Greece: Narrow Escape for the Euro – Yohannan Chemarapally



DESPITE a few opinion polls suggesting a victory for the Left in the elections held on June 16, it was the Right which finally squeaked through. The right wing New Democracy (ND) narrowly beat SYRIZA, the main party of the Left. SYRIZA had promised to tear up the international “bailout” agreement which the Greek government had signed in 2010. Such a move, according to many experts, could have dealt a deathblow to the Euro and the concept of European unity. The ND got around 29 per cent of the vote as compared to SYRIZA’s 27 per cent. But under Greek electoral law, the party that comes first in the elections is given a bonus of 50 extra seats in the 300-member parliament. This archaic legislation may facilitate the pro-European Union parties in forming a coalition government that will continue with the stringent austerity programme imposed on the Greek populace.

FEAR OF SOCIAL

MASSIVE UPHEAVAL

However, the other major party in Greek politics, Pasok, which came third with around 12 per cent of the vote, had initially proposed a national unity government of the four parties, including SYRIZA and the New Left Party which are both opposed to the terms of the EU bailout. SYRIZA was quick to reject the proposal. At the same time, both ND and Pasok have been asking for a relaxation of the stringent conditions imposed by the European Union for the 130 billion dollars bailout they provided. They want the deadline to be pushed to 2016 from 2014 for Greece to meet its fiscal target. The two establishment parties realise that the extreme austerity measures imposed on the Greek public could lead to a massive social upheaval. Greece had witnessed a civil war pitting the communists against the right wing groups after 1945. The country had also gone through a brutal right wing military dictatorship. The openly racist “New Dawn” party has again won eight per cent of the votes in the latest round of elections.

The voting trends showed a clear divide — the majority of young Greeks voted overwhelmingly for the Left while the older populace opted for the old establishment parties. The majority of the youth in the country are now unemployed. Unemployment is officially at 22 per cent. The SYRIZA leader, Alexix Tsipras, 37, had promised to cancel the bailout agreement, roll back privatisation, restore the minimum wage and nationalise the banking sector. Though Greece is a small country, such radical moves by a member country would have sent shock waves throughout the European Union. The electorate in other countries, like Spain and Portugal, reeling under the EU’s shock therapy, could have been enthused to follow the Greek example. Before the Greeks went to the polls, there were warnings from Germany that a victory for SYRIZA would mean the exit of Greece from the EU. The Greek elite very much want to hold on to the Euro. “Europe is not bluffing on the exit….. We must not allow any country to blackmail us with the consequences of contagion,” the German Bundesbank president, Jens Weidmann, told the Greek newspaper Kathimerini just before the elections.

RISE OF

THE LEFT

Syriza’s leader, Tsipras, while conceding defeat in the June 16 elections, reiterated his party’s determination to fight against the bailout. “Very soon, the Left will be in power,” Tsipras told supporters in Athens. “We begin the fight again tomorrow.” SYRIZA comprises of a coalition between Synaspismos, a group which had splintered from the mainstream Communist Party of Greece (KKE) on the issue of Euro-communism in the late sixties, and radical Maoist and Trotskyite groups. Many unaffiliated individuals are also part of SYRIZA. The party was founded only eight years ago. The massive student protests against the New Democracy led government in 2006 and 2007 brought the party into the public limelight. The students were protesting against the government’s move to repeal article 16 of the Greek constitution which guaranteed that education would be mainly in the state sector. In the 2007 elections, SYRIZA, standing on a radical Left platform, won more than five per cent of the vote. After that, many other small Left wing parties joined SYRIZA.

“The rise of a party from four per cent to 30 per cent in such a short time happens in Europe once a century. The 48 per cent of Greeks who live on or below the poverty level see the welfare state as working and find themselves powerless to stop the annihilation of citizen’s rights and social cohesion by austerity,” observed Xristoforos Vernadakis, a Greek psephologist.

