The election victory of Syriza has opened up a new period in the anti-austerity struggle in Greece and throughout the EU. And the stakes could not be higher for the workers’ movement. Niall Mulholland interviewed NICOS ANASTASIADES, of Xekinima (CWI Greece), just as Syriza leaders agreed a four-month bail-out extension with the EU.
Q: What was the initial effect of Syriza’s election victory?
Syriza’s victory was an historic event for Greece and the whole of Europe. After four years of harsh austerity and big workers’ struggle that failed to stop huge cuts, largely due to the role of the union leaders and left parties, the election marked the first clear victory over the political representatives of austerity. It was a big win for a party that was seen to stand clearly against austerity, the troika (the International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank and European Union) and the main Greek political parties. This led to an outburst of optimism and joy from Greek people. They saw the first possibility of reversing the cuts onslaught unleashed upon them by the memorandum of understanding – the austerity measures agreed to as part of the loan agreement with the troika.
Along with the other left parties, like the KKE (Greek Communist Party), the left vote represents a big part of Greek voters. They had a clear majority in working-class areas all over Greece, while New Democracy, the traditional party of the Greek bourgeoisie, polled best in the richer areas. There was a widespread mood of relief when the last New Democracy/Pasok government was ousted in the polls. Greeks knew that, had they been re-elected, it would have meant more austerity measures and more suffering for the mass of people, as the ND/Pasok administration would have cravenly accepted once again the dictates of the troika.
Q: Many on the left internationally were surprised and dismayed that Syriza went into government with the right-wing, nationalist Independent Greeks. How did Greeks react?
The Greek constitution requires that, to form a government, a party first needs to win a vote of confidence in parliament. Syriza did not have an absolute majority to govern alone, so went for a coalition. Under the constitution, this meant it had to approach each party elected until it reached an agreement to govern with one or more. If the first party fails to form a government, then the second party (New Democracy) would try to form one. If that fails, the third party (Golden Dawn) also gets to try.
Syriza and the KKE failed to reach an agreement to share power. This is outrageous from the point of view of the interests of the working class. Both sides blamed each other for this result but the truth is that neither side ever seriously intended to form a coalition government with the other. The Syriza leadership clearly indicated before the election results that it favoured going into coalition with the Independent Greeks (IG) and it only made a half-hearted appeal to the KKE to join it in government. This indicated that the Syriza leadership, which has tacked to the right over the last couple of years as power grew closer, did not want the pressure of another party with working-class support.
The KKE, which adopts a sectarian and isolationist approach towards the rest of the left, said it would look at voting for progressive bills put forward by a Syriza government but, at the same time, the KKE leaders declared that its MPs would not give a vote of confidence to Syriza to form a government in the first place! Syriza therefore came to power on the basis of support from the IG, with whom they went into coalition.
Xekinima (CWI Greece) argues that this was a big mistake by Syriza. If Syiza leaders had wanted to pursue pro-working class policies, independent of all the capitalist parties, they should have used the days after the election results to make a direct class appeal to the working class and ruined middle classes to show active support for a left coalition government. This would have put huge pressure on the KKE leaders and probably split the KKE rank and file. Syriza could have gone to parliament and asked for a confidence vote, appealing to the KKE and left parties to support it. If this had not produced a left coalition government, Syriza could then have gone for new elections, presenting a class appeal and socialist policies, which most likely would have seen them win a significantly increased vote – probably taking many from a discredited KKE – to form a majority government.
However, many Greeks do not regard Syriza going into coalition with the IG, which only has handful of MPs, as a big problem, more as a necessary evil in order for Syriza to get into power. But we have to tell workers the truth about the IG and the dangers of sharing power with them. By entering a coalition with the IG – a bourgeois party, albeit a wayward one – the leaders of Syriza carried out a form of class collaborationism. The Independent Greeks originate from a split from New Democracy. They represent a wing of the Greek bourgeoisie that strongly resents the dictates of the troika and wants to put up some resistance to win more favourable conditions for Greek capitalism. While the IG deploys anti-troika, ‘patriotic’ demagogy and is often more combative than Syriza leaders in contesting the eurozone bosses, it is still a party of the ruling class and, ultimately, will act in the interests of the bosses.
