Greece: ND government provoking shift to the left

As we predicted, the coming to power of the right-wing ND government two years ago has had the effect of radicalising the workers and youth. A very militant primary school teachers' strike, massive student mobilisations and the recent local elections, all confirm this.

Not even three years in office and the New Democracy (ND) government in Greece is facing a serious crisis. It came to power in 2004 not so much because of its programme, but in spite of it. The previous PASOK government had whittled away its own social base by applying the policies dictated by big business. It had reached a point where a significant layer of the population saw no other alternative but to vote ND to get rid of the PASOK government.

Of course the ND did not spell out clearly what it was really going to do. It also had the luxury of the Olympics being held in Greece, with all the building projects and spending that went with them, as well as EU funding. This provided it with a brief period of expectation among a section of the electorate. All that has now well and truly finished.

The latest opinion polls show that in a general election the ND would get 37,9 %, PASOK 35,1%, KKE 7,8%, Synaspismos 3,4% and LAOS (the extreme right wing, led by Karatzaferis) 3,4%. The exit polls immediately after the recent local elections showed the following pattern, ND at 42.5%, PASOK at 40%, KKE at 7.5%, Synaspismos at 3.9% and LAOS at 3.9%. Whichever figures one bases oneself on, they certainly reveal falling support for the ND, but we will deal with this below. In yesterday's 2nd round of the elections in seven areas the PASOK won 5 and the ND won only 2, while the line of the KKE was incredibly to vote "blank" or "spoil the paper". [The electoral law states that if in the first round no candidate gets more than 42% then there has be a run-off between the first and second candidate from the first round].

Wave of scandals

We have an incredible spectacle in the Greek media, with leading figures of the ND appearing on TV forced to apologise for the many scandals the party has been involved in. They also "apologise" for the government's lack of solutions to the problems facing the Greek workers, and even for the violent police methods the government has unleashed on protesting workers and students. This reveals the fact that divisions are appearing within the ruling class itself. Greek capitalism is forced to go on to the offensive against the workers, but this is proving far more difficult than many of the Greek capitalists may have imagined until recently.

The newspapers are constantly publishing lists of ND officials that have been forced to resign because of this or that scandal. The latest scandal involves workers' insurance contributions. Two leading members of the ND had close connections with private companies who were not paying the insurance contributions. They were covering up for them and pocketing part of the unpaid funds.

All these scandals are giving people the impression that the whole system is corrupt, that it is rampant at all levels. The government tries to cover up for all this with demagogic talk about "combating corruption", but the majority of the population see it as being widespread and they understand that something drastic must be done to stop it.

People don't believe the official propaganda, as these are not the first scandals to break out in Greece. It was only last year that there was a major scandal involving the Church and the Judiciary (see The effects of the crisis within the Greek Orthodox Church and the position of the Marxists, 17 March, 2005, and Greece: Scandals within the Church and the Judiciary are shaking the foundations of society, 1 March, 2005, for more details).

Lack of investment

The only thing that the ND government can boast about is the supposed "high rate of growth", which is close to 4%. But this "boom" hides the real situation. It is not based on investment. In fact Greece is the last country in Europe for Foreign Direct Investment. Greek industry is stagnating, growing by barely one percent per year. The only section that is really growing is the construction industry.

Consumer spending is also another important element contributing to "growth", but it is based on huge levels of credit. Many people are simply borrowing more to survive. The banks have been issuing high levels of loans, and consequently – for now – they have been making big profits. In the first semester of 2006 the banks increased their profits from between 35% and 60%.

There is another side to this, however. The interest rate in Greece is double the EU average, which means that although borrowing may provide temporary relief, in the long run it increases the burden on the shoulders of the workers. Already the combined debts of Greek families and corporations have reached the equivalent of 70% of GDP.

From these figures it is clear that a boom based on credit cannot last for much longer. On a capitalist basis, the only solution the ND government has is to launch a serious attack against the workers. They desperately want to attract investment from abroad and the only way they can do this is to make the economic environment more palatable to the foreign capitalists. That means greater flexibility of labour, lower labour costs and so on.

