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Greece at a crossroads
Feature by Socialist Review, June 2012
Socialist Review spoke to Giorgos Pittas, a journalist from the Greek socialist newspaper Workers' Solidarity, about the political situation in Greece following elections in May that saw a dramatic fall in support for parties backing austerity.
What was behind the collapse in support for Pasok and New Democracy, parties that have dominated Greek politics since the fall of the military junta in the mid-1970s, at the election in early May?
First is the scale of suffering. The rate of unemployment is now over 21 percent - it has doubled over the last two years. For young people unemployment is at 50 percent. There used to be hardly any homeless people in Athens, but this winter there were 25,000 living in the streets.
Wages and pensions have been cut by between 20 and 40 percent. There are also 400,000 workers who haven't been paid for five months in the private sector and there's a similar picture in the public sector too. These are very big changes in a very short time. And after all of this, the debt has actually grown! So people don't see it working. This has created huge bitterness and anger.
The second reason is that people have fought back. This started some time ago.
After the Athens Olympics in 2004 the New Democracy (Tory) government tried to introduce cuts and privatisation. But people resisted and this culminated in 2008 with the rebellion that followed the shooting by police of 15 year old Alexis Gregoropoulos.
Pasok, led by George Papandreou, was then elected in 2009. Papandreou's slogan was "The money is there" and he made many promises to get the money from the rich and give it to the poor. He also promised to give immigrants the right to vote and citizenship to their children. This all proved to be lies.
Since then we have had 17 general strikes in two years - one every six weeks on average! Two of these were for 48 hours. And for every general strike there were tens, and sometimes hundreds, of strikes and occupations that were happening from below and putting pressure on the union leaderships to call the general strikes.
And there was the movement of the indignados. It was connected with the strikes. It was amazing. For a month you have people in the squares, and not just in the big squares, but in the suburbs with hundreds of people meeting and discussing every week about how to take the movement forward. These debates were new for many people - it wasn't just the existing activists of the left.
All this saw people moving politically towards the left. Pasok lost something like 2 million votes at the election and New Democracy lost 1 million - out of a population of just 11 million - since the last election two and half years ago. The left won around 2.2 million votes, over 33 percent of the total.
Why did the anti-austerity mood coalesce around Syriza as opposed to the other forces on the left, for example, the Democratic Left or the Greek Communist Party (KKE)?
The rise in support for Syriza is very recent. A month before the elections, the Democratic Left, which is a right wing split from Syriza, was getting about 15 to 17 percent in the polls.
As people broke from Pasok and moved to the left, the first thing they looked to was the Democratic Left. Its leader, Fotis Kouvelis, had left Syriza saying he wanted to cooperate with Pasok in government at some point in the future. The media, Pasok and New Democracy were all saying that the Democratic Left will join them in a new coalition government.
But this was very bad for the Democratic Left. People didn't want them to cooperate with Pasok and New Democracy. So people started moving on from the Democratic Left further to the left.
Then comes the Communist Party. They had a slogan during the election period, "We are not left; we are Communists." It was a response to Syriza's call for a government made up of all the parties of the left to solve the crisis. So the Communist Party response was to say, "We don't care about right and left - the real division is between communists and all the others." When millions of people are moving to the left of Pasok, this was suicidal.
Yet the Communist Party had been taking positive steps forward over the last year, for example, talking about dropping the debt. They have even been talking about the need for workers' control, even if just at some point in the future.
There have also been some developments in the unions they control, mainly in the private sector. Previously they just used to call for one or two strikes a year, settle for one percent above the original offer in collective agreements (or sometimes not even that) and then say the job was done.
But because of the attacks there have been changes here too. For example, the steel workers at the Halyvourgia plant have been on strike for 200 days now and this is a Communist Party led union. The strike has received huge support from almost every other union. So the Communist Party had the opportunity, just as much as Syriza did, to get a good vote. But their sectarianism during the election campaign was unbelievable.
Syriza offered a solution you could almost touch - a left government - and they were calling on the rest of the left to unite around this. So many people said we are going to vote for Syriza - it has the answer.
What kind of political force is Syriza? What are it's origins?
Syriza has it's origins in a split in the Communist Party going back to 1968 between those who remained aligned with the Soviet Union and those who no longer did, the Eurocommunists.
During the Gorbachev period in the 1980s they came together again to form Synaspismos, the coalition of the "left and progress". But in 1989, following financial scandals under Pasok, they cooperated with New Democracy in a coalition government led by Mitsotakis, who was really hated, and after a few months they joined a second coalition government including both New Democracy and Pasok! As a result the whole Communist Party Youth has left Synaspismos and the Communist Party, later forming the New Left Current (NAR) which now participates in Antarsya, the coalition of the anti-capitalist left.
The two wings of Synaspismos then split again, with the pro-USSR Communist Party separating and the pro-European Union wing remaining as Synaspismos. In 1992 Synaspismos voted for the Maastricht Treaty. At the next elections Synaspismos's vote collapsed.
In the early 2000s Synaspismos was involved in the anti-globalisation movement and started to shift to the left. It changed its name to "Coalition of the left, the movement and ecology". Then in 2004 Synaspismos formed a broader coalition with a few other small organisations, called Syriza, the Coalition of the Radical Left.
