Austerity in the colours of Syriza
Alexis Tsipras has escaped punishment at the ballot box, says Daniel Harvey, but the Greek election is a bad result for the left
In the end Syriza managed to avoid losing the snap election called by Alexis Tsipras in the wake of his surrender to the institutions in June. He got 35.46% of the vote, as against 28.10% for his conservative rivals in New Democracy. At the same time, his coalition partner in the last government, the rightwing and xenophobic Independent Greeks (Anel) also managed to maintain its representation in the Hellenic parliament, winning 10 seats. Altogether Syriza will be able to keep its old coalition, despite emerging with four seats fewer: thanks to the undemocratic 50-seat top-up for the winning party, it now has 145 MPs in the 300-seat parliament.
This is a far better result than Tsipras must have expected. Opinion polls on the eve of the election showed the two main parties neck and neck on 31% apiece. However, Syriza has lost its entire youth wing, which decamped en masse in response to Tsipras’s complete failure to honour the pledges he made before the January election to oppose austerity. At the same time, the Left Platform also abandoned ship when it became clear that its MPs would be deselected and driven out by the Tsipras leadership. They formed a new party, Popular Unity, led by Panagiotis Lafazanis.
In practice, the Left Platform had at best only ever offered token opposition to Tsipras’s capitulation, and at worst actively colluded with it. Half of its MPs voted for the third memorandum, when it was rammed through parliament, despite it being harsher in many ways than the original deal offered to Greece, which was rejected overwhelmingly in the July referendum. It included massive privatisations, cuts in pensions and benefits, an increase in VAT to 23% and a reduction in public-sector salaries - combined with further restrictions on labour rights, and an increase in the retirement age to 67. Popular Unity could manage only 2.86% - just short of the 3% threshold required for parliamentary representation.
Tsipras insists that his new government will last a full four years and has called it a victory for democracy in Greece. The turnout, however, was one of the lowest ever in Greek history, at 55%. It seems that the attitude of many voters is that it really makes no difference who you vote for, seeing as Greece is effectively now being governed from Brussels and Berlin. Syriza is committed to an open-ended programme of austerity at the behest of the European Union, the International Monetary Fund, etc, which it intends to push through to the end.
This is despite the fact that the bailout agreement has been set up to fail in many ways. High primary surplus targets of 3.5% from 2018 onwards will severely curtail any willingness to invest. The debt relief will be modest, but will still keep Greece in hock to its creditors for decades. Small businesses have no real access to capital markets. The VAT rises will dampen consumer demand. And the institutions will demand constant sacrifices, so that bigger payments can be made to creditors.
The wiggle room Tsipras has bought himself is very slight. He has, however, put through some modest reforms in the way of healthcare and free electricity for the unemployed, as well as a slightly more humane approach to refugees. Large numbers of Syrians fleeing to Europe are passing through Greece. This forced New Democracy to abandon its more liberal image and adopt a position which amounted to the militarisation of Greek borders. However, Tsipras has committed Syriza to use every opportunity to push negotiations further with the institutions, whilst also making it a point to tackle Greece’s tax-evading oligarchs.
This begs the question of whether over the next few years the association of the left with harsh austerity policies at the beck and call of the institutions will play into the hands of the far-right nationalist parties, particularly Golden Dawn, which did not make any significant headway in this election - its 6.99% entitled it to one extra seat. At the same time the ‘official communist’ KKE saw no change in its support - it retained its 15 seats with 5.55% - while the Anti-Capitalist Left, Antarsya, could only manage 0.85% of the vote.
Safe pair of hands
Overall, the European powers, as well as the international press, have generally welcomed the result. Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the president of the euro group, was quoted in the Financial Times as saying: “I now look forward to the swift formation of a new government with a strong mandate to continue the reform process in Greece.” He continued: “I stand ready to work closely with the Greek authorities and to continue accompanying Greece in its ambitious reform efforts.” The FT has been mildly congratulatory, its editorial stating:
Even though Mr Tsipras has managed to divest Syriza of some of its more obstructionist elements, there remains enough discontent within the party to resist implementing the kind of structural changes needed to liberate the Greek economy.1
TheDaily Telegraph had a headline which read: “Jittery creditors breathe a short-lived sigh of relief, as Alexis Tsipras triumphs again”.2 It seems that Syriza has successfully won the trust of quite a few representatives of Europe’s capitalist class. Having purged what passed for the left and ditched most of its modest reformist agenda, Syriza has proved to be a safe pair of hands.
It is in fact not much different from any neoliberal-type social democratic party. It has extensively centralised the control over policies into the leadership around Tsipras, who can now make virtually any decision he likes without worrying about the membership.
Calling the snap election had the effect of marginalising his left opponents before they had time to gather any forces together or make much of an appeal. It was also about getting it out of the way before the bulk of the harsh new measures have been implemented. I wonder how Greece’s security apparatus will react against any mass opposition to the new measures - not least if Anel retains control of the defence ministry.
The left in Britain has, of course, now moved on from its former enthusiastic support for Syriza without much of a comment. Left Unity has suddenly gone quiet about its “sister party”, while Socialist Resistance, as well as comrades like Richard Seymour and Owen Jones, are keen to portray the Greek election results as a reason to break with the European Union rather than to build a genuine pan-European working class movement to oppose austerity on an international scale.
Such logic is really far more useful for rightwing nationalists, as they seek to usurp a reformist left which has proven incapable of implementing its programme. It turns out there are no short cuts to building a genuinely pan-European working class movement which can coordinate the fight against austerity across the continent. This is clearly something that is needed more urgently than ever.