Syriza leaders made the mistake of giving crucial ministerial positions to IG politicians and to others from the right. The head of the armed forces is from the IG. The minister for the police is a former member of the Democratic Left (a right-wing split from Pasok), and an ex-Pasok leader is the head of state secret police. Moreover, the president of the republic voted in by Syriza is an ex-minister of New Democracy. In other words, key positions that control the state apparatus were given to the right and to political figures trusted by the ruling class. The right can use this to its advantage if Syriza is regarded as unreliable rulers – even if it makes big compromises to the troika – by the bosses in Europe and Greece. And, of course, the state can be used against activists and protesters and the entire working class as the crisis deepens. Last week saw the deployment of the riot police against protesters in northern Greece who want to see the end of gold mining, which is causing untold environmental damage. Riot police also attacked a demo in favour of the imminent closure of the ‘concentration camps’ for immigrants in Athens.
Although it is not posed immediately, the ruling class in Greece has resorted to military rule before when faced by heightened class struggle and economic crisis. However, the Greek working class has immense power potentially and will struggle to stop this process taking place again.
Q: What did Syriza promise for working people on taking power?
In its first days in office, the Syriza government made important symbolic gestures. Its leader, Alexis Tsipras, was sworn in as prime minister without taking a religious oath. He later went to pay his respects at a memorial for anti-Nazi fighters massacred by the occupying German army during the second world war. These were highly symbolic events for Greeks.
The new Syriza-led government also appeared to stand by its pre-election pledges and announced a series of popular new policies. These included restoring the minimum wage to pre-crisis levels; a small raise in low pensions; abolition of hospital visit fees and prescription charges; ending the forced sale of homes of people who cannot keep up with mortgage repayments; scrapping planned privatisations; re-employing sacked teachers; abolishing the civil service ‘evaluation’ system, which was created to provide continuous layoffs; the re-employment of more than 3,500 sacked civil servants and public-sector workers; re-establishing ERT as the state broadcaster and re-employing its workforce; and providing citizenship for children of immigrants born and raised in Greece.
The promise of these policies, yet to be passed through parliament, came as a huge and welcome relief to Greek workers after years of austerity. But since these announcements, Syriza has taken a very compromising stand during negotiations with the troika.
Q: So what approach has Syriza taken towards the troika?
Syriza took many steps backwards just to enter negotiations with the troika. All the attempts at wooing EU leaders by visits by Tsipras and finance minister Yanis Varoufakis failed. They thought that there would be open support from Italy and France. The Obama administration was also looked on favourably by Syriza leaders. Some EU countries appear more prepared to cut Greece some slack, not for altruistic reasons but because they understand that all-out confrontation with Syriza could lead to a breakdown in negotiations, a Greek debt default, and its forced exit from the eurozone. This would have disastrous effects on all the eurozone countries, leading to its unravelling and even threatening the existence of the EU.
But, although EU governments have some differences of opinion and emphasis on the way forward, they largely come together as ‘allies’ in the Eurogroup when dealing with Greece’s demands. No EU government said a word publicly in support of Greece or to offer real practical assistance to those suffering years of austerity policies. This demonstrates that the only real allies the Greek working class has are the working class of Europe.
Despite their previous ‘red lines’, the Syriza leaders went into talks accepting the debt and the need to repay the loans. They also accept that the process will be supervised by the three component parts of the troika – they just won’t be called ‘the troika’.
German capitalism showed it was not ready to agree to even the moderate demands of the Greek government. This shows the real character of the capitalist eurozone. It is a tool for the larger powers, like German capitalism, to exploit smaller countries – that is, the working class of these countries – in the zone, often in collaboration with the local bourgeoisie.
It is clear that German capitalism wants a convincing victory over Syriza, to act as a warning to Podemos in Spain, and any other opposition anti-cuts parties, about what will happen if they try to follow the Syriza road of resistance. German capital and its EU allies want an agreement that is so detrimental to Greece, no matter how Syriza tries to sell it, that it undoes much of Syriza’s current high popularity and authority at home and throughout Europe. Again the message would be that resistance, even the most moderate kind, is futile.
Q: What has Syriza signed up to?
On 20 February, Greek negotiators agreed a four-month extension of the current bail-out programme. It is reported that the Greek delegation was subject to outright blackmail by the Eurogroup that had taken the decision to strangle the Greek economy by cutting off funding to the banks. The Greek government was told it would be forced to implement capital controls within days if it didn’t agree to sign up.
