Victory tainted by right populists
Syriza’s problems are only just beginning, predicts Eddie Ford
As readers will know, Syriza came first in the January 25 general election - and, since it fell just two short of an absolute majority, with 149 seats, it surprised everybody by entering into a coalition with the rightwing-populist Independent Greeks (Anel).
As for the former ruling New Democracy, led by Antonis Samaras, on 27.8% of the vote it obtained its worst ever result in terms of seats - it is left with only 76. ND’s former coalition partner, the once mighty Pasok, had a miserable night too in seventh place, though not quite as bad as some people predicted - with 4.7% it managed to scrape past the 3% threshold required to enter parliament, but it has been reduced to just 13 seats, compared to its previous 33. Not entirely encouragingly, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn came third on 6.3%, securing 17 seats. The centrist To Potami (The River) also got 17 seats, but on a fractionally smaller share of the total vote: 6.1%.
The ‘official’ Communist Party of Greece (KKE) got its usual sort of vote on 5.5% (15 seats) and Anel itself, a rightwing split from ND, ended up with 4.8% (13 seats). Perhaps slightly surprisingly, the Movement of Democratic Socialists (Kinima), recently formed by the former prime minister and Pasok leader, George Papandreou, did not manage to pass the threshold, only receiving 2.5% - still tainted goods, it seems, and quite rightly so. It is also worth noting that the Democratic Left (Dimar), contesting the election this time in “cooperation” with the Greens and which only a few years ago was part of the coalition government, was deservedly wiped out on 0.5%. Nor should it be overlooked that the Socialist Workers Party-backed Antarsya (Front of the Greek Anticapitalist Left), almost doubled its share of the vote - going from 0.3% to 0.6%. You could optimistically call that progress.
Overall, the turnout was a not particularly impressive 63.9% - ie, 3,580,709 (or 35.1%) did not bother to vote. However, the relatively high abstention rate is partly explained by the fact that many Greeks simply could not afford to travel to their designated voting district - the law stipulating that citizens have to cast their ballot in the specific voting district they have been registered with, but then making no provision for absentee ballots, early voting procedures, expatriate Greeks, etc.
Syriza, of course, benefited from the anti-democratic 50-seat top-up that is rewarded to the leading party in the elections. But, even taking that into account, it still managed to gain more MPs than initially suggested by its 36.3% of the national vote. That is because there is another peculiarity of the Greek electoral system, in that votes cast for parties that fall short of the 3% threshold, as well as blank and invalid votes, are disregarded for seat-allocation purposes. Hence, the more people vote for parties that miss the threshold, the lower the vote share needed to get a majority of seats. So, while Syriza may only have got 36.3% of the popular vote, it got 39.8% of the votes that actually mattered and hence the same percentage of the parliamentary seats - ie, 99 (rounded down) - plus the 50 ‘premium’, adding up to 149.
The meeting confirming the coalition between Tsipras and Panos Kammenos, Anel’s leader, lasted for only an hour, obviously indicating that they were finalising discussions that had been underway for some time. In other words, this was not some panicky or ‘emergency’ decision forced upon Syriza by the fact that it failed to get an absolute majority. This coalition deal was, to some extent, part of a political plan.
Despite the huge ideological differences between the two parties there is no denying that this coalition - while, of course, totally unprincipled - has a certain logic. Given the thoroughly compromised and corrupt nature of Pasok, and with Kinima out of the picture, the only other potential partner, Potami, is a ‘pro-business’ and pro-privatisation party. More to the point, though Potami says that “tackling” the economic crisis is one of its “political priorities”, it does not unambiguously reject the memorandum signed between the Greek government and the despised European Commission-European Central Bank-International Monetary Fund troika: the very agreement that has brought such misery to the Greek masses.
