This time, some would have us believe, it will be different. The result of the re-run election on the 17 June, means, we are told, that Greece and Europe have been saved from the catastrophe that surely would have followed if the Left alliance, Syriza, had won an overall majority. ‘Greece’, the pundits claim with a sigh of relief, ‘has voted to implement the “memorandum” and stay in the eurozone.’ Really?
If we look carefully at the results of the two elections, held in May and June, the picture that emerges hardly justifies the conclusion that, in the words of the Guardian’s headline on June 18, ‘Greece gives Europe a chance.’ In the May election the parties committed to implementing the EU imposed austerity programme, the conservative New Democracy and social democratic Pasok, took between them 32% of the popular vote, which translated into 149 seats in the 300 seat Greek parliament. The clearly anti-austerity parties of the left, Syriza and the KKE (communists) took between them 25.26% of the popular vote, giving them 78 seats. But then, of the other smaller parties, DIMAR (Democratic Left) and the neo-Nazi XA (New Dawn) were opposed to the austerity measures. Together they won 40 seats (19 to DIMAR and 21 to XA), 13.08% of the popular vote. Thus, in May, 38.34% of the Greek electorate cast their votes unmistakably against the bail-out and the austerity measures. If one includes the right-wing nationalist Anel (Independent Greeks) party, also generally anti-bailout, which took 10.60% of the vote, 48.94% of the electorate voted for parties opposed to the austerity programme. But this does not accurately reflect the nature and scale of the seething anger and despair in Greek society. There is no doubt that large numbers who voted in May for Pasok, and even for New Democracy, did so in the hope that these parties would attempt to obtain less onerous terms from the EU leaders and ease the burden of austerity.
The most remarkable development in the contemporary Greek tragedy has been the rise of Syriza, the coalition of the radical left, as the main challenger to New Democracy and Pasok. After the failure of the two leading pro-bail-out parties to form a government following the May election, a united front of conservative, liberal and right-wing social-democratic forces in Europe and beyond concentrated their fire on Syriza. If the Greeks were to be so foolish as to elect a government led by radical leftists hell-bent on rejecting the austerity measures to which both Pasok and the coalition had signed up, the country would be cut adrift from the eurozone; life-support would be cut off and within weeks Greece would collapse into bankruptcy and penury. No effort was spared in a blatant attempt to influence the outcome of the June election. What was the result?
To an extent, the scare tactics worked. The distribution of votes between the parties shifted markedly. New Democracy with 29.66% of the vote gained 129 seats. This was a 10.81% increase in their share of the vote, giving them 11 more seats than in May. But Pasok’s vote fell from 13.18% to 12.28% with a loss of 8 seats (41 to 33). The nationalist Anel vote dropped 3% to 7.51%, with a loss of 13 seats (33 to 20) and the communist KKE suffered a serious reversal, reducing its representation from 26 to 12 seats. The Democratic Left and the neo-Nazis roughly maintained the level of their support in May. But Syriza dramatically increased its support, taking 26.89% of the vote as opposed to 16.78% in May, with an increased representation from 52 to 71 seats. Those uninformed about the peculiarities of the Greek electoral system may wonder how it is that a party (ND) with 29.66% of the vote wins 129 parliamentary seats, while the runner up, Syriza, with 26.9% gains only 71 seats. Purely on the basis of fairness of distribution, ND should have 79 seats. But the electoral arrangements specify that the party that has the highest percentage of the popular vote is awarded an extra 50 seats. This privilege is supposed to ensure stable government. It is unlikely to do so this time.