Synaspismos is by far the biggest party in Syriza and dominates it politically. Inside Syriza there are people like Dragasakis, who was minister of the economy in the 1989 second coalition government and is an open (and not even very left wing) reformist. At the same time you have people who have been involved in the movement for a long period and who are to his left, or you have politicians like Lafazanis, who says we have be out of the euro to stop austerity. So Syriza has both a left and a right.
How would you assess Syriza's programme for dealing with the crisis?
Their programme isn't clear: it changes. But their main point is that the crisis is not systemic but has to do with the bankers and casino capitalism. So if we change the people who push such politics - Merkel and others in the European Union - we can solve the crisis. They see the European Union as something positive, but argue that it has been captured by the neoliberals. The solution is to change this. So they say, look what's happened in France - we have a powerful new ally in François Hollande who will argue for economic growth.
Syriza's leaders say that they won't act unilaterally to cancel the debt. They oppose the memorandum [of austerity measures imposed by the European Union, European Central Bank and IMF]. But they say we will negotiate. They want a moratorium so that Greece can stop paying the debt for three, or maybe five years, to allow growth, and then we can renegotiate the debt. But the problem is that will mean negotiating a new memorandum.
There has been criticism of this approach from the left. We argued that we shouldn't pay the debt (Greece has more than repaid this debt over the last 25 years). Secondly we don't believe the European Union offers a promise of change. In our programme in Antarsya we put forward the nationalisation of the banks and workers' control.
The other illusion is that a left government can change things from above. Say you reverse the laws to stop the bosses from firing people. Ok, you will have a piece of paper that says this must stop, but who will implement this?
The fact that the left has won the elections has to do with the power of the movement, so that is where the power is to make this happen. So for example, we have Golden Dawn, a hard fascist group, now entering parliament. Who will stop them? The police? But one in two policemen voted for Golden Dawn.
Some in the left wing of Syriza say that if a left government is formed, they will want people to be on the streets. But they see the movement as a weapon for a left government to put pressure on when it is "needed". That means when the negotiations start, the workers will be expected to pause their struggle. We see the working class movement as the subject of change and we argue for workers' control.
How has Antarsya responded to the new situation in since the elections?
Antarsya has played a big role in the struggle. Syriza/Synaspismos has existed for 20 years while the Communist Party has been around for 90 years. Antarsya is just two and half years old. But the organisations involved have a long history in the revolutionary left from the 1973 rebellion against the military junta till now.
In the elections in May the revolutionary left received it highest ever vote, 75,000 - three times what we got in 2009. But Antarsya's real strength is not in its votes but in the movement, where it has played an important role.
For example, last summer the Pasok government tried to impose a new universities law and all the pro-austerity parties passed it in parliament. All the papers were saying, "Look, we can make the memorandum work". They saw it as a new start. But within a week about 200 universities were occupied - and this was during August! That had to do with Antarsya's students in the universities.
Antarsya has also played a key role in workplaces. Over the last year the left has been making gains in union elections in the hospitals, among council workers and elsewhere. Within this Antarsya has been able to win many seats in local union branches, and also in some national union elections.
In the most active and left-influenced unions, when there were strikes, mass assemblies of workers have been held to push the union leaders to call action. Now, over the last few months, this has spread to most workplaces.
So it has been very easy for Antarsya members, even if there were just one or two in a workplace, to give a lead. When the government, for example, said we are going to sack workers at the government ministries, workers were furious and held mass assemblies and Antarsya members found it very easy to say let's occupy and win that position.
The second area where Antarsya had an important influence is over the programme of the left and the way the movement should fight to deal with the crisis. Because people have been fighting, both Syriza and the Communist Party have moved to the left and started taking bits from our programme.
What is Antarsya's perspective for relating to Syriza and its supporters?
After the elections the Communist Party attacked people who voted for Syriza, saying next time you have to vote correctly.
But for us, the first thing is that everybody is very happy about the results. Syriza is rising further in the polls. So we start by saying we have to fight hard against the pro-austerity parties who are terrified and attacking the left. We say victory to the left, but we also say that we want the anti-capitalist left to be part of it, so we will take part in the elections and we call on people to vote for Antarsya.
That's the first thing. But we also decided to take a series of initiatives. One is against the fascists. Many people were horrified when Golden Dawn was elected to parliament for the first time. We are calling on all the left to form a front against the fascists and to march against the fascists in the area they claim they control in Athens, and we want this to be before the elections.
Secondly, we also argue that there should be a general strike and strike action before the elections. Even now, during the election period, there are many workplaces on strike. For example, on 15 May there was a big strike in the private sector against a new law that weakens collective agreements. The media workers' unions are talking about an all-out strike - that could mean that during the election period there will be no newspapers and TV! We want to connect up all these struggles. We don't think we should wait for the elections, or wait for a left government - we should strike, occupy and kick out the Nazis now.
At the same time we say that we should discuss in a comradely way with people who voted for Syriza, and the Communist Party as well.
This will be helpful before the elections but it will also be useful after the elections. It took eight years, from 1981 to 1989, for many people to become disillusioned with Pasok's promise to bring socialism. But now things are moving rapidly in Greece. The people who are in the streets and striking, especially the organised workers, know what we say and what we have done.
It will be crucial where all these people will go over the next months. The difference between reformists and revolutionaries is getting very clear, not just in an ideological way but in practical steps. We are at a crossheads. Everyone is looking for solutions, for what is to be done. It's crucial for Antarsya to offer a pole of attraction in these arguments.
We argue for a people's default on the debt but this will only work if there is workers' control. The key is workers' activity.
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