A new opening for the left in Greece

December 18, 2014

Greece is back in the international spotlight as the potential of new elections and a victory for the radical left comes into view. Alan Maass looks at what's at stake.

Update: On December 29, the conservative government failed on a third try to get its presidential candidate elected by the required 180-vote supermajority of parliament, triggering early elections that are likely to come at the end of January.

GREECE'S COALITION government, led by pro-austerity parties, is facing a political crisis brought on by a parliamentary vote to choose the country's president, which could lead to a general election in the first months of 2015. SYRIZA, the radical left-wing party committed to overturning austerity, is poised to win that general election and form a new government.

All eyes are turning back to Greece with the possibility that a left government elected next year would finally represent the mass of working people, in Greece and beyond, who reject the impoverishment and suffering inflicted by the demands of the so-called "Troika"--the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund.

In a first round of voting in parliament on December 17, Stavros Dimas, the current government's candidate for president, got only 160 votes, well short of the necessary super-majority of 200 out of a total of 300 members of parliament.

There will be two more rounds, with the last coming on December 29, when the threshold for Dimas to win the presidency drops to 180 votes. But today's result shows it will be an uphill battle for the center-right New Democracy party and its center-left junior partner PASOK to round up enough support.

Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras
Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras

The presidency is a ceremonial position in Greece, but if the current government can't get someone elected to the office, that would trigger new elections for parliament, probably by February 2015. SYRIZA (which stands for the Coalition of the Radical Left) is the main opposition party in parliament. It won the most votes in the May elections for European Parliament, and for months, it has led opinion polls anticipating the next general election.

So the pressure is on the New Democracy-led government of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras to get a president voted in, and put off elections that the ruling parties would almost certainly lose.

But the spotlight is also on SYRIZA. It came from minor-party status to nearly win two successive general elections in May and June of 2012. SYRIZA's massive popularity stems from its uncompromising opposition to austerity policies encapsulated in the so-called "Memorandums," negotiated with the Troika and implemented by both PASOK and New Democracy, as the main representatives of the Greek capitalist class.

But there is intense pressure on SYRIZA, from within Greece itself and from the European political and financial elite, to drop its radical positions and embrace political and economic "realism." The relentless drumbeat in the media is that a SYRIZA victory would lead to a Europe-wide financial crisis and Greece's complete economic collapse--unless party leaders capitulate to the demands of the Troika.

An ongoing struggle within SYRIZA over its program and practice pits a growing left wing against more moderate forces. Thus, Greece's left, and not just inside SYRIZA, will be put to the test, too, in the coming weeks and months.

SAMARAS' DECISION to move up the parliamentary vote on a new president by two months is a gamble bound up with new negotiations with the Troika.

The austerity conditions demanded by Europe's bankers and political leaders have contributed to and further accelerated an economic crisis on a scale comparable to the 1930s Great Depression. Greece's gross domestic product declined by nearly 30 percent between 2008 and 2013.

Working people have borne the brunt of the catastrophe. Official unemployment is over 25 percent, and more than 44 percent of the population was living below the poverty line in 2013. Yet the Troika has not relented for a moment in driving through a program of cutbacks in state spending, privatization, mass layoffs of workers at government agencies and enterprises, and increases in regressive taxes.

According to Antonis Davanellos, a member of Internationalist Workers Left (DEA), a revolutionary socialist group that cofounded SYRIZA 10 years ago and now participates in the party as a leader of its left wing:

The leaders of the coalition government, Samaras and [PASOK leader Evangelos] Venizelos, know that their popular support has shrunk to a minority of the population. They hoped that the Troika would do them a favor by postponing the imposition of harsh new austerity measures, which are the precondition for continuing to provide loans to the Greek state, and by relaxing their demands on the size of the public debt.

But the worsening economic situation in the European Union has put extra pressure on the Troika. Plus, the EU leaders realize that any delay would make it more likely that they will be negotiating eventually with a new SYRIZA government. That led the Troika to push Samaras to make a choice: Either push through the new austerity measures now, or prove to us that you can continue to govern the country.

