Democracy versus the bankocracy in Greece

January 6, 2015

Europe's business and political elite are trying to stifle or subvert the radical left party SYRIZA. It needs international solidarity against the bankers, writes Alan Maass.

GREECE WILL hold national elections at the end of January, and voters are likely to elect a left-wing party committed to overthrowing the austerity agenda that has reigned in Europe since the debt crisis hit in 2008.

For more than a year, the Coalition of the Radical Left, or SYRIZA, has been leading in opinion polls looking ahead to the next Greek election. The current coalition government, led by the center-right New Democracy party, lost a crucial vote in parliament at the end of December, triggering a general election now set for January 25.

Greece has suffered a catastrophic economic crisis, in large part because of the austerity conditions demanded by the so-called "Troika"--the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund--in return for bailing out the country's financial system. But Greece has also been a center of the resistance to austerity in Europe, with the more than 30 general strikes since 2010 representing just one face of the explosive social discontent.

Syriza supporters at an election rally
Syriza supporters at an election rally

Since 2012, millions of Greeks have put their hopes in a SYRIZA-led left government coming to power, after the party almost won two elections that spring with its promise to repudiate the austerity "Memorandums" negotiated with the Troika and implemented by both New Democracy and the center-left PASOK, the two main parties of Greek capitalism.

Now, SYRIZA is expected to beat New Democracy in this month's election, as it did in last year's vote for European parliament. The radical left party stands a good chance of winning an outright majority of seats in the new parliament and forming the next government.

But not if Europe's bosses and bankocracy get their way.

Even before the general election was set, the European business and political establishment, echoed by Greek capitalists, began a scaremongering campaign to portray a SYRIZA government as a disaster in the making. "Fresh elections change absolutely nothing about Greece's debt," lectured German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble. "Any new government has to maintain the contractual obligations of its predecessor."

Translation: It doesn't matter if the Greek people elect SYRIZA to overturn austerity--the Troika still wants its neoliberal program of cuts, layoffs and privatization that has plunged the population into poverty and Greece's economy into an economic crisis on par with the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The EU blackmailers are talking tough because they have something to fear. They must either stop SYRIZA from winning or get the party's leaders to renounce their commitment to overturn austerity--or the example of Greece could inspire other left parties and social movements across the continent.

"In this sense," wrote ATTAC Austria activists Lisa Mittendrein and Valentin Schwartz, "the importance of SYRIZA's struggle goes beyond Greece: If they manage to get into power and implement their policies, this will open spaces for left alternatives all over Europe. If they should fail, the left in Europe may lose credibility and hope for a long time."

The stakes are high--which is why SYRIZA and the Greek working class need solidarity from across Europe and around the world in their struggle to stand up to the bankocracy and finally stop the austerity nightmare.

SYRIZA'S EMERGENCE from minor-party status to become, in a few short years, the favorite to win national elections shows the scale of Greece's economic and political crisis.

The economic statistics are shocking by themselves. The country's gross domestic product has shrunk by over 25 percent in a matter of five years. More than one in four working-age Greeks is unemployed, according to official statistics. Real wages have dropped by 30 percent, and industrial output has declined by more than a third.

"The human cost has been immeasurable," wrote economist Costas Lapavitsas in an article for the Guardian. "Homelessness has skyrocketed, primary health care has collapsed, soup kitchens have multiplied and child mortality has increased."

This is a direct consequence of the neoliberal measures demanded by the Troika, which have slashed Greece's social safety net so the government could run a budget surplus--and continue servicing a crippling foreign debt that is nearly twice the size of the country's total economic output for an entire year.

The mainstream political parties that have dominated Greek politics since the end of the military dictatorship four decades ago are more and more discredited, having loyally implemented the Troika's program. Support for PASOK, for example, dropped to a lowly 2.2 percent in one opinion poll in early January--which would mean the political party that ruled Greece for a majority of the last 40 years would fall short of the 3 percent threshold needed for parties to be awarded seats in parliament.

