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Greece: Syriza’s hollow election victory 

22 October 2015

Syriza has recorded a clear victory in Greece’s recent general election – its second win in a period of less than a year.   In terms of vote share and seats the result is almost identical to that of the January general election which put the party into government for the first time.  This time round Syriza won 35 per cent of the vote (seven points ahead of its New Democracy rival) and 145 seats (just four less than before).  With the party’s number of seats falling short of majority it will once again govern as a coalition with the right wing Independent Greeks.   The new government will have a total of 155 seats in the 300 seat parliament, commanding a majority of just four. 


On the basis of electoral arithmetic alone little would seem to have changed in Greece from January to September.  Of course this completely ignores the political tumult during this short period which has seen Syriza elected on an anti-austerity programme, its tortuous negotiations with the Troika, the overwhelming no vote to bailout terms in the July referendum, and the capitulation of Syriza to even harsher terms  just eight days later.  In this period the platform of Syriza has undergone a complete reversal from one that rejected bailouts, refused to recognise the Troika institutions and sought to end austerity to one that is fully committed to implementing the terms of a new bailout drawn up and supervised by the Troika. 

So how did such reversal come about?   It was undoubtedly caused in part by the political and financial pressure that was brought to bear on the Syriza led government in the wake of its election in January.  The EU and international institutions were clearly not prepared to tolerate any opposition to the policy of austerity – even one as limited as that represented by Syriza – and employed all sorts of coercive measures (such as the withdrawal of funding to Greek banks) to crush it.  However, it would be wrong to put the Greek debacle solely down to external pressures.  Such pressures, while significant, are not sufficient in themselves to account for Syriza’s capitulation.   Those on the left who concentrate on this aspect are really only diverting attention away from the inherent weaknesses of Syriza’s politics and those of the anti-austerity electoral formations of which it was  the prime representative. 

The reality is that Syriza’s reversal had its roots in the defeatist perspective upon which it was founded.  This held that the working class had been historically defeated and any socialist project was impossible.  Within this ideological framework the role of the left was to stabilise capitalism in order to prevent it collapsing into something worse.  This perspective underpinned everything that the party did, from its approach in negotiations to its submission to the Troika. 

The hope that Syriza had held out to Greek workers – the possibility of a reasonable compromise within capitalism that would allow for an easing of austerity – proved to be illusory.  When its reasonable approach was met with the implacable opposition of the European governments and the creditors Syriza was floundering.  And it was not just floundering in July, it was floundering from the very start.  In February after only being in office for a month it agreed to an extension of the bailout and recognised the legitimacy of the Troika institutions.  After they conceded on these points the only thing left to discuss were the details of a new bailout programme. 

It must be understood that the reversal of the Syriza programme is primarily a defeat from within.   If the Syriza led government had been overwhelmed by imperialism or ousted by its own capitalist class this would have been bad but to have surrendered without a fight is much worse.  Such a defeat is far more comprehensive because of the demoralising affect it has on the working class as a whole. 


It may seem contradictory for Syriza to have won a general election in the wake of such an abject failure.  However, it should not be that surprising, as we have seen on many occasions how a defeat - combined with the absence of an alternative - can reinforce a leadership (whether that be in left parties or trade unions) that bears most responsibility for it. 

If we look more closely at the election results we can get a sense of the widespread disillusionment and demoralisation that has set in amongst the Greek people in the wake of Syriza’s surrender.  Probably the most remarkable feature of the recent general election was the very high levels of abstentions.   In January 37 per cent did not vote, while this time it was 43.5 per cent and of those who went to the polling stations 2.5 per cent cast a blank vote. Thus the total not casting a vote was 46 per cent, almost half the population.   Of 9,836,997 Greeks eligible to vote, only 5,562,820 did so. This represented the lowest turnout since the restoration of democracy in Greece after the fall of the military junta in 1974.  Significantly the turnout in September’s general election was 1.6 million lower than that for the July referendum. 

In terms of votes support for all the major parties was well down. Figures show that Syriza and the other pro-austerity parties lost 887,714 votes since January’s election. Syriza lost 320,000 (15 per cent) and New Democracy lost 192,500 (11 per cent). Anel lost 93,000 votes, The River lost 151,758, while the PASOK/Democratic Left alliance lost 130,456 votes in comparison to their votes in January.  Those parties (which includes Syriza) who voted in favour of the new Memorandum on July 20th lost a total of 1.1 million votes.  While Syriza won the election and will be the lead party in government only 19.14 per cent of the total electorate supported it this time.  That is hardly an endorsement for the programme of austerity it will be applying over the next period. 

