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SYRIZA 2.0 as an Austerity Party

By Panagiotis Sotiris

One might say that historical time has been condensed in Greece. In less than a year we have seen changes in the political landscape that in other countries would have taken a decade.

On January 25, 2015, SYRIZA won the Greek elections. This electoral victory was the political translation of the social and political crisis in Greece, and of a sequence of struggles without precedent. SYRIZA’s program sounded less radical than the one presented at the 2012 election, when the party, formed in 2004 as a coalition of the radical left, became a major force in Greek politics.

But it still focused on getting rid of austerity while remaining within the Eurozone and putting an end to the policies of the infamous Memoranda (the lists of austerity measures and neoliberal reforms included in the Memoranda of Understanding that accompanied the loan agreements with the European Union (EU), the European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

These loan agreements were imposed by the EU, the IMF and the ECB in response to a deterioration of the Greek sovereign debt situation in 2009 when the Debt-to-GDP ratio reached 120 percent. This was the combined result of: increased spending on overpriced and practically useless public works (such as the one associated with the Athens 2004 Olympic Games); military procurements; increased tax breaks for Greek capitalists (in particular the shipping industry); generalized tax evasion; and the crisis of the Greek “developmental paradigm” which was based on tourism, construction, services and EU funding.
Also, the erosion of competitiveness — and subsequent partial de-industrialization — induced by Greece’s participation in the EU and the Eurozone led to constant trade and current accounts imbalances.

These policies have led Greek society to a social devastation without precedent. Since 2008, when the economic crisis began followed by the Memoranda’s implentation, the cumulative recession of the Greek economy has exceeded 25 percent: the official unemployment rate is over 25 percent, youth unemployment exceeds 50 percent, and average wages are down by 30 percent. As well, there has been a brain drain of some 200,000 young degree holders and a deterioration in health indices and increasing suicide rates.

The SYRIZA government insisted from the beginning on a process of dialogue and negotiation with Greece’s creditors in order to reach an honest compromise. The Greek side had both rational and moral grounds in its arguments that focused on the prolonged social devastation caused by a vicious circle of austerity, recession and unemployment, and on the fact that Greek public debt was unsustainable. Consequently, they asked for assistance without austerity measures and for a significant reduction of the Greek debt.

However, this negotiation was not a rational discussion. In fact, one might say that Greek representatives arrived with arguments, and the representatives of the “Troika” (EU-IMF-ECB) arrived with guns. From the beginning, the SYRIZA government came under extreme pressure from the EU. The main mechanism used to blackmail the Greek government was the dependency of the Greek banking system not only upon EU loans to finance recapitalization processes but also its dependence on ECB liquidity.

The countries that are members of the Eurozone have ceded monetary sovereignty and depend upon such forms of assistance in order to avoid a collapse of their banking systems and their economy. The effectiveness of this mechanism had already been tested in the Cyprus crisis of 2013.

Debt and Austerity: SYRIZA’s Back-tracking

To understand the Greek crisis we must take into account the particularities of the single currency mechanism. Greece has no control over monetary policy, cannot increase public spending by printing money, cannot use inflation as a means of decreasing the debt burden, and has no access to policy tools associated with monetary sovereignty. At the same time, the euro, as a single currency in an area marked by divergences in productivity and inflation, has led to a permanently increasing competitiveness gap with countries such as Germany.

Consequently, the euro is also part of the mechanism of the debt crisis: this competitiveness gap leads to trade and current accounts imbalances, which, in turn lead to increased indebtedness. Moreover, the euro is not just a single currency; it is linked to the entire institutional architecture of the EU treaties and regulations, beginning with the Maastricht Treaty. These include mechanisms for the constant imposition of neoliberal policies, through the limits to inflation, deficits, and debt, included in these treaties, and through the obligatory imposition of “market liberalization” and privatization processes.

The result of the first phase of blackmail was the February 20 agreement, which included the commitment of the Greek government to austerity measures, labour market reform and privatization. This was SYRIZA’s first major step backwards. The following months were a painful period of postponed pre-electoral promises and endless negotiations during which Greece’s creditors demanded even more concessions. At the same time, there was no end  to austerity, especially since tax revenue was falling and state coffers had to be emptied in order to continue servicing the debt.

In June the negotiation process reached an impasse with the Troika insisting on a set of terms for a new loan agreement that equaled a new Memorandum. At the same time, Greece was no longer in a position to service its debt without some new loan agreement, and the Greek banks were running out of liquidity.

