Electors in France and Greece strike a blow against austerity
But, writes Eddie Ford, the call must be to resist the temptation of office. The working class ought to constitute itself as a party of extreme opposition until it is ready to carry out its full programme
It is no exaggeration to say that May 6 turned out to be Black Sunday for the architects of austerity. Parliamentary and presidential elections in Greece and France - even to some extent the local elections in Italy - saw a decisive rejection of deficit reduction, ‘fiscal consolidation’, ‘book-balancing’ and all the rest of the crap we have endlessly heard from the capitalist automatons. Any idea of a popular consensus or mandate for the cuts assault has been blown away and now the bourgeoisie will find it a lot harder to rule over us in the old way.
Critically, the election results represented a collective - and contemptuous - repudiation of the European Union fiscal pact so ardently championed by the Angela Merkel administration, the former French president, Nicolas Sarkozy (albeit an initially reluctant convert), and the fiscal ‘hawks’ within the European Union bureaucracy. A compact that, in theory, institutionalises austerity economics in perpetuity: you can vote for who you like, but you will always get the same polices.
But that was challenged in France, when François Hollande (supposedly Mr Normal) became the first Socialist Party president in 20 years after winning the run-off with 51.63% of the vote. Legislative elections, which are expected to produce an SP-led government, will take place in June. Hollande, of course, has promised to “rewrite” or “renegotiate” the fiscal pact - his central campaign pledge. A call to arms against the Fiskalpakt and the ‘Merkozy’ alliance. “Austerity is no longer inevitable,” he declared, and his “mission” is to “give to European construction the dream of growth”. Merkel congratulated Hollande on his victory and said she looked forward to doing business with him - no doubt. But she has also adamantly insisted that the fiscal pact is “not negotiable” - whether in Greece, France or any of the other euro zone countries. The pact has been signed by the 25 governmental leaders and that is that. Just obey.
Mr Normal, needless to say, will discover all manner of virtues in the German government’s approach to Europe once he is comfortably bedded down in the Élysée - it must be those goose-feathered pillows or something. But that does not mean that there will be a smooth and easy transition from Merkozy to ‘Merkollande’ and it will soon be business as usual. An Hollande aide told the BBC that “we have 45 days to succeed”, meaning the new French president only has a limited amount of time to come up with some sort of amended European deal over the fiscal pact - anything - that he can then sell to those who supported him on May 6 as proof that their vote has not been wasted. If not, the SP could pay the price in the June elections and one major benefactor could well be Marine Le-Pen’s Front National, which won 17.9% of the vote in the first round of the presidentials.
However, encouragingly for Hollande - and also the working class, to the extent that it might signify a partial retreat from the austerity regime - cracks appear to be opening up in the EU bureaucracy. Maybe a dawning realisation that unless there is a change in direction, or at the very least a radical change in presentation, then the whole euro project itself could disappear down the plug-hole - not just the fiscal pact. Thus on May 8 Herman Van Rompuy, the (unelected) president of the European Council - which under the Lisbon treaty is charged with outlining the “general political directions and priorities” of the EU - announced that a “special summit” will be held in two weeks time.
At this “special summit”, Hollande will apparently unveil his proposals for “tackling” the euro crisis - which will involve demands for “pan-European investment” to generate growth and create jobs. A stimulus package, in other words. Similarly, Olli Rehn, the EU commissioner for economic and monetary affairs, in a speech on May 6 talked about “seizing the moment to advance our proposals in the new political climate” - with austerity being increasingly rejected by European workers and voters. What is to be done?
Yes, Rehn continued, fiscal consolidation and structural reforms are “unavoidable” - no turning back. Having said that though, he claimed that such ‘reforms’ (ie, cuts and attacks) could be implemented in a “growth-friendly” way. Very sensible. “Active public policies to promote sustainable growth” are, he stated, “equally as important” as deficit reduction. He also claimed that the fiscal pact is “not stupid” - absolutely not - but entails “considerable scope for judgement when it comes to its application”.
