The election victory of Syriza in Greece marked a fundamental shift not only in the situation in Greece, but throughout Europe. A week after the elections we interviewed Ilias Kirousis, a member of the Communist Tendency of SYRIZA as well as the leadership of SYRIZA’s youth wing. Here Ilias gives us his analysis of the elections and the perspectives for the SYRIZA government.
[Although this article was written on Monday, the events of the past 2 days have confirmed all the main points raised in it]
“SYRIZA’s victory was bigger than expected. We have to wait and see what will happen now. SYRIZA’s leadership has presented a programme of reforms, such as raising the minimum wage, the reintroduction of collective bargaining agreements in the public sector and so on. But it is on a fragile basis because it is based on the expectation that EU funding will continue to flow into Greece, which is unlikely if the government halts the austerity programme and increases taxes on the rich. The situation now has revolutionary potential,” Ilias explains and then goes on to underline the fact that the background to the dramatic shift in the situation is the historical crisis of capitalism.
The present Greek crisis is only second in depth to the depression in the United States and Canada of the 1930’s. Since the beginning of the crisis in 2008 Greek GDP has fallen more than 26 percent and is falling even further. The public debt is a gigantic burden which continues to pull the economy down. It now amounts to 175 percent of GDP and is impossible for Greece to pay back. However, the problem is not limited to the public debt alone. In October, private debt stood at €212 billion, the equivalent of 117 percent of GDP. In spite of more than €200 billion of taxpayers’ money being paid to the banks, they are still on the verge of bankruptcy. The only thing that keep them afloat is the continuous economic support from the European Central Bank (ECB).
Ilias explained how the economic crisis has been a social disaster for the Greek people. “Four million people, almost half of the total population of the country, now live in poverty. 400,000 households have no income and a third of all children are undernourished.” The economic and social crisis has undermined political stability and has resulted in a new political crisis for the Greek bourgeoisie.
The political crisis of the bourgeoisie
“The crisis and the massive polarisation of wealth has lead to enormous anger among the Greek people against the politicians, the bankers and the whole system. In the recent period MPs from the previous government parties, Pasok and New Democracy, dared not walk on the streets for fear of being attacked by angry, ordinary people. Three years ago the government put up barriers in front of the parliament building for fear of demonstrators who wanted to storm it. These have now been removed by SYRIZA,” Ilias explains.
Five years ago Pasok got 44% of the votes. On 25 January they got 4.8 percent. The party is close to political annihilation as a result of having administered the austerity programmes of the Troika.
The traditional party of the bourgeoisie, New Democracy, which participated in the latest coalition government with Pasok, lost half of its seats in Parliament. A few years ago these two parties together received more than 90 percent of the votes. At the 25 January elections they only managed to get a total of 32 percent, less than what SYRIZA got on its own.
The Greek workers have been involved in a long series of struggles and mass mobilisations. But every time they have suffered a defeat because they have been held back and stopped by the leaders of the labour movement. Therefore the workers turned their focus towards the political front, which meant that SYRIZA did well in the polls in 2012. Since then SYRIZA has been seen as the easiest way of getting rid of the Pasok/New Democracy coalition government. This hope was fulfilled as SYRIZA rose to the top of the polls with 36 percent.
SYRIZA in a coalition government
“The elections were a blow for the Greek bourgeoisie,” Ilias Explains. ”The aim of the Capitalists was to avoid an absolute majority for SYRIZA which they saw as the worst possible outcome. From their point of view the best solution would have been a coalition of many small parties. The election results were the second worst possible scenario from their point of view.”
Even though the largest party in the Greek parliament receives an extra 50 seats, SYRIZA just missed an absolute majority. This means that they cannot form a government alone. On election night SYRIZA announced a coalition with a bourgeois party, the Independent Greeks, who accepted SYRIZA’s “Thessaloniki-programme”, which contains a series of concrete promises of reforms. They also agree with SYRIZA on the opposition to the EU memorandum (which demands austerity). “The coalition with the Independent Greeks was not a big surprise,” Ilias says, and continues, “There was not a formal internal decision inside the party to form the coalition, but the leadership did point to this possibility in the run up to the elections. Even though many on the left were sceptical, most workers accepted the coalition as a necessity, because it seemed like the only option and because the Independent Greeks have accepted SYRIZA’s election programme.”
The Communist Tendency in SYRIZA opposes a coalition with the Independent Greeks. Ilias explains that the coalition with the Independent Greeks, which is a bourgeois party, is a ticking time bomb. Once the euphoria around SYRIZA and Tsipras is gone, the coalition will allow the Independent Greeks to demand “responsible economic policies”, i.e. cuts and austerity.
The Communist Tendency, instead, argued for a coalition with the Communist Party (KKE), which got 5.5 percent of the votes. Together, SYRIZA and the KKE have a majority in parliament. SYRIZA should have put maximum pressure on the KKE, at least to support the government while staying outside of it. But the leadership of the KKE is very sectarian and have rejected any cooperation. The leadership of SYRIZA on its part only made a symbolic attempt to pressure them, while the coalition with the Independent Greeks was prepared in advance.
Immediately after the elections, Tsipras and his ministers announced a series of positive reforms and indicated thus that SYRIZA intended to fulfill its election programme.
Amongst the reforms announced were the raising of the minimum wage from €600 to €750, the reintroduction of collective bargaining rights, the repeal of anti-trade union laws (which were introduced by the military junta, but which were used several times by New Democracy while in power) . Besides these measures, the government announced the rehiring of the public sector workers who had been fired over the past months, the raising of pensions and the halting of the privatisation of the port of Piraeus. They also promised the partial write-off of the debts of the poorest layers of the population.
