On Saturday 14 December, two years after austerity attacks started in Cyprus, 4,000 workers, represented by 16 trade unions, demonstrated in the centre of Nicosia.
It was the first mass demonstration called after the movement against the levy on bank deposits in March. During the demonstration, many workers said that were it not held on a Saturday morning, and combined with the call for strike action, many more people would have joined the protest. After this protest, is there a chance for a movement against the Troika and austerity to be built?
After the collapse of the banks and the bail-out earlier this year, many small businesses were forced to close down. In just one month, unemployment rose by 1%, from 15% to 16%. By implementing the ‘memorandum’, 25% of the hourly working personnel in the public sector will be laid off. Unemployment reached 17.1% in September, and it is estimated that it will reach 20% during 2014. The actual number of unemployment is really much higher, if we consider that during July the whole of Cyprus became a “tourist zone”, which means that shops can open from 5:00am to 11:00pm, 7 days a week. During this month, many people work only 1-2 days a week, covering those days on which shops traditionally do not open (Wednesday evenings and Sundays). Youth unemployment figures are now 43.9%.
The unemployment rates are phenomenal for the standards of Cyprus and can be compared only with the post-1974 war period, following the invasion of Turkey, when unemployment rates reached 30% and led to mass waves of emigration to Britain, Australia and elsewhere. Today there is emigration to the Arab countries for work in construction-related jobs, and to the UK and the rest of Europe for the educated youth.
Poverty levels - in a country where most households have two cars and own their homes - has reached 25%, of the population. This includes pensioners, many of whom get less than 300 euro a month. Around 13,000 families survive on charity and social markets/ food banks, run by municipalities and supported by contributions from people. These were set up after the collapse of the banks in March. However this is not enough to cover people’s needs, mainly because new taxes and cuts mean that people can no longer contribute as much to the food markets. Recently spokespeople for two of the biggest social markets, in Larnaka and Paphos, announced they are suffering severe shortages and could not sustain their assistance.
Healthcare is being privatizated, with the introduction of fees to all services and to be paid by everyone, even pensioners, the unemployed and people living under the poverty line. Cuts in public spending and cuts in personnel see the better off seeking healthcare in the private sector. The most underprivileged – and most in need of healthcare – get no treatment.
Following the dictates of the ‘Troika’, the semi-public telecommunications, electricity and ports sectors will have to be privatized. This will give the government 1.5 billion euro, even though the actual value of the electricity company, alone, is around 1.4 billion.
Last September, the first property tax was introduced. Now the government is preparing legislation allowing the evictions and confiscations of houses so that ‘red loans’ - estimated to be about 40% of the loans of all banks – can be recovered. This will lead to hundreds losing their homes, as most Cypriots are heavily indebted, and due to cuts and unemployment are unable to pay.
Collective agreements and workers’ rights are under attack. The Minister of Labour started a “dialogue”, under pressure from the Troika, which mainly involved the bosses’ association, demanding a 20% reduction of the minimum wage.
The government’s message is clear: 2013 is not the worse year for the economy, 2014 will be the worst! So following an almost 30% cut in Cypriots’ living standards, we can expect even more brutal attacks.
Shock, disillusionment, disappointment and insecurity
Under these conditions, it would be expected that the popularity of the government would be very low and there would be a big movement against the government’s austerity measures and against the Troika.
But the dominant mood of people is disillusionment, disappointment and insecurity. According to October polls, 69% of people think that current policies are going in the wrong direction, and only 24% are optimistic that things will improve.
Yet only 3% blame the current president, Anastassiades, from the right wing DISI (Democratic Rally) party, for what is happening. The DISI still takes around 25% in the polls and the president has 45% popularity ratings. Around 40% believes he is handling the economy correctly.
Since last March, there has been a huge campaign by the right - the government and the media - blaming the previous AKEL (Cypriot communist party) administration for all that is going wrong at the moment, and they are succeeding. Around 49% of the population still blames the last AKEL government, and the party’s popularity has dropped to a historical low of 15%.
There is general disillusionment regarding all the political parties. Abstention and support for “nobody” in the polls reached 30% to 40%. This is huge, given that Cypriot society has been heavily party-based and organized.
Unprecedented low ratings for AKEL
Is AKEL responsibility-free for this situation? When AKEL was in power, in the name of managing the capitalist system, they gave many concessions to the capitalists, local and international. They invited the Troika to “help” Cyprus, and they negotiated the first, supposedly “pro-people, better for the society”, memorandum.
