January 25th marks a historic turning point in recent Greek history. After five years of devastating austerity, a social crisis without precedent in Europe, and a series of struggles that at some points, especially in 2010-2012, took an almost insurrectionary form, there has been a major political break. The parties that were responsible for putting Greek society under the disciplinary supervision of the so-called Troika (EU-ECB-IMF) suffered a humiliating defeat. PASOK, which in 2009 won almost 44% of the vote, now received only 4.68%; and the splinter party of Giorgos Papandreou, the PASOK Prime Minister who initiated the austerity programs, got 2.46%. New Democracy came in at 27.81%, almost 9% below SYRIZA. The electoral rise of the fascists of Golden Dawn has been halted, although they still maintain a worrying 6% of the vote. Another pro-austerity party, the RIVER, representing the neoliberal agenda (although nominally coming from the center-left) took only 6.05%, despite intensive media hype.
In a certain manner this has been the electoral revenge of a society that has suffered, and struggled against those responsible for this suffering. We should not forget that Greece saw official unemployment rising up to 27% – and youth unemployment up to 50% – suffered a cumulative contraction of almost 25%, saw a massive reduction in wages and pensions, and witnessed the passage of massive legislation oriented towards privatizations, labor market liberalization, and neoliberal university reform.
SYRIZA won an important electoral victory, with 36.34% of the vote and 149 deputies (it needed only two more to have an absolute parliamentary majority). Symbolically, this is a historic victory. For the first time in modern European history, a party of the non-social-democratic Left will form a government. In a country where the Left suffered persecution for a great part of the twentieth century, the image of a Prime Minister whose first act after taking the oath of office was to visit the place where 200 communists were executed on May 1, 1944 seems like the symbolic vindication of a whole history of struggles. This political turn to the Left is the result of the tectonic changes in political and electoral relations of representation induced not only by the economic and social crisis, but also the long cycle of struggles against austerity that acted as a catalyst for new radical political identities and new forms of belonging. As such, it sends an important message of change and resistance to the whole of Europe and has already become a source of inspiration, something evident in the enthusiastic reaction from the rest of the European Left.
During the campaign the “realist” and right-wing turn of the leadership of SYRIZA became much more evident. The SYRIZA leadership has abandoned the demand for an immediate abrogation of the memorandum (the conditions attached to the loan agreements), which was the main thrust of the 2012 campaign. It has moved away from the “no sacrifice for the euro” position. The nationalization of the banking system is no longer one of the immediate demands. The main programmatic position of SYRIZA is an attempt to put an end to austerity while remaining within the institutional, monetary, and financial framework of the Eurozone and the EU. They have insisted on their ability to negotiate a restructuring and possible reduction of the Greek debt with our creditors, namely the EU and the IMF. At the same time, they have pointed towards using against austerity the European version of “quantitative easing” that the ECB has just initiated. Moreover, they have insisted on the possibility of a change in the direction of the EU based upon the rise of leftist movements in Southern Europe or in Ireland, and the divergences between the German government and the ECB or between Angela Merkel and Matteo Renzi. The main thrust of SYRIZA’s policies, once in office, will be, according to their pre-election declarations, the creation of something like a social safety net by raising the minimum wage back to 751 euros, reinstating basic rights to collective bargaining, reversing suspensions of public sector employees, offering immediate assistance to 300,000 families below the poverty threshold, creating jobs, and increasing pensions. There is no denying that these are urgently needed measures.
However, in the current balance of forces in the EU, even such a mild loosening of austerity might not be possible. It is not that such a break with austerity is not financially possible; rather, the reason is that the deep crisis of the Eurozone, as a result mainly of the embedded and institutionalized neoliberalism of “European Integration,” causes the European ruling class to be fearful of anything that might seem like a “paradigm change.” This is especially true if we take the debt crisis in Italy and the increased French deficits into consideration. So it is more probable that during negotiations the EU side will try to push for the continuation of some form of austerity policies, so as to send the message that no one can escape the norm. We should not forget that Greece is still dependent upon EU funding and ECB liquidity, and the new government will face a situation of empty state coffers and pressing spending needs. Dealing with these urgent needs, while at the same time facing the pressures from the EU, is going to be one of the first challenges the new government will have to deal with. Moreover, we should not forget that as part of the austerity programs, the financial lifeline offered to Greece was dependent not only upon fiscal targets, such as primary budget surpluses (themselves a form of austerity), but also upon implementing neoliberal legislation and reforms. And they will try to apply the same pressure against some limited form of debt relief. In the words of the Financial Times, “none of Mr Tsipras’s proposals for debt relief will get a sympathetic hearing unless he promises to continue deep-seated reforms of Greece’s economy and the public administration.”
In light of the above challenges, the necessity of a break with debt, the euro, and the EU treaties acquires a new urgency. It is obvious that only a stoppage or moratorium on debt payments and a process of debt write-off can offer the Greek government the ability to increase public spending in order to start reversing the consequences of austerity. It is also obvious that only through repealing the bulk of neoliberal reforms imposed upon Greece in the past years will it be possible to have some more progressive policies. Such a process will inevitably lead to the confrontation with the whole supervisory mechanism of the EU and the provisions inscribed in the Eurozone framework. In this sense, the break with the euro, and thus a return to monetary sovereignty, remains an urgent necessity – the starting point for any truly progressive politics.
