches of SYRIZA, the issue is what can be done and how to do it. The people of Greece are watching these discussions and they awaiting the result of this struggle and fight inside SYRIZA.

MEANWHILE, the mainstream parties are trying to exploit divisions within SYRIZA.

THIS WAS done openly in the debate in parliament over the austerity measures. Vangelis Meimarakis, the new leader of the conservative party New Democracy, challenged Tsipras. He said that Tsipras can't believe he will get votes from the opposition on all the hard things, and yet have people in his own party who vote against them, but still have a governing coalition with only SYRIZA and ANEL to apply those measures. Meimarakis was asking very clearly for a national unity government that includes New Democracy.

Also, Evangelos Venizelos, the former leader of the center-left PASOK, called on Tsipras to have his ministers sign the legislation authorizing the austerity measures. He did so knowing that Lafazanis and others wouldn't put their signatures to such a document.

After the parliamentary vote ended, at 4 a.m., the main spokesperson for SYRIZA gave a statement to the press that said three things: The first was that the government succeeded in passing the agreement, and the difficult task now would be to apply it. The second point was that there would have to be a big upheaval in SYRIZA to settle scores with MPs who didn't vote yes. The third point was that this would be finished by sometime in October--something that journalists took as a suggestion that new parliamentary elections would come around that time.

We will see what happens in the next days. This new Memorandum--which follows agreements in 2010 and 2012--means a big increase in prices for a lot of goods. It will bring an increase in taxes. And there are a lot of very difficult measures, like the increase in the number years of work before people can retire and get a pension. Then there is the further privatization of government assets and services.

For SYRIZA, all this means cutting the branch that you're sitting on. If you cut the branch you're sitting on, you fall down.

It is difficult to predict what happens now for SYRIZA. Some leading members are talking not only about having a meeting of the Central Committee, but also a party congress.

IT'S ALSO possible that the mainstream media, which is hailing Tsipras today as a great statesman for pushing through the agreement, will try to knock him down tomorrow.

ONE WEEK before the referendum, Tsipras was denounced in the mass media as an adventurer who was willing to risk the country and its finances. Now he is seen as a realistic man. The problem now, the media says, is SYRIZA's left opposition--they want to leave the euro for the drachma, and they say crazy things.

But you're right--next week, the media may try to take down Tsirpas once again. It depends on what their target is.

IN THE wake of the parliamentary vote, some on the left, including the Greek Communist Party (KKE) and sections of ANTARSYA, the anti-capitalist coalition, are claiming they are vindicated in having remained outside of SYRIZA. Tsipras' surrender, they say, shows that SYRIZA is reformist and bound to sell out.

THIS IS nonsense.

Of course, Tsipras went down under the pressure of the big European countries and the European officials. But at the same time, we have the majority of the Central Committee and a big part of the MPs who are resisting this. The hope of the people is that they will see what will happen in SYRIZA and find a solution there.

You can say that the reformists will always betray us, and everything will end badly." You can stay outside and stay pure. But look at the KKE. They constantly battled with SYRIZA and refused to support the "no" vote in the referendum. Yet the voting statistics show that three-quarters of KKE supporters voted against line of the party to spoil their ballots and instead supported SYRIZA's call to vote "no."

As a result of the referendum, the confidence of the working class is much higher, and the illusions in the European Union and the eurozone are much weaker. This will give the left more strength in the struggles to come, inside SYRIZA and outside of it. And that confidence is the result of what happened inside SYRIZA, along with sections of the left outside of it, including parts of ANTARSYA.

If you want to speak in terms of the revolutionary socialist tradition, the united front approach provides the correct one. You make a united front with reformists and parts of the working class that may have illusions in the possibility of reform, and then you fight to win over people. You don't simply stand aside and say, "They are reformists and will betray you."

We don't know how things will go in the next days and weeks, but we will do our best to fight for the left.