Additionally, he mapped out the EU’s plans to boost growth by using public spending to foster private investment and reiterated proposals to increase the capital base of the European Investment Bank by about €10 billion - which could be used as collateral to inaugurate large infrastructure “pilot projects” on a pan-European scale this year. There is also €82 billion, we hear, in “unused” structural funds from the EU’s medium-term budget which could be tapped to promote growth and jobs, amounting to a quarter of the total EU budget. Furthermore, Rehn envisaged the creation of “project bonds” (not Eurobonds, of course) for infrastructure, suggesting the EU bosses could be ready to start funding this project within months.
All these wondrous “growth-boosting initiatives”, Rehn informed his Brussels audience, could be “combined to create a European investment pact”. This must be music to Hollande’s ears, given that he deployed very similar arguments - and language - during his presidential campaign. More importantly still, if “growth-friendly” projects do emerge from the “special summit” then Hollande might be able to return triumphant. The man of the people who gets things done.
Perhaps in another sign of the times, the president of the EU commission, José Manuel Barroso, strongly hinted that there could be a “relaxation” of the binding budget targets as laid out in the Fiskalpakt. Not that this signals a retreat from ‘fiscal consolidation’, perish the idea. However, he hastily added - did we briefly see panic in his eyes? - any such fiscal/budgetary loosening would not apply to Greece, which still has to obey every imperious demand of the EU commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund troika.
In fact, Jörg Asmussen - a member of both the Social Democratic Party of Germany and the ECB executive - told the Handelsblatt business newspaper on May 9 that there was “no alternative” to the troika programme and Greece could be kicked out of the euro forthwith if it reneged on the bailout conditions. Sentiments endorsed by Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister, who days before the Greek parliamentary elections warned - or threatened - that if Greek voters were to foolishly vote for parties that will “not honour those agreements” then they “will have to bear the consequences”.
However, the Greek masses ignored Schäuble’s warnings - big time. The two establishment parties that have ruled the country since the military rule came to an end in 1974, New Democracy and Pasok, were humiliated. Punished for their role in inflicting austerity and misery upon the masses. On a 65.1% turn-out - the lowest ever in modern times - two-thirds of the electorate voted for anti-austerity parties, whether from the left or right. ND received just 18.9% of the vote, representing a 14.6% drop from the last parliamentary elections, but managed to secure an artificially high number of seats (108) due to the anti-democratic rule in the constitution which rewards the party that secures the highest number of votes with a 50-seat ‘bonus’ (so-called ‘reinforced proportionality’). Naturally, this law was introduced in order to enhance ‘governmental stability’ - the rule of the bourgeoisie, in other words.
So ND with less than 20% of the vote gets almost two seats for every one allocated to other parties in proportion to their vote - despite the fact that more people actually declined to vote than voted for ND. Very fair and democratic. Ironically enough - and quote gloriously - this rule designed to promote ‘stability’ is if anything now having the very opposite effect, as it was obviously predicated on the happy notion that the extra 50 seats would always ensure that the leading party would to form the government. Now there is the possibility that ND will not be part of a new government, but will still retain its extra 50 seats as part of an obstructive bloc - thus throwing the whole Greek constitution into disrepute. An excellent development, as far as communists are concerned - being that we are extreme democrats.
Meanwhile, Pasok, quite inevitably, was decimated, getting a mere 13.2 % of the vote (41 seats) and coming third to Syriza - the Coalition of the Radical Left - which got 16.8% and hence bagged 52 seats. Then we had the Independent Greeks, a rightwing organisation formed only in February this year by a disgruntled former ND MP, on 10.6% (33 seats). Next was the ‘official’ Communist Party, KKE, on 8.5% (26 seats) and the far-right Golden Dawn making a significant breakthrough on 7.0% (21 seats). The Democratic Left, a semi-rightist split from Syriza - though still considerably to the left of Pasok - got 6.1% (19 seats).
Overall, the combined vote for the parties to the left of Pasok represented in parliament came to 32.3% (or 97 seats). It is worth noting that those parties that did not reach the threshold obtained 19.03% of the vote between them, hardly an insignificant figure. That included other groups to the left of Pasok, including the Ecologist Greens (2.9%) and the Anti-capitalist Left (1.2%).
