A new day for Greece and Europe

January 26, 2015

Alan Maass reports on the Greek left's election triumph--and what comes next.

THE VICTORY of Greece's Coalition of the Radical Left, or SYRIZA, in parliamentary elections is a long-awaited breakthrough against the ruling class agenda of austerity and repression that has inflicted suffering across Europe and plunged Greece into an economic and social crisis unseen since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

SYRIZA won 36.3 percent of the vote, far ahead of the center-right New Democracy party, which led the former government, in second place with 27.8 percent.

But even with a bonus of 50 seats awarded to the winning party under the Greek election system, SYRIZA fell just short of an outright majority in the 300-seat parliament. The left-wing party is still expected to lead the next government under Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. But there are days of uncertainty ahead before the left can charge and begin to honor its promise to dismantle austerity.

The election was a decisive repudiation of the program of spending cuts, privatization, tax increases and worse imposed on Greece by the rulers of Europe--in the form of the so-called Troika of the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund--in return for a rescue of the Greek financial system after the debt crisis struck in 2009. Since then, the Greek economy has shrunk by 25 percent--an economic collapse virtually unknown to societies not gripped by war or some other catastrophe.

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

SYRIZA, which emerged from the margins of electoral politics less than three years ago with its promise to repudiate austerity, was smeared non-stop during the campaign by the political and media elite. Yet it increased its percentage of the vote by almost 40 percent and very nearly won a single-party majority in parliament--a rare feat in European politics today.

Meanwhile, the two main parties that ruled Greece since the fall of the military dictators in the early 1970s--and, more to the point, that negotiated and implemented the so-called Memorandums of austerity measures demanded by the Troika--are in a shambles.

Outgoing Prime Minister Antonis Samaras' New Democracy missed no opportunity for its right-wing scaremongering and scapegoating after new elections were called at the end of December, but it still lost ground. As for the center-left PASOK, the party presided over Greece for most of the last half-century, it came in a dismal seventh place, making it the last party to cross the 3 percent threshold to get representatives in parliament.

In another sign of the left-wing character of the results, the Greek Communist Party (KKE) was the only one other than SYRIZA among the top seven to improve its vote total since the last national election--despite the fact that the KKE refused point-blank to cooperate with SYRIZA and its radical left challenge.

But the frightening flip side of the advances for the left was the third-place finish for the Nazis of Golden Dawn. Despite the arrest of party leaders--along with collaborators within the police and intelligence services--and an anti-racist backlash when a Golden Dawn thug murdered popular hip-hop artist Pavlos Fyssas, the fascists basically maintained their share of the vote, along with 17 seats in parliament.

SYRIZA'S METEORIC rise began in spring 2012 with its second-place finishes in two parliamentary elections, a few percentage points behind New Democracy.

The two and a half years since continued the grinding reality of austerity imposed on the orders of Europe's bankers. Even now, with a slight economic rebound after years of decline, official unemployment remains over 25 percent. Among youth, there are basically twice as many without jobs as with--which is one major reason for the decline of the country's population as people seek a better livelihood abroad.

Average household income has fallen even faster than overall economic output--it is down by about one-third since the crisis struck--and about a third of the population has lost health care access. In a country recognized as part of industrialized Europe, many people have resorted to heating their homes with woodstoves.

The basic sentiment driving the celebrations of SYRIZA's victory is simply hope that a left-wing government will turn the country in a new direction.

"These past five years have been so tough, so depressing," 38-year-old Irni Moka told a Guardian reporter as she celebrated outside SYRIZA headquarters in Athens on Sunday night. "So brutal, actually. Now we can hope."

"The first things it will do are really basic," Moka continued. "The minimum wage, the lowest pensions--things that matter. The big stuff can come later, and must be for the good of all."

The crisis is so deep that even unlikely voters were drawn to SYRIZA's message against austerity and the corruption of mainstream politics. Maria, a 78-year-old, self-identified "lifelong conservative," told the Guardian she voted for SYRIZA because she had "no confidence left in anyone, any party, who has governed us up until now...Things are in a very bad way here. But at least SYRIZA seem to care."

Along with these shows of support for SYRIZA came the critical signs of a potential re-emergence of the mass struggles that rocked Greece in reaction to austerity.

Since 2009, Greece has seen more than 30 general strikes and many more sectional and local labor struggles, the "movement of the squares" that took over public spaces across the country, and civil disobedience campaigns of refusing to pay increased fees and fares. But the pace of struggle declined noticeably in recent years when the New Democracy-led government succeeded in driving through more attacks.

Many people have put their hopes in SYRIZA to stop austerity, but the radical left's victory could in turn reignite ongoing battles--like the fight by fired workers at ERT, the state radio and television station shut down by the Samaras government in the spring of 2013.

British socialist Kevin Ovenden, writing from Athens, reported that riot police were deployed to the ERT headquarters on election night to prevent a re-occupation of the station's main facilities. But they were met by a pro-worker protest that included Zoe Konstantopoulou, a leader of SYRIZA thought be a top candidate for justice minister in the next government, who expressed her "solidarity with the fired workers. They should be reinstated."

SUCH CONFRONTATIONS underline the fact that the new government is on a collision course with the rulers of Greece--and beyond them, all of Europe.

The not-at-all-veiled threats from EU leaders--particularly in Germany, the continent's most powerful government--continued on election day in Greece. "I hope the new government won't call into question what is expected and what has already been achieved," warned Jens Weidmann, president of Germany's Bundesbank. Meanwhile, the value of the euro dropped further during the day--a telling sign of the financial mayhem that could be directed at a SYRIZA government by the bankers and financial elite.

SYRIZA leaders like Alexis Tsipras have tried to present the party as "responsible" and committed to negotiating with the EU on the critical issue of Greece's huge foreign debt, now calculated at 168 percent of annual gross domestic product. But they say the negotiations need to end with a large part of the debt being written off.

The left wing within SYRIZA, organized around the Left Platform, argues that preparations must begin now for how to respond, if and when the Troika says "no"--and tries to blackmail and intimidate a new government into accepting the basic framework of the Memorandums. Central to those preparations is a mobilization of working-class and social struggles.

Even the initial program that Tsipras put forward to deal with the humanitarian crisis in Greece is certain to be greeted with hostility. SYRIZA promises to provide free electricity to the poorest households, restore the pre-Memorandum minimum wage, re-establish universal health care, and rescind the rollback of collective contracts and union representation in workplaces, among many other measures.

These possibilities of what a left government can accomplish will hang over the first days after the election. Despite the clear mandate of the vote, SYRIZA fell just short of winning an outright majority in parliament. It now has the next days to show how it will form a government that can win a confidence vote in the new parliament.

SYRIZA ought to be able to rely on the KKE, with its 15 parliamentary representatives, to support a left-wing government. But the Stalinist KKE has rejected any cooperation with SYRIZA, which it absurdly claims is committed to defending the "rule of the monopolies, just like PASOK and even New Democracy.

On election night, there were many rumors and more speculation swirling about what deals SYRIZA leaders might strike with other parties to gain enough support to form a government. Whether any prove to be true will become clear in the next few days.

In the meanwhile, whatever confusion is in store this week and whatever conflicts take shape after that, the January 25 election will be a turning point in European politics after the economic crisis and the years of austerity. SYRIZA won an incontestable victory in the country that has suffered the brunt of the attacks, and it has set an example for the people across Europe--most obviously, in Spain, where the newly formed radical party Podemos could make a strong showing in elections later this year.

In the meanwhile, SYRIZA needs the support of workers and social movements across Europe and beyond if it is going to survive in a confrontation with the bankers and bosses who want to re-establish order and their authority.

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