The key elements of this deal are that Greece accepts the framework of the memorandum for the next four months. It will get the next payment of the programme only if it is evaluated positively by the troika. Greece must be committed to repay all the debt on time, and to use the bulk of the money collected by the austerity programme to repay the debt. Greece must not take any unilateral action. So, it is clear that the agreement signifies a retreat by the Greek government.
Does this mean that all is lost? This depends on the mood for struggle of the Greek working masses. The next four months will not be a time of truce, but a time of battle in the trenches. The movements will fight to stretch their political victory over the establishment to the industrial plane. The troika will struggle to contain Syriza in the EU framework. The government will be between these two pressures. Where this tug of war is going to end is something which cannot be predicted because it is a battle of living forces.
The four-month deal may have stopped Greece leaving the euro immediately but it comes at a very heavy price. Despite the positive spin by Tsipras, Athens made big concessions, including reneging on demands for a write-down of its enormous debt. Having the troika recast as ‘institutions’ and the memorandum of understanding renamed the ‘Master Financial Assistance Facility Agreement’ does not avoid the harsh truth that Greece is expected to fulfill the existing austerity programme.
Syriza claims it got the best of the bad deals on offer, under the pressure of capital flooding out of Greek banks and the threat of a chaotic run on the banks. ‘We won time’, Syriza leaders claimed. But time for what? The deal saw Athens having to propose reforms acceptable to its creditors at the EU and IMF. Syriza’s proposals must be approved by the Eurogroup and the troika, with April set as a deadline for Greece to complete a final list of measures, and agreed by the troika. Unless Syriza accepts these dictats it will not get the further loans it needs to stop defaulting on its €320 billion debt.
‘In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act’. So Syriza should tell the truth to the Greek people. If the government has made concessions in order to gain time to implement a strategic plan to defeat austerity, the people will understand it and join this battle together. But failing to do so will sadly show the path that the Greek government is seeming to take, which is a path of class collaboration with the EU and the local elite, accepting their agenda.
Q: Did Syriza have any other choice but to accept troika demands as a stop-gap measure?
It is true that an avowedly socialist government coming to power against the ferocious opposition of big capital would, of course, face many difficulties and may be forced to make some tactical concessions. Syriza does not put forward a general socialist programme. Its leaders pledge to stay within the capitalist eurozone, no matter what. This means imprisoning Greek workers within the straitjacket of the EU bosses’ capitalism and accepting the logic of the ‘single market’ and dictats of the troika.
Varoufakis claimed after the deal with the troika that it allows Greece to vary its fiscal target this year, so it can run a lower surplus, and that there is “creative ambiguity” about the surpluses Greece is required to run beyond 2015. The Greek government said this will allow it to carry out some ‘humanitarian policies’. It is true that the few billions of euros could ease the terrible strains on those hardest hit parts of the population. Given that Greeks have come through such terrible years of impoverishment under previous pro-austerity governments, any hope of an amelioration of their conditions appears as light in a very dark place. This may allow Syriza to hold onto support, for the time being. Limited gains for the poorest and hardest hit by austerity can be seen as some progress by working people, for the moment, at least compared to the dismal record of the last New Democracy/Pasok government.
But it will not be enough to pay for a series of reforms for the working class and for the sort of massive public investment desperately needed. The main parts of Syriza’s ‘Thessaloniki Programme’, which itself was a retreat on previous Syriza programmes, will be postponed, perhaps indefinetly. It will not go anywhere near undoing the damage of the loss of 25% of GDP over the last five years. And, if the Syriza government agrees to the draconian terms and conditions demanded by German capitalism, it will be seen by Greek workers, sooner or later, as a u-turn and capitulation by Syriza, no matter how it is dressed up. Already Syriza leaders are publicly wavering on some of its policy pledges, such as on re-establishing ERT and on gold mining, which it previously said it would stop but now just says it is ‘against’. While it has claimed it will not carry out any new privatisations, Syriza has discussed the possibility of private company involvement in the ‘development’ of facilities.
Q: What alternative socialist policies does Xekinima advocate?