Historically, a crisis on this scale has helped the far right get a hearing for racist hate and anti-left scapegoating. In Greece, the Nazi party Golden Dawn has gained a frightening large following. It holds 16 seats in parliament, and its followers routinely attack immigrants and left-wing activists. The need to confront Golden Dawn is urgent.

For now, though, a greater part of the radicalization in Greek society has gone to the left, with SYRIZA as the main beneficiary among the political parties. Five years ago, SYRIZA barely got enough votes to win seats in parliament. Then in 2012, it twice came in second in national elections, narrowly losing to New Democracy.

Sotiris Martalis, a member of the revolutionary socialist group Internationalist Workers Left (DEA), one of the co-founding organizations of SYRIZA, explained the success of the radical left party:

From 2010 to 2012, the working class in Greece waged many struggles to overthrow the policies of the ruling class--more than 30 general strikes; occupations of government buildings; the "movement of the squares" that took over public plazas; the "Won't Pay" movement against unfair taxes and increased charges for state services, like public transportation.

Despite all that, the resistance movement couldn't achieve any victories in reversing austerity. So it tried to achieve them through the ballot. Working people chose SYRIZA as the way to get a government against austerity, rather than the Communist Party, which used to have twice as large a percentage of the vote than SYRIZA.

This happened for three reasons: First, SYRIZA was active in the movement, in contrast to the Communist Party, which was deeply sectarian. Second, SYRIZA provided a concrete political alternative, with its call for a left-wing government to overturn austerity. Third, SYRIZA also called for unity on the left, including unity with the Communist Party and the smaller left electoral coalition ANTARSYA.

After the first of the two elections in May 2012, SYRIZA came under intense pressure to join a government of "national salvation" alongside New Democracy and PASOK--but it stayed firm in refusing to collaborate with parties that accepted the Memorandums.

DESPITE ALL the misery already inflicted on Greece, the Troika is demanding more of the same.

The latest Memorandum signed by the government in return for the bank bailout expires in February, and in negotiations for extending the financial rescue, leaders of the Troika proposed even more cuts in government spending and increased regressive taxes, with the goal of having the government run a budget surplus of 3 percent this year.

The New Democracy-led government of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras recognized that what support it still had was crumbling. Rather than negotiate more austerity measures with the Troika and then try to run for re-election, Samaras moved up a parliamentary vote on his government's candidate for Greek president, a mainly ceremonial post. When that candidate couldn't get the necessary super-majority of 180 votes out of 300 members of parliament, it automatically triggered a new general election.

Samaras' goal is to create a crisis atmosphere that can scare enough people from voting for SYRIZA to deny the party a majority in parliament. He's being aided and abetted by Europe's political and financial elite. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker joined leaders of the German government, which dominates the EU, in warning that there will be no significant concessions on austerity in Greece.

Meanwhile, between December 8, when Samaras announced the parliamentary test vote that eventually led to new elections, and the end of the year, Greece's stock market lost more than 20 percent of its value--a clear show of the strong-arm tactics SYRIZA can expect to face if it does form the next government.

In addition to outright blackmail, the rulers of Europe and their representatives in Greece want to ratchet up the pressure on SYRIZA leaders, including the party's main spokesperson Alexis Tsipras, to renounce the party's radical program for scrapping austerity.

Tsipras and other SYRIZA leaders promise that a left government will reverse the policies carried out by New Democracy and PASOK, but they present themselves as a moderate alternative, and they insist that they won't take unilateral action on Greece's foreign debt.

Since SYRIZA held its first congress in 2013, there has been a substantial and growing left within the party, organized in the Left Platform, which opposes political concessions made in the name of "realism" and insists on the democratic control of the party by its members at the grassroots.

The weeks to come before the January 25 election will be a critical test--not only of the different sections of SYRIZA, but of the Greek left as a whole.

LAST SEPTEMBER, in a speech at the Thessaloniki International Trade Fair--an annual event where the prime minister and head of the main opposition party are invited to speak about their perspectives for the coming year--Tsipras presented a "reconstruction plan" that he said would be the first tasks of a SYRIZA-led government.