Amidst the carnage, ND’s Antonis Samaras tried to form a government of “national salvation” - having three days to pull off the trick before the Greek president handed over the ‘mandate’ to the leader of the party with the second biggest share of the vote. But Samaras threw in the towel within 24 hours, describing his task as “impossible”. Even if he could get Pasok on board for another coalition government, they still would only be able to muster 149 seats between them - two short of the 151 needed to form a parliamentary majority. Unsurprisingly, nobody else was remotely interested in linking up with ND - who would want to be associated with one of the former governmental parties that brought such misery to the Greek people?
Therefore, the baton was handed on to Alexis Tsipras - head of Syriza and also president of Synaspismós, the Coalition of Left Movements and Ecology, the largest component within Syriza. He was faced with a similarly impossible task, given the parliamentary arithmetic, and quickly gave up trying - no doubt Evangelos Venizelos, Pasok’s president, or anyone else asked by the Greek president to form a government, will fail dismally. As the Weekly Worker goes to press though, it is being widely reported Venizelos will not even bother taking up the ‘mandate’, which - if it turns out to be true - almost certainly means (barring a military or constitutional coup) that fresh elections will be called for June. Such an announcement might possibly be imminent.
But only someone from Mars could believe that angry Greek voters will suddenly flock back to the mainstream/establishment parties: the centre cannot hold. Indeed, there is a reasonable probability that Syriza could come first next time, when you consider the very large number of uncast votes up for grabs - such votes would surely go overwhelmingly to anti-austerity parties, mainly ones on the left (ie, Syriza). A near perfect recipe for electoral stalemate, which in turn means Greece is heading for more political instability - not less. Not the bourgeois game plan, you can bet.
Faced with fears that the country might crash out of the euro relatively soon - hardly a fanciful speculation - the markets across Europe fell markedly, with investors turning to the safe havens of US treasuries, German bonds and UK gilts. Greek stocks fell to a 20-year low, whilst the euro slipped 0.3% against the dollar to $1.3022.
We are obliged to ask - does Alex Tsipras and Syriza offer a viable working class alternative to the rule of the bourgeoisie in Greece? He has shocked establishment Greece - and Europe as a whole - with his militant declaration that the “popular verdict” had rendered the troika’s bailout package “null and void” and that therefore there should be a moratorium on Greek debt payments. He is totally correct, of course, though we communists would prefer an even more militant and direct stance that calls for the immediate cancellation of the “barbaric” debt - as he calls it, quite rightly again. Tsipras says that he is not against the euro as such, but “opposed to the policies being pursued in the name of the euro”, which we take to mean that he - like the majority of Greeks - has no nationalist desire to pull out of the euro/EU.
Then we have to examine Tsipras’s five conditions for entering into new coalition government: the immediate cancellation of all “impending measures” that will “impoverish Greeks further”, such as cuts to pensions and salaries; and those that “undermine” fundamental workers’ rights, such as the abolition of collective labour agreements; the “immediate abolition” of a law granting MPs immunity from prosecution, “reform” of the electoral law and a general “overhaul” of the political system (which include the abolition of the 50-seat ‘bonus’); an “investigation” into the practices of Greek banks and the “immediate publication” of the audit performed on the Greek banking sector by BlackRock in January, and the setting up of an “international auditing committee” to investigate the causes of Greece’s public deficit, with a moratorium on all debt servicing until the findings of the audit are published.
Tsipras’s demands are quite supportable in and of themselves - and it is a perfectly legitimate tactic, depending upon the concrete conditions, to put forward all manner of demands/conditions in order to expose a political party, or even individual, before the masses. However, communists would be utterly opposed to the formation of a left reformist coalition, which would be committed to administering capitalism. That would be a disaster. Instead, we are for a working class government committed to carrying out the full minimum programme of Marxism.
But there is no Marxist party in Greece capable of forming such a government as of today. Communists in Greece should therefore demand that Syriza, and the Greek left as a whole, reject all invitations to form or join a government. Till we have a clear majority committed to a transition to socialism it is far better to be parties of extreme opposition which intransigently fight not only against the cuts but for a new, much more democratic, constitution. Alongside that, of course, we need to build a state within the state, eg, co-ops, workers’ control over production, a workers’ militia, a united trade union movement. Crucially what the crisis in the EU cries out for is a Communist Party of the European Union because only on a pan-European basis can we realistically expect to implement the full minimum programme and begin to look to the tasks of the maximum programme (ie, communism).