Antonis Samaras, the leader of New Democracy, has formed a coalition government relying on support from Pasok, Anel and DIMAR. It will be inherently unstable and unlikely to survive for very long. Samaras and Venizelos (leader of Pasok) are both pledged to implement the severe austerity measures attached to the latest tranche of the bail-out. At best they may be able to wrest a few concessions from their paymasters, probably amounting to little more than extra time to implement the draconian cuts still to come. Their coalition ‘partners’ are unlikely to remain quiescent as the inevitable strikes and street demonstrations gather pace during the summer. Venizelos, who as a minister in the Pasok government liked to cultivate the image of a leftist, is vulnerable to pressure from what remains of his Pasok base. Leaving aside the neo-Nazis whose main activity is likely to be an escalation of violence against immigrants, leftists and trade unionists, the other left factions represented in parliament, the KKE and DIMAR may well see their ext5ra-parliamentary base eroded by desertions to Syriza.
It has been suggested that this result is very pleasing to Syriza leader, Alexis Tsipras. He has refused an invitation to join the government and has declared that he will lead a determined opposition against the austerity ‘memorandum’. Almost certainly the next act of the Greek drama will be determined by events outside parliament. The die is now cast; the ‘troika’ of the European Commission, the European Central bank and the IMF will expect the Samaras government to honour its pledge. And that means turning the screws still harder on the long-suffering Greek people. Sooner or later – and it’s likely to be sooner – this unstable coalition is likely to break down in recrimination and acrimony. First to break ranks is could be DIMAR. This is a leftist grouping that is unlikely to stomach for long the ignominy of association with parties seen by most working class people as agents of their oppressors. Should the government suffer parliamentary serious reverses while trying to face down the rising tide of popular opposition, its defeat seems inevitable. There could be new elections before the end of the year. The beneficiary will be Syriza.
Syriza is a new phenomenon on the left in Europe. It is an alliance of groups from different sections of the old left, generally dissatisfied with the sectarianism and dogmatism of the unreconstructed communists and other Marxist organizations, but also determined to break with the bureaucracy and reformism of social-democracy, represented primarily by Pasok. It is rather similar to the new formations on the left that have arisen in Latin America, such as Evo Morales’s movement in Bolivia or the Bolivarian revolutionary movement in Venezuela. Should Tsipras find himself, as the leader of a mass movement outside parliament, in a position to form a government, this could be a situation without precedent in modern European history. A radical socialist movement, committed to breaking decisively with the disastrous austerity policy that has been an unmitigated disaster for the majority of the Greek people, would have to decide whether to compromise with political representatives of the Greek ruling class and betray its mass base, or to maintain its commitment to principle and face the inevitable onslaught from the ruling class and the European political elites. In this greatest capitalist crisis since the 1930s we could also be approaching, for the first time in nearly 100 years in Europe, a truly revolutionary moment.
The crisis enveloping Greece, which has resulted in levels of poverty and misery not seen since the Second World War, is not confined to Greece. The contagion is spreading to Spain and Italy. Yields on Spanish government bonds have gone over 7%. No-one has any idea how the limited coffers of the European Financial Stability Facility or its successor, the European Stability Mechanism, will be able to bail out Spain and Italy. No longer is it possible to dismiss as deluded Cassandras those who have talked of the crisis of capitalism. The crisis is upon us and it is not going to go away. And it is global. From Washington to China, governments are looking apprehensively at Europe, fearful of what will happen if the eurozone breaks up and the currency collapses. And Greece is in the eye of the storm. It is impossible to know exactly how the drama there will play out. But it is certain to be long and painful for the Greek people.
There is always the danger that Syriza may succumb to internal feuding. Unfortunately that has been a characteristic of the left for a long time and the internal disputes have not always been about matters of burning principle. The danger of this happening is probably as great as the danger of unprincipled compromise with political forces on the right. Political office can have a subtle tendency to corrupt even those who start with their principles intact. But commitment to stay within the eurozone should not be regarded as a political principle by a party of the left. Syriza, in the weeks and months ahead, should be re-thinking its policy on the euro, even if only because, should it come to power, it may have no choice in the matter. There are grounds for being optimistic. This is a movement with real passion, energy and courage. It is a young movement with a young leadership. It could well sound the clarion call for a new departure in Europe.