The first "pillar" of the plan would address the human crisis in Greece caused by the wrecked economy. SYRIZA proposes spending 2 billion euros to provide free electricity and food subsidies for 300,000 poor households and to re-establish a housing guarantee through rental subsidies covering 30,000 apartments, among other measures.

Other proposals in the initial program for a left government include restoration of the minimum wage to its pre-Memorandum level; reinstatement of cuts in benefits from the government-run retirement system; re-establishment of bargaining rights for unions; and cancellation of the most regressive taxes imposed on workers and the poor.

The Thessaloniki statement is more vague about how SYRIZA would deal with Greece's huge foreign debt, but Tsipras and other party leaders have stated publicly that negotiations with the EU should lead to at least half of the debt burden being written off.

Though Tsipras presents SYRIZA's proposals as economic common sense and even advantageous for the European economy as a whole, the priorities he put forward at Thessaloniki would be a dramatic departure from the program of relentless austerity that has plunged Greece into a depression and is now threatening to drag Europe into a second slump.

What the self-identified moderates of SYRIZA stand for is far from the tame compromise it has been portrayed as by some on the left--like, for example, the Greek Communist Party, which claims SYRIZA is no different than New Democracy and PASOK in seeking to uphold "the exploitative and rotten corrupt system of monopoly power."

The left within SYRIZA sees Tsipras' Thessaloniki statement as a good, if incomplete, starting point for a left government. But it wants SYRIZA to head into the election campaign stating outright that these proposals are not up for negotiation with the Troika. In an editorial published on its website after the new elections were called, the Red Network--an alliance of three revolutionary organizations, including DEA, that participates in the Left Platform--stated:

The key is to repeat, in a loud and continuous voice, our commitment that the measures proposed in the [Thessiloniki statement] will not be subject to negotiations with foreign lenders over the issue of the debt, nor will they be "reviewed" or "revised" on the basis of the logic of fiscal responsibility, after the practices of the Memorandum governments.

Maintaining this stand in the face of the scaremongering of the EU blackmailers will require a different attitude from Tsipras and other party leaders, the Red Network's editorial states. For example, it says, SYRIZA needs to be unwavering in insisting that most of Greece's foreign debt must be written off, and not subject to bargaining about repayment periods and interest rates.

What's more, the Red Network declares, Tsipras and the others must stop saying that a left government won't take unilateral action about the debt or other questions. If and when the Troika refuses to accept SYRIZA's proposals, in part or in whole, the new government must be prepared to take stronger counter-measures, like taking control of Greek banks--and not just "by adding representatives of the state to the board, but real control by taking them over as state property."

EVEN THE first steps put forward by Tsipras will not be achieved by members of parliament alone. They will necessarily require a mobilization of the working class in defense of a left-wing government in conflict with the Greek capitalists and the Troika. One sign of the potential for this was the rise in social struggles in Greece at the end of last year as the political crisis approached--including the first general strike called by the major union federations in seven months.

If SYRIZA and Greek workers are left to fight alone against the EU blackmailers, their road to overturning austerity will be overwhelmingly difficult. That's why leftists in Europe are organizing solidarity for the Greek struggle--with the goal of putting pressure on the rulers of their own countries who are threatening Greece.

As the Committee for the Abolition of Third World Debt (CADTM) said in a January 1 statement:

It is because the stakes are so high that we can expect the 'leaders' of Europe and of Greece to refuse to accept the result of the poll that, for the first time in Greek history, should bring victory to the Greek left. They will certainly try to stifle the left-wing government that should be the democratic result of the election, because its eventual success will be interpreted as tremendous encouragement to the workers and peoples of Europe to resist.

The CADTM, which has always stood alongside the Greek people in their struggle against austerity and the grave infringements on their social and democratic rights, again calls on European and worldwide social movements and radical parties to unflinchingly support the resistance and struggle of the Greek people. The illegitimate, illegal and odious debt that the Greek people have been burdened with is not their debt...

To support the Greek people and the Greek left in their struggle to liberate the country from the grip of creditors and from the dictatorship of the markets is now the duty, not only of grassroots activists, but of every European citizen that rejects a Europe of austerity that produces misery, racism and barbarism.

Translation assistance from Antonis Martalis

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