After the first memorandum was signed by the new DISI government last April, AKEL soon announced that they would be a “responsible opposition”. They even met with Averof Neofitou, the president of DISI, during July, to discuss common strategies for the economy and the national question, in the name of “national reconciliation”!
After that, AKEL only called one demonstration, at the beginning of September, against attacks to the cooperative banking system. Even then, after fiery speeches outside the parliament buildings, AKEL MPs voted in favour of the dismantling of the cooperative banks.
AKEL’s secretary, Andros Kyprianou, is also on an unprecedented low percentage of support. Around 66% have a negative view of him, and 51% of AKEL members share the same opinion. According to the press, AKEL is facing a crisis, and they will solve it most probably with a change in their leadership and their political strategy, sometime during February 2014.
Since February 2013, oppositionists in AKEL urge the more militant in their ranks to create “movements”; fronts against privatisations, against evictions but not as AKEL members, and not using the party in order for these movements to spread and be successful. The first “movement” they formed, against privatisations, is now inactive, even though the Troika has asked for the privatization of the main semi-public sector companies over the next two months. The AKEL front against evictions is active but is inclining more towards becoming a lobbying group rather than a real movement. A group, NEDA, with small forces, participates in both AKEL fronts, but more actively in the second one, to try and transform it into a society-based movement.
Populism and far right make polling gains
The only party whose support is increasing rapidly in the polls is the “citizens’ coalition”, a new centre party that was formed after the protests last March. Their leader, Giorgos Lillikas, is a populist adventurer, who used to be an AKEL MP and then a consultant to Tassos Papadopoulos, the presidential candidate of DIKO. The Citizens’ Coalition went to third in the polls after March, getting 9.3%, and is now in fourth position, with 4.7%. The neo-fascist party, ELAM (the sister party of Golden Dawn in Greece), also won more polling support after the March events. In some polls, it reached 1.9% (in the last presidential elections ELAM won just under 1%). Even though Golden Dawn saw their support drop sharply after the murder of the left wing rapper Pavlos Fyssas allegedly by a Golden Dawn supporter, ELAM continues to get comparatively high support. It is getting closer to winning a parliamentary seat in the next elections.
These are the results of the lack of a socialist perspective and a bold leadership in society, which could lead a genuine mass struggle against the Trioka’s memorandum and the Cypriot government’s neo-liberal policies.
14 December demo - A turning point?
After the inactivity of the last nine months, almost all the trade unions called for a demonstration against the Troika and austerity for 14 December. Over 4,000 people participated, which, even though this is a big number for Cyprus, given that 16 trade unions were calling for it means that attendance was considerably low. Before the protest, the media claimed that only AKEL and its periphery would participate. This is not very far from the truth, as it was mainly AKEL and its affiliated unions and fronts that mobilised for the demonstration.
However the fact that so many people responded to the call indicates that many workers are ready to take the streets and to fight against the Troika and austerity. It shows that it is not the fault of working people and youth for no mass anti-cuts movement in Cyprus, but a lack of leadership from the unions and the Left. It is obvious that the leadership were under pressure from below to act.
The mood among the demonstrators on 14 December was far more radical than the leaderships of the unions and the parties that participated. The New Internationalist Left (NEDA – the CWI in Cyprus) participated on the protest, with the slogan, “Next time, we are in the streets, we should be on strike!” This appeal struck a chord and was taken up by workers.
The 14 December was clearly a move by the union leaders feeling pressure from their base. They were forced to loosen the safety valve. Whether the Saturday protest will mark the beginning of greater struggle is yet to be seen.
Working people need organizations that can give them a class perspective and will channel their anger against government attacks towards a united mass movement, involving strikes and mass demonstrations. The Left has to put forward a socialist programme, calling for the non- payment of the debt, nationalisation of the banks under workers’ control and management, an end to privatizations and workers’ control in the public sector. This task had to be taken up by AKEL. However it looks unlikely that AKEL will make a shift to the left, any time soon. The rest of the Left has to take a dynamically campaign for the idea of a strong Left with a socialist programme. If the Left fails to intervene decisively, populist forces will try and fill the void. The tasks for the small forces of the ‘non- governmental’ Left are huge, but at the same time inevitable.