This government has also tried to "cook the books" of national GDP calculation. They say that in the past there was a miscalculation and that in reality GDP is 20% higher than seemed the case before. They did this to prove that Greece is a "wealthy" country. The way they did this was to add the "unofficial" or informal sectors, such as drugs, prostitution, etc. What they have done is to officially declare that pimps and drug pushers are an important part of the economy! In reality all they have done is to expose the real nature pf Greek capitalism. In practice all this achieves is to reduce the subsidies Greece receives from the European Union and increases the payments it has to make back to the EU. Thus the tax burden will inevitably go up. What the figures also hide is a growing social polarisation, with wealth being concentrated at one end of society and poverty at the other.

Teachers' strike

As part of the attacks on workers and youth, earlier this year the government tried to change the laws that govern the education system, to allow for the introduction of private schools and universities. This provoked a massive response from the university students. (See The student movement in Greece: the first battle is won but the war continues 03 July 2006). Faced with such a mobilisation the government was forced to retreat. It is clear that that was only a temporary retreat, as they will not give up on this question.

However, the fact that they retreated sent out a clear message to workers and youth in Greece. It showed that militant struggle is the only way to defeat this government. That explains why immediately after the summer break the primary school teachers came out on strike. A schoolteacher in Greece starts on a basic salary of €900 per month (about 600 pounds sterling), but prices do not correspond to this low level of wages. Many goods in Greece now cost more or less like in countries such as Britain or Germany. So they have Greek wages, but EU prices. Workers literally cannot survive on these wages.

That explains why the primary school teachers' strike is an "offensive" strike. They are demanding €1400 per month, i.e. a 50% increase. They are now into their fifth week of strike action and the mood is still a militant one, with over 50% of the striking teachers attending trade union assemblies on a daily basis. The bulk of the participants are teachers between the ages of 25 and 40, many of whom have never experienced strike action before. They are being forced to learn very quickly what the class struggle means, as they have also had to face brutal repression at the hands of the police who have not hesitated to attack them. In some families both parents are teachers, so the hardship they are facing is particularly severe. Teachers have now lost over €1000 in wages through the strike, and there is no strike fund to alleviate their position.

Many workers are in the same position as the primary school teachers. High school teachers are on the same level of wages. That explains why there has also been a two-day solidarity strike by the high school teachers. Opinion polls show that 60% of the Greek population sympathises with the primary school teachers.

Traditionally these teachers were not the most militant section of the Greek working class. It is the impossible position they have been put in that forces them to struggle. Now they have become a focal point for the whole working class movement.

A lot is at stake in this strike. A section of the ruling class has drawn the conclusion that to retreat would be a mistake. They saw this with the university students' movement. The primary school teachers have drawn lessons from the university students. The dilemma the ruling class is facing here is a serious one. To retreat means giving the green light to the rest of the Greek working class. But keeping the struggle going is also a problem, as it is leading to a hardening of opinions and workers are beginning to see the real nature of the ND government. In fact, some bourgeois strategists are suggesting that the Minister of Education be changed and a retreat be organised again. But the government really has no choice. Any retreat would only be temporary. Already it is preparing to go on the offensive against the university students once more.

If they think that using the heavy hand of repression is going to help them, then they have a very big surprise coming. At present around 600 high schools have been occupied all across Greece. They are demanding more spending on education, more university places, they are totally opposed to the law on private universities and they are expressing solidarity with the primary school teachers. There are also rumblings in the universities where it seems a new movement could erupt at any moment.

No lead from trade union and PASOK leaders

The tragedy in all this is that the national trade union leaders, the leaders of the GSEE union federation, are not mobilising to support the teachers. Although the PASKE (PASOK fraction in the unions) leaders of the teachers' union have been forced to take a firm stand by the teachers, these do not have real support from the GSEE leaders.