Failure of Left 

The other feature of the election was the failure of a left opposition to emerge.  Popular Unity, the party formed by Syriza’s Left Platform faction, failed to make a breakthrough.  It only won 155,000 votes (2.86 per cent) falling short of the 3 per cent threshold required for parliamentary representation. 

Unsurprisingly Popular Unity’s presentation of itself as a version of Syriza that would be more faithful to its principles failed to engage that party’s former supporters.   There was no evaluation of the political weaknesses of the Syriza project or self-criticism regarding the participation of Left Platform members in the Syriza led government.  Many of its leading members supported the concessions made by Tsipras in the negotiations to win agreement for a new bailout.   It was also clear that they would have been prepared to stay within Syriza as a loyal opposition.  Their break only came after Tsipras indicated that even token opposition within the party would not be tolerated.  The formation of Popular Unity therefore was an organisational rather than political split with Syriza which owed more to opportunism than principle. 

The only thing that distinguished Popular Unity from Syriza’s previous programme was the call for the introduction of a national currency.   It explicitly called for a Greek exit from the euro.  The stated aim of such a strategy is to increase exports and revive the productive part of the economy.  Yet the consequence of this would be to cheapen the currency and the lower the value of Greek labour.   Without a challenge to private ownership such a strategy would reduce Greece to a low cost location for global capitalism.  This is merely the programme of austerity through other means. 

The left party most identified with economic nationalism - the Greek Communist Party (KKE) - also failed to make an advance.    While the party won 5.5 per cent of the vote, exactly the same percentage as in January, in absolute terms they lost 37,000.   The only left formation to increase its support in both votes and percentage was ANTARSYA, an anti-austerity coalition containing a number of revolutionary currents and including our sister organisation OKDE. It won 45,937 votes (0.85 per cent) compared to 39,411 (0.64 per cent) in January.   While a positive development it also shows the degree to which the revolutionary left remains a marginal force in Greek politics. 

Lesser evil 

During the election campaign Syriza sought to portray itself as the lesser of two evils.  While not disagreeing on any of the fundamentals of the bailout programme it created the impression that its application under Syriza would be less harsh than under its conservative rival.  Three main elements of this were;

the claim that the agreement with the Troika was not finalised and there was room for further negotiations; 

that debt relief would follow 

that Greece’s oligarchs would be forced to bear their share of the pain. 

Yet such claims were completely bogus.   The general terms of the bailout and much of the detail is already agreed.   Included in these terms is an explicit rejection of debt relief.    Given the fact that the policies of the new bailout programme (and all the previous bailouts) serve to reinforce the oligarchs, the proposition that a Syriza led government applying that programme would take them on is completely risible.  The reality is that Syriza is now in alliance with the Greek oligarchs.   To a large degree that has always been the case as Syriza - even in its earlier phase - has sought to frame politics in nationalist terms in order to obscure the reality that the most powerful section of the Greek capitalist class favoured austerity. 

Austerity enforcers 

The ambiguity generated by Syriza - and also the fact that the general election took place before the bailout terms were scheduled to come into force - enabled the  party to retain enough support to claim a victory.   However, it did not take long for these ambiguities to be dispelled once Syriza had resumed its place in government.   Tspiras moved quickly to indicate to the EU, international financial institutions and the Greek capitalist class that a Syriza led government would adhere strictly to the programme and timetable it had agreed.   This saw the appointment of those figures in Syriza most identified with the bailout out negotiations.  Eucleides Tsakalotos resumed his position as finance minister, while George Chouliarakis was made deputy finance minister.  George Stathakis was reappointed economy minister, charged with rushing through agreed “structural reforms.”  Welcoming the appointments, the Financial Times stated they were “a sign of [Tsipras’] government’s commitment to a tough new austerity programme.”

In early October the Syriza led government set about that task with the presentation of a draft budget for 2016 which will intensify austerity.  Addressing the Greek parliament Tspiras described the measures it contained as the “only way” out of the economic crisis facing the country.  He said that Greece must regain its credibility and that the Greek people would have to tighten their belts.   At a meeting of Syriza MPs he declared the party’s “main goal” to be “to get out as quickly as possible from supervision and regain access to international markets.”  Such tired old clichés could have come from any right wing pro-austerity politician in Europe.   That they are now spoken by the leader of Syriza - without any trace of reluctance or regret - shows the degree to which it has become a willing enforcer of the polices of the international capitalist class.