Faced with such pressures, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras proposed a referendum on the Troika proposals, openly calling for their rejection. The ECB reacted by refusing to raise its Emergency Liquidity Assistance cap for the Greek banks, obliging the Greek government to impose capital controls, a 60 euro daily limit on cash withdrawals and a mandatory banking holiday.

The week before the referendum was marked by numerous threats: open blackmail  as the EU threatened a forced exit from the Eurozone in the case of a No vote; ideological terrorism from the corporate media in Greece; and employers openly threatening employees with mass lay-offs if they voted No. These threats came amidst all the real problems caused by the bank shut-down.

However, there were also signs of mass resistance from the Greek people, exemplified in the tremendously massive rally in favour of the No side on July 3, two days before the referendum. The result was more than impressive. In an extremely class-polarized vote, a stunning 61.3 percent of the electorate voted No.

It was as if all the social and political dynamism of the 2010-12 period had returned to the forefront in a tremendous display of defiance and disobedience to the Troika. It is true that the people who voted No did not vote for an exit from the Eurozone. But taking into consideration the political climate prior to the referendum, one might say that this was an acceptable risk and cost if Greece were to get rid of austerity.

One would have expected that the Greek government, armed with such an impressive sign of support, would defy the creditors, reject the agreement and declare its readiness to reclaim monetary sovereignty. Finance minister Yanis Varoufakis admitted later that he had asked for the preparation of a Plan B in case the Greek banking system was shut out of the ECB structure.

However, what happened was the exact opposite. Tsipras went on to negotiate with the Troika, sacked Varoufakis, and on July 13 capitulated and fully accepted the terms of the Troika. In a modern version of the “vae victis” (“woe to the vanquished”), the terms were much worse than those initially proposed.

After a series of votes and despite a mass rebellion of more than 30 SYRIZA members of parliament, on August 14 the new Memorandum was finally ratified by the Greek Parliament with the help of all the systemic pro-austerity, pro-Memorandum parties.

In a strange irony of history, Tsipras used the same extraordinary parliamentary procedures for the ratification that he had vehemently opposed before coming to power, despite the resistance of the Speaker of the House, Zoe Constantopoulou, a strong opponent of the Memorandum and defender of due parliamentary process.

SYRIZA’s Hold on Power

After the ratification, and faced with a loss of parliamentary majority because of the defection of the left wing of SYRIZA, which formed its own parliamentary group, Tsipras called for a snap election on September 20. The dissenting SYRIZA left wing along with groups that came from ANTARSYA, the front of the Greek anticapitalist Left, formed a new political front, Popular Unity, with a radical program that openly called for a stoppage to debt payments and an exit from the Eurozone.

Why did Tsipras capitulate in an open betrayal of the popular vote against the Memorandum? One reason is that, for the leadership of SYRIZA, the euro was an unsurpassable limit. It was impossible for them even to think of a rupture with the Eurozone. This was the result of a deeply rooted Europeanism.

However, I do not think that this is enough as explanation. There was something deeper. For the leading group of SYRIZA, power became an end in itself. They had decided that the Left should govern, even if this meant its transformation into a systemic political force supporting openly neoliberal reforms.

Wherever there is an IMF structural adjustment program, the result is the political destruction of the previous left wing forces and the emergence of new systemic parties. In Greece, this transformation took place by and through SYRIZA. For reasons that have to do with the depth of social antagonism in Greece, one might say that only a party with roots in the subaltern classes could represent this new phase of austerity and neoliberal reforms. The party that represented the hope of the subaltern classes now demanded to represent them politically in the process of their devastation. And it managed to be successful in this impressive case of political transformism.

SYRIZA managed to win the election and, in contrast, Popular Unity failed to pass the three percent threshold necessary to gain parliamentary representation. This was not a good result, especially since it seemed like a vindication of SYRIZA’s capitulation to the EU and the signing of the new Memorandum. The new Greek parliament is dominated by pro-Memoranda forces.

Tsipras’ cynical gamble was that he could turn the election into a debate on what party (and which prime minister) will implement the Memorandum that had already been passed by SYRIZA and the systemic parties on August 14. His strategy was to present the Memorandum as something inescapable and inevitable. Consequently, the Memorandum was absent from his discourse. The only possible choice was between Tsipras and Meimarakis, the leader of the centre-right New Democracy.