SYRIZA played a prominent role in the 2008 youth revolt which shook the Greek capital, Athens. The trouble started after a 15 years old student was killed by the police. Weeks of rioting followed. Only SYRIZA stood with the students while other parties, including the Communist Party, denounced the violence. The ire of the political establishment was directed at SYRIZA. The party was characterised as “irresponsible.” But the SYRIZA leadership, despite some internal misgivings, struck to its guns and came out with the slogan — “Not a single step back.” This is now the slogan being chanted in political rallies in Greece as the people confront austerity imposed from outside. After the signing of the May 2010 “Memorandum” between the Pasok led Greek government of George Papandreou and the troika of the EU, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, SYRIZA took to the streets to oppose the introduction of harsh austerity measures. In all there have been 16 general strikes in the country since then. SYRIZA played an important role in these struggles.

On the campaign trail, the SYRIZA leader held firm on his pledge to reject the “memorandum” while staying in the Euro. The solution to the Greek crisis, he said, was to mobilise international public opinion against the austerity policies sweeping Europe and other parts of the world. “The problem is not restricted to Greece, but to Europe,” he said, “therefore, the solution must be European as well. This is our message.” In the final rally before the July 16 election, Tsipras told a huge crowd in Athens that “Greece was a European and international experiment, and the Greek people were guinea pigs. Over the last two years we have suffered a social catastrophe,” he said.

The SYRIZA’s political orientation is being compared to the Die Linke (the Left party) in Germany. Like in the German party, non- communist Left parties are represented in SYRIZA. The party wants to continue in the Eurozone but not under the harsh conditions that have been imposed on Greece by the EU and international banks. It is evident that there are both revolutionary and reformist forces within SYRIZA.

RADICALISED

POLITICS

Opinion polls taken before the June 16 elections showed that 50 per cent of Greeks wanted to say good bye to the Eurozone if it meant the continuation of the draconian economic measures imposed on them. The election results revealed that 50 per cent of the electorate had voted for parties opposed to the bailout package. Within SYRIZA, the Maoist and Trotskyite groups, who constitute around 15 per cent of the membership, besides wanting an end to all austerity measures, are also demanding the revision of key EU treaties like Maastricht. Another party also influenced by Euro-communism, the Democratic Left (DIMAR), had broken away from SYRIZA, on the issue of continued membership of the EU. The Democratic Left did receive a significant percentage of the vote in the May elections on its “pro-Europe, anti-austerity” platform.  The Democratic Left now seems set to join a coalition government along with the DP and Pasok.

The results of the two elections show that the most radicalised sections of society, especially the working class, are now behind SYRIZA. The party was in the forefront of strike actions and mass protests after the Greek political establishment reached its controversial “bailout” with the EU. The Communist Party (KKE) views SYRIZA as a non-revolutionary party and has warned that once in power, it will compromise with the capitalist class. The KKE has so far refused to have any accommodation with SYRIZA. The party’s general secretary, Aleka Papariga, in a speech delivered at the party’s final lection rally said that the major parties, including SYRIZA “are committed to the EU.” She said that the EU has created SYRIZA because of the failure of the ND and Pasok to fulfil its goals. These two parties, which alternated in power since the end of the military dictatorship in the seventies, have been universally blamed for bringing the Greek economy to such a pass. “Tsipras no longer rejects the Memorandum,” Papariga said.

A smaller Left wing Party, ANTARSYA, had also refused to join SYRIZA in a coalition after the last elections in May. The party said at the time that SYRIZA is proposing reformist solutions to the crisis of capitalism in Greece rather than coming up with a revolutionary alternative. In his recent speeches Tsipras repeatedly stressed that under his leadership Greece would not voluntarily leave the EU. “We will replace the ineffective memorandum with a national reconstruction plan, a plan for a just way out of the crisis for the country. And we guarantee Greece’s membership of the Euro zone,” he said in one of his last speeches before the June 16 polls. SYRIZA’s critics on the Left say that it cannot be against the EU’s bailout programme and at the same time insist that Greece will remain in the Euro zone.

Meanwhile, as their economy slowly implodes, ordinary Greeks are trying to improvise. “The Potato Movement” is an illustration, It all started when local Greek farmers in Thessalonika protested against the sale of imported potatoes at high prices when the local produce was not finding a market. The farmers organised a sale of their produce at a much lower price. The movement spread to other parts of Greece, resulting in the steep fall of the price of potatoes and thus making it affordable for the hard pressed common man.

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