Published: 13 Feb 2013
Author: Pat Byrne
In many EU countries, the economic debt crisis and the austerity measures introduced by the main parties have provoked large scale strikes, mass street protests and significant shifts in electoral support. In particular, the tendency of the social democratic parties to go along with the shifting of the debts of the banks on to working people has opened up a vacuum to the left. Thus we have seen rising support for the Left Bloc of Portugal, the Front Gauche of France and most dramatically for the Coalition of the Radical Left in Greece, more commonly known by its initials SYRIZA.
The following is a two-part examination of this Greek phenomenon and its potential. Part 1 examines how the crisis has helped the rise of SYRIZA. Part Two looks more closely at SYRIZA?s programme and organisation and discusses what measures are needed to overcome the crisis in Greece in favour of working people.
SYRIZA was launched in 2004 as an alliance of thirteen parties and groups who wanted to offer a grass-roots left-wing alternative to PASOK, the mainstream social democratic party in Greece. The largest group in the alliance, Synaspismós, has its roots in the eurocommunist tradition but the broader coalition also includes maoists, trotskyists, democratic socialists and environmental activists.
The startling success of SYRIZA is a direct product of the deep ongoing economic crisis in Greece, a crisis that has caused the Greek economy to shrink by 18 percent since 2008. This debt crisis has demonstrated again and again the commitment of the main Greek parties to the neo-liberal capitalist agenda. In particular, the crisis has exposed PASOK?s claim to represent progressive policies and shattered its credibility – after winning the 2009 election on a promise to solve the crisis in favour of working people, PASOK immediately abandoned its election promises and began implementing drastic austerity measures against the working people of Greece. It is in this unusual environment that a movement to the left of social democracy has been able to flourish on a platform of opposition to cutbacks in living standards, layoffs in the public sector and privatisation.
Within the Left the 2009 election saw the Greek Communist Party, the KKE, winning 7.54% of the votes cast – almost twice that of its SYRIZA rival. However, the KKE?s programme of abandoning the Euro and leaving the European Union frightened large sections of the public who feared that a return to the Drachma currency and a Greek economy on its own would only make the crisis much worse. Moreover, the KKE?s stalinist image and sectarian refusal to join an anti-austerity front with SYRIZA further limited its appeal.
SYRIZA was also helped by the election of Alexis Tsipras as its young leader in 2008. Tsipras has been able to effectively present SYRIZA as a principled and dynamic alternative to the austerity programme of the mainstream parties.
Standing firm against austerity has proved a vote-winner
The rising tide of support for SYRIZA was reflected most dramatically in last June?s re-run parliamentary elections. It narrowly missed becoming the largest party, polling just under 27% and gaining 71 parliamentary seats. This was a massive jump from the 16% and 52 seats it had achieved in the inconclusive elections just one month earlier.
In the June election the conservative New Democracy party came first with 30% and 79 seats, but under the Greek constitutional rule that awards an extra 50 seats to the largest party, its representation was increased to 129. Nevertheless, this was insufficient to reach the absolute majority of 151 seats and an ?austerity? coalition was formed with PASOK (the social democratic party) and the Democratic Left, an earlier SYRIZA split off.
The polarisation between right and left has rapidly grown with the economic crisis
Over the last six months, the coalition government has demonstrated its loyalty to the banks and the international financial institutions. In October a further ?18 billion programme of austerity measures that included fresh cuts to pensions, salaries and other expenses were proposed. In November, despite repeated general strikes and violent protests outside, Parliament passed the programme. albeit with many defections among MPs.
The reward for the latest austerity programme was the release by the European Union of ?53 billion in loans. The problem is that almost all of this money is going to service the interest on the country?s debt and to replenish the capital reserves of the Greek banks, not for actually reducing the national debt of 175% which is actually increasing.
Tax and corruption
A major slice of this debt has been caused by the unwillingness of Greece?s ruling elite to pay its taxes. It has been estimated that if Greek corporations and wealthy individuals paid their back taxes it would be sufficient to bring the financial crisis to an end. It is reported that Greek authorities are examining a list of 54,000 people who transferred nearly $29 billion abroad since 2009, and in 15,000 cases declared income significantly smaller than that found in the foreign accounts. If these investigations were backdated further and extended to cover all Greek holdings in the tax havens, the outstanding amount due in payments would be colossal.