In the end this is what happened: people opted to give a second chance to SYRIZA, rather than the other systemic pro-Memorandum parties. This was not a vote of hope; it was the choice of the “lesser evil.” The fact that the Independent Greeks, the right-wing anti-Memoranda party that was part of the previous SYRΙΖA government, managed to enter parliament, offered Tsipras the possibility to form another SYRIZA - Independent Greeks government.

Regarding the other systemic pro-Memoranda parties, New Democracy did not manage to challenge SYRIZA, especially since it is still held responsible for being part of ruling pro-Memoranda austerity coalitions since 2011. PASOK (the social democratic party in power from 1981 to 1989, 1993 to 2004 and 2009 to 2011, and which was also part of the pro-austerity coalition governments from 2011 to 2015) managed to have a better result. But the fact that the Independent Greeks managed to enter parliament meant that SYRIZA no longer needed PASOK votes. The River, an openly neoliberal party (the basic representative the “extreme centre” in Greek politics) lost one third of its votes.

Popular Unity and Disillusioned Voters

At the same time, the impressive increase in abstention, with 773,000 fewer votes cast than in the January election, is an expression of the political crisis and in particular the sense of defeat that many segments of the subaltern classes have.

Another expression of this disillusionment with the political scene was the 3.4 percent vote in favour of the Centre Union. This party is led by Vasilis Leventis. His absurd “political analyses” in a second-rate TV channel in the 1990s were viewed as a form of comedy rather than politics. Now the Centre Union became one of the main outlets of the “anti-political” protest vote.

The neo-Nazis of Golden Dawn, whose leader cynically acknowledged political responsibility for the 2013 murder of Pavlos Fyssas, an anti-fascist rapper, increased their percentage, because of reduced participation, but in fact received slightly less votes than in January.

The result for Popular Unity was negative. With 2.86 percent of the vote it did not manage to gain parliamentary representation. This is an obvious political failure, especially taking into consideration the fact that it started as a mass split in SYRIZA and was one of the main political forces that insisted on the relevance of the No vote. At the same time support for ANTARSYA, a coalition of left organisations that left SYRIZA but remained outside of Popular Unity, increased both in terms of votes and percentage, reaching 0.85 percent. Popular Unity underestimated that a great part of the defeated and betrayed “people of the No” voted within the limits of a “nothing can really change” mentality, thus accepting Tsipra’s cynical call for a “second chance.”

Popular Unity thought that the split in the party would have also meant a proportional split in the electoral following of SYRIZA. In fact, relations of representation proved to be more complex. The delay and backtracks in the exit from SYRIZA didn’t help either. Popular Unity failed to actually appeal to the anger of a youth with no future and to the silent feeling of despair and disappointment that led many voters to abstention or choices such as the Centre Union.

Popular Unity did not emerge as the necessary new front, the kind of front that would be self-critical in practice and in action regarding the problems inherited from SYRIZA. It seemed like a variation of a SYRIZA that would have been faithful to its principles, rather than a new front coming from the movement and the dynamics of social antagonism in an organic fashion. The lack of self-criticism regarding the participation of Left Platform members in the SYRIZA government also contributed to this image. (Popular Unity was formed in part by Left Platform members who had defected from SYRIZA.)

Popular Unity failed during the campaign to insist on what perhaps was its strongest point, namely the fact that it had an alternative narrative regarding the annulment of debt and the exit from the Eurozone. This inability of Popular Unity to present itself as a radical alternative was also the result of the problems of communication among different varieties of left radicalism, both inside and outside SYRIZA.

The Left Platform leadership was more suspicious than it should have been of other tendencies and failed to realize the need for an open appeal to all potential participants in Popular Unity. Moreover, Popular Unity failed to offer enough guarantees that it would be an open and democratic party without the bureaucratic logic that plagues SYRIZA.

However, the elections are over. The new government has already started imposing the measures included in the 3rd Memorandum. Ahead of us is a new round of aggressive austerity and neoliberal reforms. The challenge is to rebuild the movement and confidence in the ability of the movement to win.

Popular Unity and the entire radical left (which also includes ANTARSYA, critical voices from the milieu of the Communist Party, and people from social movements) must go through the necessary (and necessarily painful) process of self-criticism and rereading of the conjuncture in an attempt to reinvent the radical Left as a counter-hegemonic project.

This will be a difficult task, but left-wing politics should always be about taking the road less traveled.

Panagiotis Sotiris is a member of the provisional political council of Popular Unity. He has taught social and political philosophy at various Greek Universities and often writes about social and political developments in Greece.

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