Anel, on the other hand, is quite clear about where it stands on this issue. It calls for the revoking of the loan agreements. Indeed, it regards the memorandum as “illegal” and agitates for the removal of immunity from those Greek ministers, parliamentarians and officials who negotiated the agreements - it also demands the prosecution of those deemed responsible for the country’s desperate plight. Kammenos has decried how Greece has become a “laboratory animal” as part of an “austerity experiment” carried out by the troika, using the public debt as a “means of control” - hard to disagree. He has poured vitriol upon Germany for acting like Greece’s “master” and for wanting to “turn a Europe of independent states into a Europe dominated by Germany” - Europe now being “governed by German neo-Nazis”. Like Syriza, it wants to repudiate part of Greece’s debt, on the basis that it was created by speculators in a “conspiracy” to bring the country to its knees. Back in December 2012, Anel announced that it wanted to create a patriotic Democratic Front aiming to save Greece from the “neoliberal avalanche”.
What all this shows, needless to say, is that the question of the memorandum/austerity slices through Greek politics orthogonally1, to the ‘normal’ or formal left/right divide. Therefore it is perfectly possible to be totally reactionary on virtually all social and constitutional issues, yet be militantly anti-troika and anti-neoliberal, as Anel amply demonstrates.
The dangers of going into coalition with a party that you can crudely describe as the Greek equivalent of the UK Independence Party are more than obvious (the major difference being that you cannot serious describe Ukip as ‘anti-austerity’, let ‘anti-neoliberal’). Imagine if George Galloway teamed up with Nigel Farage. The Syriza-led government may not be a classic popular front, but it certainly is a popular front sui generis - of a special kind. The determining characteristic of all popular fronts, including the unpopular kind like Galloway’s Respect, is that the minor or junior ally sets the limits of the governmental programme. Given that Anel is an outright reactionary bourgeois party, this is quite an alarming prospect.
Alas, we can already see that Anel is constraining the agenda of the Tsipras government. Hence Kammenos - now rather alarmingly the minister of national defence - has agreed to generally back Syriza’s economic policies, provided it ditches, for example, any formal recognition of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) - as a fierce nationalist and given that millions of ethnic Greeks self-identify as Macedonians, Kammenos objects to the use of the name without some sort of geographical qualifier: ie, ‘Northern Macedonia’.2 Equally, as a strict defender of the privileges enjoyed by the Orthodox church, he has made sure that Syriza puts on ice any plans for the separation of church and state.
The first bills in parliament are expected to raise the minimum wage back to €750 per month, reintroduce regulations regarding collective wage bargaining, and focus on measures for taxpayers to be given better terms to repay overdue taxes and social security contributions. Other measures expected in the coming weeks are legislation that would allow some 300,000 households living under the poverty threshold to receive free electricity. Tsipras is also pushing for the reopening of public broadcaster ERT, which was shut down in June 2013.
Kammenos himself is a dubious individual with a murky past. He started his political career in New Democracy’s youth wing in the early 1990s, reportedly being part of a gang that had a reputation for physical confrontation with the left on the campuses and elsewhere - whilst not fascist, this outfit has been described as a “physical force Monday Club”.3 He split from ND when it did an about-turn on the memorandum.
It seems that Kammenos is prone to bizarre conspiracy theories, believing that the vapour trails left by passenger jets contain a soporific drug that has made the Greek people docilely accept the new ‘German occupation’ of their country. Then there are the persistent allegations of anti-Semitism - he recently claimed on national television that “Jews don’t pay tax”. He has bitterly complained that the ND government introduced measures that are contrary to Orthodox teachings - cremation, civil partnerships for homosexuals, etc.
And, of course, Kammenos is virulently anti-migrant. For instance, Kammenos voted against the Pasok government’s plans to grant citizenship rights to the children of immigrants. Anel’s programme advocates a 2.5% quota for non-Greeks residing in the country, maximum-security detention facilities for asylum-seekers, mass expulsion of illegal immigrants and a hierarchy of ‘preferred’ immigration by country of origin, heavily biased towards western and Latin American countries. Anti-Syriza, you could say.
Naturally, like many on the left, we in the CPGB celebrate the fact that the left received such a healthy vote and that large numbers of the Greek people said ‘Enough is enough’ - or, as the headline went on The Daily Mash spoof website, “Greeks vote to stop having shit kicked out of them”.4 Obviously, we stand in solidarity with Syriza and the Greek masses against any threats or blackmail from the IMF, ECB, World Bank - let alone the Orthodox church, Greek generals or Golden Dawn. We also applaud the way that Syriza has steadily built up a solid network of international connections and opposed left-nationalist calls to pull out of the euro/European Union (like the isolationist KKE).
