Greek drama

Print edition : July 13, 2012

Antonis Samaras, leader of New Democracy, in Athens on June 17. His party got around 29 per cent of the vote.-JOHN KOLESIDIS/REUTERS

Eurozone gets a breather with the right-wing New Democracys narrow win in the elections in Greece on June 16.

Despite a few opinion polls predicting a victory for the Left, it was the Right that finally squeaked through in the elections held on June 16 in Greece. The right-wing New Democracy narrowly beat Syriza, or the Coalition of the Radical 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 death blow to the euro and the concept of European unity.

New Democracy got around 29 per cent of the vote as against Syrizas 27 per cent. Under Greek electoral law, the party that comes first is given 50 extra seats in the 300-member Parliament. This archaic legislation may help the pro-European Union (E.U.) parties in forming a coalition government that will continue with the stringent austerity programme imposed on the Greek populace.

The other major party in Greek politics, Pasok, which came third with 12 per cent of the vote, had initially proposed a national unity government of four parties, including Syriza and the New Left Party, both of which are opposed to the terms of the E.U. bailout. Syriza was quick to reject the proposal. At the same time, both New Democracy and Pasok had asked for a relaxation of the stringent conditions imposed by the E.U. for the $130-billion bailout it 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 could lead to a massive social upheaval. Greece has been witness to a civil war after 1945, in which communists and right-wing groups were pitted against each other. The country has also gone through a brutal right-wing military dictatorship.

The openly racist New Dawn party held on to the 8 per cent share of the vote it won in the May 6 round of elections.

Clear divide

The voting trends showed a clear divide young Greeks voted overwhelmingly for the Left, while the older populace opted for the establishment parties. The majority of the youth are unemployed. Official unemployment figures stand at 22 per cent. Syriza leader Alexis 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 E.U. The electorate in other countries, such as Spain and Portugal, reeling under the E.Us shock therapy, would 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 E.U. 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, German Bundesbank president Jens Weidmann told the Greek newspaper Kathimerini just before the elections.

Tsipras, while conceding defeat in the June 16 elections, reiterated his partys determination to fight against the bailout. Very soon, the Left will be in power, he told supporters in Athens. We begin the fight again tomorrow.

Syriza comprises a coalition of Synaspismos, a group that had splintered from the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) on the issue of Euro communism in the late 1960s, and radical Maoist and Trotskyist groups. Many unaffiliated individuals are also part of Syriza, which was founded eight years ago. What brought it to the limelight were the massive student protests against the New Democracy-led government in 2006 and 2007. The protests were against the governments 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 5 per cent of the vote. After that many other small left-wing parties joined Syriza.

The rise of a party from 4 per cent [in 2009] 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 citizens rights and social cohesion by austerity, observed Xristoforos Vernadakis, a Greek psephologist.

Syriza played a prominent role in the 2008 youth revolt that shook the capital Athens. Trouble started after a 15-year-old student was killed by the police. Weeks of rioting followed. Syriza stood with the students while other parties, including the Communist Party, only denounced the violence.

The ire of the political establishment was directed at Syriza and the Party was characterised as irresponsible. But the Syriza leadership, despite internal misgivings, stuck 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.

The memorandum

After the signing of the May 2010 memorandum between the Pasok-led government of George Papandreou and the troika of the E.U., 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 has played an important role in these struggles.

Graffiti in Athens on June 14 detailing economic and other issues facing the people.-LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP

On the campaign trail, Tsipras 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 June 16 elections, Tsipras told a huge crowd in Athens: Greece was a European and international experiment, and the Greek people were guinea pigs. Over the past two years we have suffered a social catastrophe.

Syrizas political orientation is being compared to that of 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 E.U. and international banks. It is evident that there are both revolutionary and reformist forces within Syriza.

Opinion polls before the June 16 elections showed that 50 per cent of Greeks wanted to say goodbye to the eurozone if the draconian economic measures continue to be 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 Trotskyist groups, which constitute around 15 per cent of the membership, want a revision of key E.U. treaties such as Maastricht in addition to an end to the austerity measures.

Another party also influenced by Euro communism, the Democratic Left (DIMAR), had broken away from Syriza on the issue of continued membership of the E.U. The Democratic Left did receive a significant percentage of the vote in the May elections on its pro-Europe, anti-austerity platform. It now seems set to join a coalition government along with New Democracy and Pasok.

Two elections and Syriza

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 strikes and mass protests after the Greek political establishment reached its controversial bailout with the E.U.

Alexis Tsipras, Syriza party leader, in Athens on June 17. The results of the elections in May and June show that the most radicalised sections of society, especially the working class, are behind Syriza.-LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP

The 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.

Aleka Papariga, KKEs general secretary, in a speech delivered at the partys final election rally, said the major parties, including Syriza, are committed to the E.U.. She said the E.U. had created Syriza because of the failure of New Democracy and Pasok to fulfil their goals. These two parties, which have alternated in power since the end of the military dictatorship in the 1970s, have been universally blamed for bringing the Greek economy to such a pass. Tsipras no longer rejects the memorandum, Aleka 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 was 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 E.U. 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 Greeces membership of the eurozone, he said in one of his last speeches before the June 16 elections. Syrizas critics on the Left say that it cannot be against the E.Us bailout programme and at the same time insist that Greece will remain in the eurozone.

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 themselves to sell 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, making it affordable to the hard-pressed common man.

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