These reforms have led to much enthusiasm amongst the workers. There is a sense amongst ordinary workers that for the first time in decades there is a government which will implement what it has promised and which is ready to go against the Troika and the EU. A recent poll showed that 95 percent of the population support the government’s confrontation with the Troika.
It is not yet clear whether the promised reforms will be carried out or not. The Greek capitalists are in a state of shock. They thought SYRIZA would spend some time discussing with the EU and eventually come round to a “responsible” stance. The markets reacted violently and very sharply in the week after the elections which saw the stock market falling 14 percent. This was led by a 40 percent fall in bank stocks. The Greek media immediately embarked on a vicious campaign claiming that the new government is irresponsible and that it will destroy the country. That forced some ministers to withdraw their promises. Where it will all end is still unclear, but one thing Ilias is certain of: “SYRIZA is under enormous pressure from the capitalists on the one side and the Greek workers who have elected the party on the other.”
No room for manoeuvre
The problem for SYRIZA is, as Ilias explains above, that SYRIZA’s programme is built on the assumption that the EU will continue to pay. Ilias explains the position of the Communist Tendency of SYRIZA: “We fully support the reforms in the Thessaloniki programme, which would raise living standards. But the main problem of the programme is that that it is based on the idea that the EU will save the country without demanding a continuation of the austerity packages. That is utopian and the coming weeks will show this.”
The Greek economy is in a terrible state. In March the Greek state has to pay a €4.6 billion instalment of the debt and in the summer another €8.8 billion is to be paid. Throughout 2015 Greece has to pay €22 billion back to its creditors. That is money which the Greek state does not have. If they do not make a deal with the EU, Greece will be on the verge of bankruptcy. The Greek banks are only surviving on the basis of money pumped into them by the ECB. If the EU pulls the plug the Greek economy will die.
Thus the government does not have much room for manoeuvre. Even if a part of the European capitalists are ready to give certain concessions, and thereby postpone the problems, they still have other concerns which stop them from going down this road. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel is under pressure from organisations such as the new right-wing party Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD), which is demanding a tough line and which will exploit the situation if Merkel makes concessions on Greece. Even more important is the weak right-wing government in Madrid which is afraid that any concessions to Tsipras would expose its impotence and lead to its fall, which would clear the way for the leftist party Podemos coming to power. Merkel and the EU are not going to accept paying for Tsipras’ social reforms.
So what are they going to do? Throwing Greece out of the Euro is not the first choice for the European capitalists. They have probably agreed to give Tsipras some minor concessions, but they are not willing to accept any of the things that Tsipras is proclaiming today. Therefore they will most likely give Tsipras an ultimatum: Give up everything which he has promised up until now or give up the Euro. But Tsipras cannot capitulate completely. Ilias explains that if Tsipras betrays the programme, it would lead to a split in the party and a possible collapse of the government. “This means that any compromise will be under immense pressure and will lead to a deepening of the crisis.”
The class forces behind SYRIZA
The election results reflected the class divisions in Greece. More than 50% of the unemployed voted for SYRIZA and in the working class neighbourhoods in all the big cities SYRIZA won more than 40 percent of the vote, while New Democracy got 15-20 percent or less. In the wealthy neighbourhoods New Democracy won more than 55 percent, while SYRIZA received less than 15 percent. Amongst young people between 18-37 years, SYRIZA won 41.1 percent of the vote. The only age segment where New Democracy beat SYRIZA was amongst the oldest, above 65 years where they received 37 percent of the vote.
As Tsipras came closer to power he and the leaders of SYRIZA moderated their line. In the election period many SYRIZA leaders travelled around Europe and met with people, such as prominent bankers in London, whose fears they tried to calm. “But” Ilias explains, “the capitalists are not afraid of Tsipras. They are afraid of the forces behind him. They do not have the same grip on SYRIZA which they had on Pasok over the course of many years. They are afraid of what the working class will do in the future.”
A new stage of the Greek revolution
Before the elections there was not much enthusiasm, and a certain scepticism prevailed amongst many Greek workers who had elected one government after another, all of which had broken their promises and introduced austerity. Many people feared that the same would be the case with the new government. However, now there is a sense of hope.
The fact is that there is a fundamental contradiction between democracy and capitalism. The Greek people have clearly expressed their will through democratic channels. Their demand is clear: end austerity! But immediately after the elections a series of EU bureaucrats rushed to Greece to tell the new government that it should abandon its promises. The capitalists are withdrawing money from the country and the stocks are plummeting. They are attempting, through their own undemocratic measures, to force their own agenda.
But, Ilias explains how the situation has changed fundamentally after the elections:
“We have witnessed a complete change in the consciousness of the workers and the youth. They see SYRIZA as their own government. This feeling has been strengthened by the announcement of the first reforms and the confrontation with the Troika. After six years of austerity the workers are preparing to move to win back what they have lost. The workers who have not been paid for 3-4 months will demand their wages are paid. Those who have had their wages cut will demand rises. So it is likely that we will witness a wave of strikes in the next months. If the capitalists keep the present pressure up, it can force the workers to mobilise in defence of the government and this can, in turn, open up a revolutionary period.”
SYRIZA’s victory has been a huge inspiration for workers and youth across Europe who desire an end to austerity and the crisis of capitalism. In Spain, Podemos called a demonstration which drew hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets one week after the Greek elections. The European workers and youth are searching for an alternative to the crisis of capitalism. SYRIZA’s main problem is that there is no solution within the confines of capitalism. The only way forward for the Greek and European workers is a socialist revolution which removes this utterly rotten system of capitalism.