Over 100,000 people rallied in central Athens on 15 February in support of Syriza’s initial negotiating position. On the same day other big protests took place across Greece. This was the biggest generalised movement since February 2012. The mood was combative. The fascistic Golden Dawn and reactionary nationalism have been pushed into the background because of a new mood of anti-troika, anti-imperialist ‘patriotism’. Sixty percent of Golden Dawn voters said they agreed with the Syriza government’s stance. This shows the potential huge active support that could be won for bold struggle against the troika on a clear socialist programme. Even if Syriza stuck defiantly to its Thessaloniki Programme, the workers and poorest in Greece would mobilise enthusiastically in support of its implementation, with active support from workers across Europe, challenging their own cuts-making governments.
To do this would have required Syriza negotiating with the troika in front of the working class, exposing the role of Germany and the other anti-worker EU capitalist powers. It means saying no to any more repayment of the onerous loans to the troika, and a unilateral repudiation of the debt. If the EU powers responded by threatening to force Greece out of the eurozone and even the EU, a socialist government would prepare the working class for the action needed in this situation. This would immediately introduce capital controls to stop the outflow of money from Greece by big capitalist investors.
Endemic tax evasion and avoidance by the rich and big businesses, costing billions that could be spent on creating jobs and paying for services, needs to be ended by expropriating these businesses and placing them under workers’ control, and by taxing the rich. Greece’s notoriously corrupt, inept and wasteful bureaucracy can be overcome by workers’ control and placing all officials on the same pay levels as skilled industrial workers.
Q: Would the introduction of a new drachma offer a way out?
If not linked to a socialist programme, it would prove disastrous for workers. It would see massive devaluation, slashing the savings of millions. So a new currency needs to be linked to wider measures, including the introduction of a state monopoly on all foreign trade for the planning of exports and imports to meet the needs of the Greek people. It would require the nationalisation of the shipping industry and major parts of the economy, including the banking system and large enterprises in industry, trade and services, under democratic public control and management, and to begin to develop a planned economy.
This would unleash wealth for the many, not the rich elite. These measures would receive enormous support from the working class of Europe and would inspire new left parties to struggle for power and to take similar measures. This would be the beginning of the end of the bosses’ EU of austerity and capitalist exploitation and of the obscenely expensive, warmongering Nato. A socialist federation of Europe, on a free and equal basis, would be posed.
Q: What are the prospects for the Greek left?
Syriza is, in effect, a ‘popular front’ of different forces and tendencies. It has big differences within it. Although Syriza MPs tend to be more right wing there are reported tensions and differences among the ministerial council. The rank and file has little or no chance of taking part in major decision-making, such as when Syriza MPs voted for the New Democracy candidate for the post of president of the republic. Although a climate of optimism surrounded Syriza’s coming to power, more and more layers of the working class, activists and a section of Syriza’s rank and file is questioning the actions of the leadership. They are prepared to continue mass resistance to the troika and Greek bosses, as are the best of the working class rank and file of the KKE and others on the left.
The working class will be ready to give some time to the new government in order to see if its policies will be able to get them out of the austerity misery. But they will not wait long. The masses have the example from 2010 of Pasok, which was elected on an anti-austerity ticket but imposed the exact opposite policies. The bettering of the lives of millions inside the EU straitjacket will be proved an illusion quickly. And the role of the revolutionary left during this process will be crucial. There is a pressing need for a non-sectarian political power to the left of Syriza to push the government to the left where possible, but to stand against any right-wing turns that will happen eventually.
Xekinima is a central part of the ‘Initiative 1,000’, which is a coalition of left forces, inside and outside of Syriza. It is calling for the maximum unity of the militants of the left on the basis of a principled anti-austerity, anti-capitalist and socialist programme. The coming to power of Syriza has opened up a new turbulent chapter in Greek society, which beckons major class struggles. The trade unions will also be affected by these developments and the fierce debates opening up within the left and workers on the way forward. Campaigning for fighting, democratic unions to resolutely resist cuts and privatisations, by whatever party is in power, is a key aim. The most decisive factor in the next period will be the ability of the working class to mobilise and put its stamp on events, both industrially and politically.
If the left is successful in setting the foundations for a socialist society, this will spread like wildfire in the whole of Europe and will change the course of history. If the left fails to show a way out, the middle classes and big sections of the working class could fall prey to frustration and demoralisation. That could pave the way for the return of New Democracy and other pro-austerity parties to power, and even the renewed growth of Golden Dawn. The stakes could not be higher for the Greek and European working class.