Holding the presidential vote early is designed to create a crisis atmosphere. For starters, Samaras and the government hope the threat of new elections and a SYRIZA-led left government will win over some members of parliament from other center parties. There is speculation that Samaras could replace the current candidate, Dimas, with a more moderate figurehead in the hopes of luring the necessary votes to reach 180.

But the crisis atmosphere is also aimed at turning up the pressure on SYRIZA. Greece's rulers are demanding that the party's main spokesperson Alexis Tsipras side with those who would soften SYRIZA's commitment to renounce the austerity Memorandums.

Thus, says Davanellos, the left within SYRIZA must keep up the pressure for an election campaign based on popular mobilizations:

We will raise the need to go into the elections with people in the streets protesting, not with an electoral campaign that seeks to appease the middle classes and win over the middle ground. We are calling for mass political discussions organized by local branches of SYRIA, for rallies and demonstrations and so on.

SYRIZA must act as a political party and not an electoral machine. We insist that the elected Central Committee and the local branches of SYRIZA must make all the decisions. We want party members to take part in making and implementing decisions, and not simply be on alert to go out and vote.

IF ELECTIONS are held early next year and SYRIZA gets the most votes, that isn't the end of the matter.

The party would need support from a majority of the 300 members of parliament to form a government. Opinion polls give SYRIZA between 32 and 36 percent of the national vote--under Greece's proportional representation system, this would translate into roughly the same share of seats in parliament. The party with the most votes in the general election gets a bonus of 50 seats, but even if that gives SYRIZA an outright majority, the question arises of which other parties would support a left government.

In forming a government that renounces austerity, SYRIZA ought to be able to count on support from the anti-capitalist ANTARSYA electoral alliance--and more importantly, the Communist Party (KKE), which currently holds 12 seats in parliament. But both have withheld support for a SYRIZA-led government, not to mention a common electoral front.

On the other hand, some forces within SYRIZA lean toward alliances with parties to SYRIZA's right, including the Democratic Left--a group that left SYRIZA and initially was part of the post-2012 coalition government with New Democracy and PASOK. Among these voices in SYRIZA, there is support for the idea that any member of parliament who votes against Dimas for president this month should be considered a potential ally of a left government, and even a possible candidate of SYRIZA.

The left within SYRIZA rejects any such compromises, says Davanellos. It has won support inside the party for continued attempts to engage with the KKE and ANTARSYA as participants in a left government, despite their sectarian attitude thus far.

The left also insists that SYRIZA must not compromise on its commitment to renounce the Troika's austerity measures and begin undoing them from the first day of taking power.

Last September, in a speech in Thessaloniki, Tsipras presented a series of measures that he said would be the first tasks of a SYRIZA-led government. They include raising the minimum wage, reinstating reduced benefits from the government-run retirement system, reestablishing collective contracts and bargaining rights for unions, and cancelling the most regressive taxes imposed on workers and the poor.

These are a good starting point, say Greek socialists--but they don't go far enough. What's more, there is a belief among some in SYRIZA that a left government would be able to win support from sections of Greek capital that will benefit from Keynesian policies of increased government spending.

But the rulers of Greece and Europe are making it clear with their anti-SYRIZA propaganda campaign, even before an election date is set, that there will be no relief for a left-wing government that seeks to challenge the rule of austerity.

Thus, the left within SYRIZA argues that even to implement the first steps outlined by Tsipras, a left-wing government must be prepared to carry out stronger measures, including nationalizing the banks, increasing taxes on the rich and corporations, and halting the repayment of loans engineered by the Troika.

Such measures will not be achieved by members elected to parliament alone. They will necessarily require a mobilization of the working class in defense of a left-wing government that confronts the Greek capitalists and the Troika.

It's possible--though less likely by the day--that the current government will wrangle enough votes to get its presidential candidate elected. But even if it does, national elections will come sooner or later. The stage is set for major confrontations and a new phase of the struggle in Greece.

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