The government is so weak that with one day of general strike, combined with school and university occupations, the teachers would be victorious. It would mark the beginning of the end of this hated government, for a victory for the teachers would open the floodgates of class struggle. That in fact is what the GSEE leaders fear.

This is linked to the present PASOK leadership. They have no alternative to what the ND government is doing. In fact they support privatisation. They carried out a lot of it when they were in government. The PASOK leaders are simply waiting for the government to fall under the growing pressure. Although at present the situation is forcing them to mouth opposition, they are not actively organising within society to bring down the government. What they will do if the ND government falls – and if they win the next elections – is to continue with the same old policies.

Now opinion polls show that the gap between the PASOK and ND has been reduced. But it would be simplistic to merely state that the PASOK will pick up all the opposition votes of the electorate. What happened in the recent council and prefecture elections, on Sunday, October 15, shows that a deeper process is taking place.

All areas were involved in these elections, so they give an even better picture than any opinion poll. Turnout was 72.5%, which in many countries would be considered high. In Greece it is one of the lowest for some time, where turnout has usual been around 77-78%. We also have to remember that technically voting is obligatory.

Elections reveal shift to the left

The main parties that stand in the Greek elections are the ND (New Democracy), PASOK (Socialist Party), KKE (Communist Party), Synaspismos (Alliance, which has its roots in the old Communist Party) and more recently the LAOS party, a small right-wing splinter from the ND. We must note here that in the 2004 national elections we had ND at 45,36, PASOK 40,55%, KKE 5,9%, Synaspismos 3,26%, LAOS 2,19%, and DIKKI (which is now supporting the KKE) at 1,79%.

The figures for the recent local elections (see above) indicate several things. The first is that the ND is losing consensus. Of this there is no doubt. They could be losing far more were it not for the passivity of the PASOK leaders. The PASOK, incredibly, instead of going up has actually lost some support. The gap in 2004 between the ND and PASOK was 5 percentage points. Now it is only 2.5%, but this is no thanks to the PASOK. The KKE gains almost 2 percentage points, which would indicate that within the left vote there is a move to the left.

The KKE is seen by a layer of the electorate as being a more serious opposition. The problem it has is that it is still not seen as a viable opposition force capable of removing the ND from office. That explains why the bulk of the PASOK electorate remains loyal to the PASOK.

There is also a slight shift rightwards among some of the ND supporters, but it is still fairly insignificant, although it does underline the process of left-right polarisation that is taking place.

This is the general picture, but if we look at the urban areas we find a much more accentuated process taking place. Here we see in some towns some dramatic changes. The level of abstentions in the Athens municipality for instance was much bigger. The turnout here was only 58%, indicating disillusionment among some layers with all the parties. In some cases the ND loses a big share of the vote, particularly in the working class neighbourhoods. Again, we see the ND declining but the PASOK generally only benefiting marginally or not at all. The main shift is to the left of the PASOK, with both the KKE and the Synaspismos gaining.

In Athens the Synaspismos did particularly well. Its candidate was Alexis Tsipras, a 32-year old who raised left slogans and particularly appealed to the youth. There had been a struggle inside the Synaspismos between the left and right wing over who was to be candidate in Athens. In the end the left wing won the day. The vote of the party went from 5.3% in the previous elections to 10.5%. Now the left wing of the Synaspismos has been strengthened as a result.

Again, in Athens the KKE candidate, Spyros Halvatzis, received 8.8% in the Athens municipality, doubling the party's percentage since the previous local elections. The combined vote of the KKE and the Synaspismos in the Athens municipality in the general election in 2004 was 12.5%. Now it is close to 20%.

In the Athens prefecture elections (covering a wider urban area) something worthy of note took place. In the 2002 local elections the Synaspismos had stood a candidate who was a hero of the anti-Nazi struggle, Manolis Glezos. He received 11% then. This time the Synaspismos stood a candidate from the right wing of the party, an ex-PASOK member, and he only received 5.7%. This clearly indicates that the electorate is very conscious of who they are voting for. A left candidate of the Synaspismos did well in the Athens municipality, while a right wing candidate from the same party did badly in the Athens prefecture.