Before the election we warned against Syriza assuming office - especially with minority support - without the possibility of solidarity in the shape of the international revolutionary movement. But we did not imagine that it would choose to do so alongside a rightwing party. Now the problems facing the Syriza-led government are monumental, and look set to get worse before they get better - if they ever do. Unemployment stands at 26% (for youth it is a staggering 50.6%). Homelessness is widespread. GDP has shrunk by 26% since the pre-crisis peak and by one calculation spending on goods and services has fallen by at least 40%.5 Total public debt now stands at 175% of GDP, or €317 billion.
Meanwhile, Greece’s bailout programme officially ends on February 28, after the deadline was extended in December - but without another extension, or postponement, the ECB will withdraw a vital cash line of €40 billion in ‘emergency lending assistance’ that is propping up fragile Greek banks. The country must also pay back IMF loans worth about €2.8 billion by the end of March and then in August over €10 billion is due in maturing debt. Additionally Tsipras will be well aware that he will not receive a €7.2 billion bailout payment, the last instalment of the troika’s €240 billion ‘adjustment programme’, until he comes to the negotiating table and is seen to be accepting the terms and conditions laid down by the euro zone leaders. That is, the extension of the bailout programme - and austerity regime - which he has being actively campaigning against day and night.
Any agreement with the troika on possible new terms needs to be reached by the summer, but any default on its debt could be the first step to a Greek exit from the euro zone and enforced drachma-isation - with potentially catastrophic consequences that could make today’s situation seem positively pleasurable. Yet over €8 billion has been withdrawn from Greece in the past week alone and on January 28 the yields on three-year government bond yields spiked to 16.6%, whilst 10-year bonds were at 9.59% - way above the generally accepted danger level of 7%.
What happens next? The loans cannot be paid - there is not a serious economist in the world who thinks otherwise. The FT has speculated extensively about the possibility of debt forgiveness for Greece. After all, from the perspective of total EU economic output, Greece’s debt is extremely small beer - a mere accounting detail that could be written off without any noticeable effect. Civilisation would not collapse. Why not just agree to repayment over 50 or 60 years - similar to the US approach towards Britain after World War II? The latter, after all, only paid off the last instalment in December 2006.
But, of course, politically it is a problem - a big problem. Behind Greece there are others. If you compromise with Greece, then Spain will want debt relief - then Portugal or Ireland. Various anti-austerity parties will feel emboldened. Sinn Féin clearly has governmental ambitions, while Podemos in Spain, sister party to Syriza, is top of the polls at the moment - raising the unpalatable prospect, as far as large swathes of the bourgeoisie are concerned, of another ‘crazy far-left’ government getting elected. If Syriza is able to win major concessions, then Europe’s growing populist revolt could become unstoppable.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, many in Berlin and elsewhere believe the costs of lending to a rebel government in Athens would soon outstrip the cost of a ‘Grexit’, economically and politically. Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF bloodsuckers, told Le Monde that the euro zone cannot make “special categories” for this or that country - there are “internal rules” that must be “respected”. According to diplomats, Angela Merkel is confident that Tsipras will ‘see sense’, once faced with the grim, everyday realities and compromises of EU politics. You cannot beat the system. Meanwhile, the FT has run sympathetic profiles of Tsipras, emphasising how he has always been a wheeling-dealing compromiser, even when he was a member of Communist Youth.
We fear that Merkel and the FT may be right. At his swearing-in ceremony, Tsipras vowed to defend the constitution. Far better to have stood against the entire constitutional order, including the 50-seat top-up and all the rest of the nonsense. Unfortunately, Syriza is not committed to the disbanding of the standing army, let alone immediately withdrawing from Nato - it is taking on a thoroughly reformist coloration.
1. As comrade Kevin Ovenden usefully puts it (http://left-flank.org/2015/01/27/thoughts-deal-syriza-anel).
3. Thanks again to comrade Ovenden (ibid).
5. Martin Wolf, ‘Greek debt and a default of statesmanship’ Financial Times January 27.