Moreover, it is obvious that what people struggled for in the past years was much more than a “social safety net.” Reversal of the social disaster caused by austerity is, of course, the first and necessary step. However, the deep social and political crisis in Greece, as a “cathartic” moment, also offers the possibility for a different social and political road away from neoliberalism and debt-driven consumerism. This means that the exit from austerity should not be seen simply as a return to “growth” but as the beginning of a process of experimentation with an alternative developmental paradigm, based upon self-management, new forms of democratic participatory planning, and the benefit of the collective experience and ingenuity of the people in struggle.
Lacking the necessary parliamentary majority, SYRIZA has formed a government with the Independent Greeks party (ANEL). The Independent Greeks are a peculiar hybrid of populism and traditional right-wing values, with ties to segments of the Greek business class and the Greek Church. They have been anti-austerity ever since they split away from New Democracy. The SYRIZA leadership had indicated that they might form a government with the Independent Greeks rather early, even though they would have preferred a full majority. This was part of a change in political rhetoric from the “left government” position, to that of an anti-austerity “government of social rescue around SYRIZA.” Moreover, Panos Kammenos, the leader of the Independent Greeks, and the new Minister of Defense, campaigned to with the slogan: “put me into parliament so that I can control SYRIZA from becoming too leftist.”
At the same time, it should be stressed that there was never a discussion of an alliance with the Communist Party (KKE), because such an alliance would have meant the possibility of a radical anti-EU coalition. This is something that both SYRIZA and KKE do not want: SYRIZA because of their pro-EU, pro-euro position; KKE because of their sectarian defeatism and their refusal to see any possibility of change. In terms of economics, it will be possible to strike a balance within the new government. In fact, one might say that in certain aspects the Independent Greeks are more “populist” than the SYRIZA leadership. Independent Greeks are not anti-EU or anti-euro; consequently, there will be no divergences on that front either. Regarding rights (for example, LGBTQ rights), relation to the Church, immigration policy, etc., there might be some tensions, but overall – and taking into consideration the “realist” turn of the SYRIZA leadership – it seems as if the coalition will work, at least at first. It also helps the attempt of the SYRIZA leadership to present the new government, both domestically and internationally, as a national anti-austerity coalition, not just as a government of the Left.
Regarding other tendencies of the Left, it should be stressed that the Communist Party had a small increase in votes (5.47% up from 4.5% in June 2012). During the campaign it maintained a rather sectarian tone, depicting SYRIZA as a systemic alternative and presenting the strengthening of the Party as the only way out. However, the characteristic trait of the KKE’s political line has been its insistence that unless “opportunism” is defeated there can be no process of social change. This rather defeatist position is the basis of the party’s sectarian tactics. The radical anti-EU Left, represented by ANTARSYA-MARS, did better than in 2012 (0.64% up from 0.33% in June 2012), but came under heavy pressure within a heavily polarized election. Despite its attempt to campaign as the necessary non-sectarian Left opposition to the right-wing turn of SYRIZA, it did not manage to have an electoral result that could match its appeal within the social movements.
The period ahead of us presents important challenges, especially for the radical Left. The first challenge is to rebuild the movement in the deepest sense. The political change and the new sense of optimism of the subaltern classes must also be transformed into a new surge of struggles. This is required to put the necessary pressure upon the SYRIZA government to honor its promises and to actually improve the social situation – from making sure that laid-off public sector employees get their jobs back and ERT (the public broadcast network) is reopened, to the struggle for the repeal of neoliberal reforms, strong social movements and mobilizations are more than necessary. This will restore the confidence of people in their ability to change their lives and thus demand more radical policies, a necessary counterweight to pressure and blackmail from international organizations.
Without a society engaged in struggle, that is, a society engaged in collective practices of resistance and transformation, no process of social change can be initiated. This impressive cycle of struggles in the past years was the catalyst for the electoral shifts and the turn of the electorate to the Left. In a certain sense, the electoral results have also been political translations of dynamics of protest and contestation. In the current conjuncture, we need a resurgence of the movement, a resurgence in terms of struggle but also aspiration – a necessary surplus of social force both as pressure on the government, as counterweight to the blackmail from the EU, but also as the catalyst for new forms of radicalization.
Finally, the debate on strategy must continue. The challenge ahead of us is not simply to have some form of progressive governance within the forbidding constraints imposed by the EU and the Eurozone. The challenge is to articulate a new dialectic of immediate demands and radical changes, not only in the sense of the necessary break with the debt burden and the euro, but also – and mainly – of the ways to experiment with new social configurations. For ANTARSYA and the broader Greek radical anti-EU Left, the challenge is not simply – and not mainly – to be a “Left opposition” to SYRIZA, however useful this might be in a political landscape where all opposition to SYRIZA will come from the Right. The challenge is how to elaborate a left alternative, a strategy of ruptures and breaks (with the embedded neoliberalism of the euro, debt, etc); this is exactly the kind of alternative that will be urgently needed when the strategy of SYRIZA hits the wall of EU blackmail and the counter-attacks of the forces of capital.
We have entered a new historical phase. We have the possibility of collectively writing a new page in history. Greece has been the testing ground for the most aggressive neoliberal experiment since Pinochet’s Chile. We still have the potential to transform it into a laboratory of hope! This demands confidence in the potential inscribed in popular struggles and an ability to think beyond the dominant frames of thinking. But isn’t this the essence of radical politics? The real challenge now is for the people to sustain their hope – the hope of people actually changing their lives.