If we look elsewhere we observe other interesting developments. In the Piraeus municipality (part of greater Athens) for the past eight years, in two successive elections, the ND had won with big margins over the PASOK. This time they lost 15 percentage points compared to the 2002 local elections and 13 points compared to the 2003 general election. The PASOK took Piraeus with a 45% vote, up 14 points on 2002 and 9 points on 2003.

Piraeus is a working class area with high unemployment. Here we see those workers who voted ND only two years ago decisively rejecting the present government. In the same area we see the KKE going from 5.8% (2004) to 6.15% and the Synaspismos from 3.9% to 6.46%. Again, within the general shift to the left, parties that are perceived as being to the left of the PASOK gained significantly.

In Patras, the third city of Greece, the changes are even more dramatic. This again is a town with very high levels of unemployment. Between the 2004 general election and this month's local elections we see the following: ND down to 34% from 38.3%, the PASOK down from 46.1% to 34.7%, while the Synaspismos jumps from 3.7% to 18.4% [here incredibly the Synaspismos came out in support of a cadre of the PASOK that was against the official party candidate!] and the KKE goes up slightly from 9.9% to 10.1%.

In Salonica (Thessaloniki in Greek) if we compare the 2002 local elections with today we see the following: ND down from 54% to 41.4%, the PASOK down from 27.8% to 21.6%, the KKE down from 9.5% to 7.4%, the Synaspismos down from 5.5% to 5%, but an "Independent Left" candidate who had not stood in 2002 received 15.9%.

Thus, although with some regional variations, we see a similar picture everywhere. On the one hand, in those areas where the ND had picked up some of the working class vote, this is now shifting to the PASOK. But where the PASOK was traditionally strongest we see a shift further to the left towards the Synaspismos and the KKE. This is a clear indication that the events of the past years – twenty years or so of almost uninterrupted PASOK government, followed by nearly three years of the ND in office – have left their mark. The youth is becoming radicalised, as is the working class.

The other side of this equation is the extreme right. As class conflict becomes more intense, it is logical that we see a shift both to the left and the right. It reflects a lining up of class forces getting ready for combat. But what strikes one in these recent elections is the fact that the shift to the left is far more powerful than the shift to the right.

Compared to the 2004 general election, the LAOS party has only gained one percentage point. In Athens in the previous local elections of 2002 this party had scored 13.6%. Now it has fallen back to 3.8%. On the other hand, in Salonica, where in 2002 it had no candidate and therefore no votes, this time it stood and got 7.5%. How do we explain this? In 2002 the national leader of the LAOS stood in Athens. This year the party decided to stand him in Salonica. This would indicate that the party hasn't got strong roots, and only a well-known national personality can attract a layer of the electorate. Without him they do rather more badly.

However, we mustn't take it for granted that this party cannot grow. For now the bourgeoisie is governing through the ND, but sooner rather than later this party will be discredited in the eyes of many, and those looking for a more right-wing option may well turn to the LAOS. This would of course remain a minor party, but it could gather around itself the more reactionary layers.

The thing we need to emphasise now is that the main shift in political opinion is to the left. This process will continue over the coming period. In spite of the real concrete facts that emerged from last week's local elections, the ND Premier, Karamanlis, has declared that the elections "confirm support" for his so-called "reforms". He added that on this basis they would push ahead and there would be "no retreat".

In fact talks with the teachers' union broke down shortly after the election results. But the hard line of the government is stiffening the resolve of the workers and youth, as we have seen with the recent mobilisations. Whether the teachers win or lose, there will be a hardening of class relations over the coming period. In these conditions the ND government cannot last for very long. The only thing that keeps it in office is the lack of a strong opposition on the part of the PASOK. It is not the strength of the government that we have to underline. On the contrary, it is weak. The main factor in the situation is the unwillingness of the PASOK and trade union leaders to mobilise the forces of the working class and youth. If they lifted their little finger the class would respond massively.

See also: