ATHENS—In June 2012, elections in Greece showed that the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) was on the verge of state power. SYRIZA is a coalition of many leftists who oppose the austerity measures now being implemented in Greece. There was a fear and panic among investors that Greece would stop paying its debts if SYRIZA came to power. Bill Frezza of Forbes magazine said that the Greeks deserve their fate, that Western governments should stop loaning Greece money and should “give the country what many of its people have been violently demanding for almost a century… Let them have Communism.”
Nonetheless, Greece is now experiencing a catastrophic crisis that has reduced the population to poverty and misery. The Greek government has turned to austerity whereby government spending was drastically lowered on public services to pay its investors. This crisis and austerity measures, however, also continues to spark unprecedented levels of resistance. For millions in Greece, SYRIZA has come to represent the hope for a way beyond austerity. As SYRIZA continues to grow, post-election, as an opposition party, it faces the challenge of how to engage in reform struggles in a revolutionary, rather than a merely reformist way.
The future of SYRIZA was debated at its first national conference held in November and December 2012 to create a more unified political organization. The main difference at the conference was over whether the main task for SYRIZA was to unite the left such as the Communist Party (KKE) and Front of the Greek Anti-Capitalist Left (ANTARSYA) or whether to build a broad front of the people as a whole to fight the Troika. To the Communist Organization of Greece (KOE) a member of SYRIZA, building an alliance with groups like the KKE means developing a platform based on the lowest common denominators rather than uniting with people who are against the Troika such as members of the Squares Movement, who are unaffiliated with political parties.
Other differences are those between two different platforms introduced at the Conference: the United Platform and the Left Platform. The United Platform promises to cancel the memorandum, place the banks under public control, reinforce the welfare state and slowly place the strategic sectors of the economy under public control. This was challenged by the Left Platform which argued for the immediate cancellation of the debt, halting of payments toward the debt and the establishment of a united left front with other parties such as KKE and ANTARSYA and popular movements that will form the basis of a future left government. At the end of the conference, the left platform received 25% of the vote, while the United Platform carried the day.
The results of the Conference show that reformers still control the SYRIZA coalition. Yet people from the Squares Movement have been flooding into SYRIZA. And most of the members of SYRIZA are part of no existing political party. Furthermore, there are dedicated revolutionaries such as the KOE who are a part of the coalition.
The crisis in Greece can be traced back at least a decade, during which time huge debts were piled up .When the economic crash of 2007 occurred, the Greek government became unable to pay back these massive debts, mostly owed to Greek and European banks. To prevent the utter collapse of the economy, the “Troika” made up of the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund “bailed out” Greece to the tune of hundreds of billions. Canadian activist Paul Kellogg says: “The word “bailouts” must be put in quotation marks, because what in fact are being bailed out is not the Greek government, let alone the people of Greece, but rather financial institutions, particularly key European financial institutions, which stand to lose heavily should the Greek economy go under.”
There has been an eruption of rebellion. Since 2010, there have been 21 general strikes that have brought hundreds of thousands into the streets.
To pay for the bailout, the Greek government has been imposing austerity on the country. Government spending was drastically lowered on public services such as unemployment insurance (when tens of thousands were thrown out of work), health care, public service jobs, and education. At the same time, taxes were increased on most of the population. The Greek government is not only instituting austerity to pay for the bailouts, but also to stay in the European Union. International creditors fear that if Greece leaves the EU, it will lead to economic collapse across Europe and the world economy.
The austerity measures have had a devastating affect on the Greek economy, shattering the social fabric and leading to large-scale despair. Since 2010, Greece has seen only contraction of gross domestic product and in the last quarter of 2012, GDP went down 6.9%. In other words, Kellogg says, “absolutely all of the growth experienced in the first years of this century in Greece has been wiped out by five years of slump.”
In 2010, wages were cut by 22 percent. Public services from health care (half of the public hospitals are closing) to education are being reduced. Factories and public jobs are vanishing. In June, there were 350 suicide attempts and 50 successes in Athens. The unemployment rate rose from 8.5% in 2007 to 27% in October 2012, with an unemployment rate of 56.6% among those aged 15 to 24 . What the crisis shows is that the social democratic compromise of a welfare state that has characterized Greece has ended. Greece looks like it has lost a war in 2009 and is paying the consequences.
These austerity measures have not been suffered silently by the people of Greece. There has been an eruption of rebellion. Since 2010, there have been 21 general strikes that have brought hundreds of thousands into the streets. A few years ago, a massive outpouring of worker strength would be enough to stop government cutbacks, but now the situation is different. According to SYRIZA activist Angelos Irakleidis, “the trade union leadership… [has] only used the general strikes as a means to let the steam out. At the same time, the parties of the Left failed to put forward a platform that would lead to the overthrow of austerity policies.”
The crisis has created an unprecedented opening of radical realignment as the main parties of Social Democratics (PASOK) and New Democracy, who have loyally carried out austerity, continue to lose credibility. On the left, SYRIZA, originally founded in 2004 as an anti-globalization coalition based on coalitions of left reformers, revolutionary communists, Trotskyists, and radical Greens, has emerged as a place for resistance to coalesce, millions to be engaged and alternatives to be posed.
Unlike other formations on the left, SYRIZA was actively involved in the fight against austerity. This was shown most clearly in 2011 when Greek youth and students began the Movement of the Squares, which was reminiscent of the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement. Large numbers of people with no previous political experience gathered in people’s assemblies declaring themselves a real democracy and challenging the PASOK-led government.
The Squares Movement was also a challenge to the whole Troika, telling them to “GET OUT!” and posed the people as the legitimate rulers of Greece. While other groups such as the ANTARSYA and the Communist Party (KKE) stood on the sidelines, denouncing the Squares Movement for not falling under their preconceived notions of how a revolution was supposed to unfold, SYRIZA activists played a key organizational and political role.
SYRIZA was also involved in trade union, immigrant and student protests. They built support before the crucial May and June elections of 2012 on a program of nationalizing the major banks, raising taxes on the wealthy, expelling military bases and saying no to the crippling austerity measures. In the 2009 elections, SYRIZA only managed to win under 5%of the vote–six seats in Parliament. By June 2012, SYRIZA was the second largest party in Greece with 28%of the vote and 71 seats in parliament.
The neo-Nazi group Golden Dawn also won big in the elections with 7% of the vote. According to sociologist Despina Lalaki, the appeal of the Golden Dawn is that they proclaim “an anti-systemic position, provided that they have never been part of what they condemn as the corrupt political system and they pose as defenders of principles such as that of national sovereignty, which has come under assault by the governing bodies of the EU.” Golden Dawn wants to expel immigrants and regularly assaults members of leftist parties whom they see as undermining the public order. More than half of the Greek police forces support the Golden Dawn, and have been found to torture anti-fascist demonstrators who clashed with the neo-Nazi group.
By the end of 2012, GDP had declined more than 21% since 2008. The latest austerity package would raise the retirement age from 65 to 67 years old and slash pensions by an average of between five and 15%. According to Lalaki, “Salaries in the public sector will be reduced by about a third, minimum wage will be further slashed to below 400€ net, maximum number of workdays per week will be increased to six days and work schedules will be increasingly ‘flexible,’ [and] collective bargaining agreements will not be legally enforceable.” If the latest fiscal targets are not reached, the Troika’s February memorandum states that the Greek government has to apply even more cuts. Yet the Greek military has been spared any cuts in order to be in a strong position to deal with social unrest.
The victory for the United Platform could be seen as the hope of many in SYRIZA to be administrators of a social-democratic Greece. Considering the harsh austerity measures that Greece is experiencing, such an approach would face the resistance of international capital. A SYRIZA-led government would not only face the pressure of the ruling class but also that of the Greek people. “The Greek masses will expect from SYRIZA not to make minor changes in the current system, but to change everything from up to down,” according to SYRIZA activist Angelos Irakleidis. This could lead to a showdown with the forces of capitalism and imperialism in Greece and potentially across Europe.
The situation in Greece shows no signs of changing in the near future. The government has every intention of imposing the devastating austerity measures while the people resist. “A hell on earth is expected for the Greek masses if the working class doesn’t manage to overthrow this parasitic capitalist system,” Irakleidis declares. For the first time since the 1970s, socialist transformation seems to be on the agenda in Europe. That doesn’t mean a revolution will succeed. The future still remains decidedly open.