Bailout programme 

When were examine the measures in the new bailout - and also the timetable for their implementation – we get a sense of the intensification of austerity over the next period.   The latest Memorandum demands that 80 per cent of the bailout programme be passed into law by the end of the year.  In December the Troika will conduct a review of the entire austerity package and if satisfied will approve the release of funding.  The primary recipient of these funds will be Greek banks and the country’s international creditors.


The first task of the government is support for the financial sector with the four main four banks and others immediately bailed out and recapitalized by up to €25 billion. 


The Syriza led government has committed to taking on the issue of pensions.  This has been a very sensitive issue in Greece given the dependence of so many people – which goes well beyond pensioners – on pension payments.  Many of the measures that previous governments had baulked at are back on the agenda.  A target to reduce the pension bill by 0.25 per cent of GDP in 2015 and a further 1 percent of GDP by 2016 is  to be achieved through the abolition of the “solidarity grant” (used to top-up low paying pensions), the raising of the retirement age to 67 years, and the elimination of early retirement schemes.    This comes after a four year period when the average pension payment fell by 27 per cent.  There are currently forty five per cent of pensioners receiving monthly payments below the official poverty line.  The new measures on pensions (combined with the impact of other austerity policies) are likely to push this figure even higher. 


A central element of the latest bailout is the ramping up of Greece’s privatisation programme which will see €50 billion in state assets sold off.  Everything of any value owned by the state is to be transferred to an EU managed trust and the proceeds of sales used to pay off the country’s creditors.  (Similar memoranda appy in Ireland, where the Government claims to have successfully exited austerity). Assets already earmarked for sale include the ports of Thessaloniki and Piraeus, the national electricity transmission, as well as government stakes in water supply, telecoms, the postal service, motorways, the ROSCO railway and a dozen airports. Fully €6.4 billion of state assets must be sold by 2017. 


The poorest in society are to be hit by significant income tax rises. Those on less than €12,000 a year will be hit by a four percentage point tax increase from 11 to 15 percent while those on more than €12,000 will face an increase from 33 to 35 percent.  This comes on top of the steep rises in VAT that have been imposed on products and services such as processed food and transportation.


The virulently anti-working class nature of the latest bailout is revealed most clearly in the labour market reforms that are being drawn up which abolish collective bargaining rights and allow companies to impose mass dismissals. 


Because  this programme is so draconian it can only be advanced through anti-democratic means.  We have already seen this in the overturning of the referendum vote that rejected many of the same measures that are now to be implemented.   When a Syriza spokesperson declared that its election victory was just “the beginning of a battle,”  it was a warning of  major confrontations with a working class that is bitterly opposed to the polices the government has committed itself to enforcing.  This is a battle in which there will be no  room for compromise from either side


In the immediate period the Greek working class has suffered a defeat.  It has been betrayed and led into a debacle by Syriza.   Rather than the hoped for easing of austerity there has been further intensification.  The democratic rights of the Greek people have also come under assault as imperialism asserts greater control over the country’s political institutions.  The government is purely an agent of imperialism (its every action requiring  the prior approval of Troika officials) and its parliament a rubber stamp. 

However, this defeat does not mean the end of struggle.  The harshness of the bailout measures, as well as the combativeness and defiance that the Greek working class has shown over the past five years, point to struggles in the future.  Indeed, the Syriza led government (as we mentioned above) is already anticipating this.   They know - as do the Troika - that the bailout programme necessitates such confrontation.  The question is whether the Greek working class will be able to defend itself and fight back. 

There are a number of reasons why we can believe this can be the case.  Firstly, there is a level of self organisation (co-operatives, support networks) amongst the working class that has emerged over the bailout period that, while at a low level, points to the possibility of an alternative economy and society.  Secondly, there is strong class identification among Greek workers.  This was seen most clearly in the July referendum when the No and Yes votes split along class lines.   Thirdly, there are genuine revolutionary currents in Greece that, while small, have the potential to grow.

There is a real possibility for renewed struggle in Greece in the near future.  However, for the potential of that to be realised the lessons of the Syriza debacle need to be learnt - that there is no reasonable compromise on offer from capitalism and that only a revolutionary break with the capitalism system can bring about a real change.   This is not just a lesson for Greece but also the Socialist movement more broadly - particularly among those  groups that had built up so  many illusions in Syriza.   This is essential if we are to deliver the solidarity needed for the Greek working class in its future struggles against Syriza and the Troika. 

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