One bank in Switzerland alone had 2000 Greek account holders. When a list of these account holders was supplied to the Greek government in 2010 no action was taken. Then the minister claimed the list had been lost. When a reporter published the list, the government tried to put him in prison. Cases like this have clearly shown how the tax evasion of the Greek elite has been protected by the political class who themselves are ridden by corruption. In September 2012, a list of 36 politicians who were under investigation on corruption charges was published by the media. It included the speaker of Parliament, several former ministers and mayors. One of them, a social democratic politician hanged himself days before before being due to testify on his activities.
Another significant factor contributing to Greece?s deficit has been the military?s policy of purchasing unnecessary and expensive weapons systems. With a small population of just 11.3 million and no significant enemies, Greece is the largest importer of conventional weapons in Europe and its rate of military spending at 4% of GDP is the highest in the European Union. Indeed it has been estimated that if Greece?s military spending had been kept to the EU average of 1.7% of GDP over the last 20 years, it would have saved a total of 52% of its GDP and avoided the intense crisis it is now going through.
A classic example is the drive by the Greek navy to build up its submarine fleet. Incredibly, at a time when all other areas of public spending were being cut to the bone Greece has ordered six new submarines from Germany costing a total of ?1.3 billion. The motivation for this is less to do with any underwater threat in the Aegean and Mediterranean seas and more to do with massive kickbacks to politicians and military chiefs. It has recently been revealed that Ferrostaal executives authorized payments worth millions of euros to politicians to win the initial deal in 2000, through a Greek company called Marine Industrial Enterprises.
It has also to do with the national interests of Germany and France. Greece buys 15 percent of all the weapons made by Germany while Greece is France?s second-biggest client and imports 10 percent of all of its arms manufacture. At the same time as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy were insisting that Greece make deep cuts in public spending to get its financial house in order they conveniently failed to mention about the continuing public purchase of unnecessary arms from their own manufacturers.
Economy continues to slide while SYRIZA?s support grows
The repeated austerity measures have only succeeded in reducing the incomes of the majority and contracting demand in a vicious circle, just as SYRIZA predicted they would. As a result, the economy has continued to decline at an alarming rate since since last June?s election. 2012 saw economic production fall another 6% and unemployment rise towards 26%, with 55% of youth out of work. Among these are 771,000 who have been workless for over a year and have lost their unemployment benefits and medical coverage. 2013 threatens to see the overall jobless figure grow to 30%, and even possibly to 35% according to the research institute of Greece?s largest union, GSEE.
Austerity measures are driving European economies further into depression
Following the imposition of tax rises and severe cuts in wages, pensions and jobs the majority of Greeks have seen their living standards fall by a quarter since the crisis started in 2008. According to Eurostat over 30% of the Greek population is on the poverty line and 15% cannot afford even basic commodities. A recent survey by the Klimaka NGO found that seven out of ten homeless Greeks had lost their home in the last two years and many have been sleeping rough for more than twelve months.
To make matters worse, 2013 will see nearly 10 billion euros of spending cuts including ?5 billion cut from pensions and social benefits, ?1.2 billion from public sector wages and ?465 million from healthcare.
All this has led to an all-pervasive sense of gloom in Greek society. MRB?s recent opinion poll found that 95% of those questioned described the economic situation as ?bad? with 86.4% thinking it is only going to get worse. Not surprisingly, the new coalition government has rapidly lost support while SYRIZA?s popularity has increased further still ? it is now showing in opinion polls as the most popular party across all sectors of the population except for farmers and those over 65.
Perspectives for SYRIZA
There is now an anti-austerity majority among the Greek electorate. It is possible that this year will see the current government coalition fall apart and another parliamentary election called. This will provide the Left in Greece with the possibility of winning a parliamentary majority and forming a government.
Part 2 of this article will examine how SYRIZA is responding to these opportunities, evaluating its programme, organisational structure and internal debates as revealed at its recent Congress.