Greece: Government hammered in general elections

New opportunities ahead for the left

Below we publish an interview conducted with Andros Payiatsos, Xekinima (CWI in Greece), which participates in SYRIZA (Coalition of the Radical Left), on the situation following the Greek general election, which took place on 4 October.

Government hammered in general elections

What led to the defeat of the government in Sunday’s elections?

“The New Democracy (ND) government of Kostas Karamanlis was delivered a shattering blow in these elections. Its vote collapsed to 33.34%, its worst showing ever. This led to the immediate resignation of Karamanlis, as the scale of his party’s defeat surpassed all expectations. For Karamanlis, the decision to call early elections, two years before the end of his government’s term in office, was taken partly as a desperate attempt to cut his losses and thus save his own skin, and remain in his position as party leader. This is clearly a gamble which has not paid off.

The collapse of the ND vote is first and foremost a crushing verdict on the policies implemented by the government over the last period. It represents a damning condemnation of the neo-liberal, austerity policies which have led to the development of the profound crisis facing Greek society today.

Will the formation of a new PASOK government represent a new departure?

"The PASOK socialist party leadership have portrayed the election results as a “huge victory” for the party. However, although PASOK has won an overall majority in parliament, with nearly 44% of the vote, their election was not based on any real enthusiasm among workers and young people towards the party or its policies. The main reason for PASOK’s victory was the absolute hatred of the ND government which exists among the vast majority of the population. PASOK’s vote reflects the fact that majority see them as a lesser evil than ND.

Despite the fact that few deep illusions exist in PASOK, many people hope that they will put an end to the anti-working class policies of the last government. This however will not be the case. During their election campaign, PASOK displayed an impressive ability to say much, without saying anything at all in reality! They spoke in vague terms about a “fairer” Greece, with a fairer taxation system, a new foreign policy and better wages. However, absolutely no details were given about these aims meant and how they would be achieved. Their vague promise to implement wage increases above the rate of inflation has provoked much amusement in Greek society. With inflation currently at about 0.8%, many have observed that under PASOK, one would need 5 days’ “wage increases” to buy a pack of chewing gum!

They have not spoken of any measures which could have a real impact in improving the situation for Greek workers and youth, facing mass unemployment and poverty conditions for millions. They have not put forward any answers to the economic crisis, refusing to speak about nationalisation to put an end to the orgy of greed in the financial sector. They have not even proposed to reverse the highly unpopular privatisations implemented by the ND government, most recently that of Olympic Airlines, or put forward any solutions to mass unemployment.

How did the left fare in the elections?

"Two additional features of these elections were the rise in abstentionism, close to 30%, up 3% compared to the 2007 elections, on the one hand, and on the other hand the rise of LAOS, a populist far-right party, from 3.8% in 2007 to 5.6%, 386,000, now. The rise of LAOS, which bases itself on anti-immigrant agitation represents a serious danger, and will assist neo-nazi organisations in building their forces and encourage them to become more provocative.

These factors indicate that despite the crisis and the acute situation facing people, a significant section of the population feel disillusioned the existing parties, including those of the left. This represents a failure both by the Communist Party (KKE) and SYRIZA (Coalition of the Radical Left, in which Xekinima participates) to capitalise on the situation.

The votes for both parties went down slightly in these elections. KKE went down from about 8% to 7.5%, 584,000 to 517,000, a failure which will increase tensions and discontent within that party. The KKE’s election campaign was full of anti-capitalist rhetoric, even raising the need for socialism on some of its posters, unlike SYRIZA. However, the KKE’s sectarian method, such as their policy of splitting rallies and demonstrations, organising ‘pure’ ‘Communist’ alternative events, serves to isolate them from many workers and youth in struggle, limiting their potential.

SYRIZA experienced a similar drop from around 5% to 4.6%, 361,000 to 316,000. The ‘Anti-capitalist left alliance’ a coalition of eight left sectarian groups, including those affiliated to the British SWP and from the ‘Mandelite’ tradition, only managed to get 0.36%, 25,000.

What does this represent for SYRIZA?

"The vote for SYRIZA went down, though not by much compared to the 2007 elections. However this follows a period when expectations were extremely high for SYRIZA, which was on as much as 18.5% in the polls at certain stages in 2008. SYRIZA’s election campaign focussed more on the real issues facing workers and youth, such as workers’ rights and conditions and public services. However, the leadership failed to present SYRIZA to the electorate as a radical alternative. Demands for nationalisation and the need for socialism were not put forward in a bold, coherent manner and only mentioned by most candidates when asked directly. This undoubtedly had an effect on SYRIZA’s failure to make a breakthrough.

The results of the European elections in June, in which SYRIZA’s vote dropped to 4.7%, caused a severe crisis inside SYRIZA, which took on a distorted non-political, personal character, with a struggle between the previous and current leader of Synaspismos, the biggest party in the coalition. Only five weeks ago, the future of SYRIZA was entirely uncertain, as the coalition was threatened with a split and dissolution. SYRIZA was able to survive this crisis and in this context, the last weekend’s result of 4.6% of the vote and the fact that SYRIZA managed to maintain a presence in parliament (for which at least 3% is required) has been seen as a success and led to a feeling of relief among many rank and file SYRIZA voters and activists.

However, the failure of the majority of SYRIZA’s leadership to capitalise on the enthusiasm which surrounded the formation of the coalition (particularly last year), by putting forward a clear alternative to the capitalist policies of the main parties, and by building SYRIZA as a fighting party with individual members, more democratic structures, through which rank and file members can have a decisive say in the policies and running of SYRIZA, is still apparent.

Xekinima (CWI in Greece) stood three candidates under the banner of SYRIZA in the elections. Were these campaigns successful?

"We are extremely happy with the outcome of our electoral campaign. This was the first time Xekinima has stood candidates in a general election, so it was a new and interesting experience for us. Our candidates all received very good votes. In two of the areas (out of three) where we stood – Corfu and Volos – SYRIZA’s vote actually rose, in both relative and absolute terms, contrary to the national trend. Undoubtedly, the strength of our campaign played a role in this. The campaigns of our candidates centered on class issues and class demands and raised the need for a clear socialist alternative and for socialist answers to the crisis, as opposed to the capitalist policies of ND and PASOK. We found that such socialist policies can receive an excellent response from workers and youth. We had many experiences when people approached us to tell us that they intended to abstain from voting, but after the announcement of our participation, had changed their minds. Some of them, including some excellent rank and file fighters in social and trade union movements, took a very active part in the campaign calling for a vote for our candidates.

We have come out of this campaign significantly strengthened. We will go on to build on this experience in the future, in order to strengthen our forces and to build SYRIZA as a fighting socialist party.

What are the prospects for the new government?

"One thing is certain: there won’t be much of a ‘honeymoon period’ for the new PASOK government. The actions of PASOK in government will lead workers and youth to the realisation that struggle is necessary to defend living standards against attack and combat the problems of unemployment and poverty.

In the past, PASOK has been responsible for decades of anti-working class policies, since the mid 1980s. It governed the country from 1981 to 1989 and again from 1993 to 2001. During the 1990s, PASOK carried through major privatisation schemes, passed a raft of anti-working class legislation which still stands today and attacked pensions and public services, such as health and public education. PASOK in government during this period were faithful servants of the Greek bosses, lowering tax on the profits of big business by 10% amongst other measures. These policies represent a glimpse of what workers and youth can expect from a PASOK government in the face of capitalism’s worst crisis since the 1930s.

In this situation, SYRIZA will be presented with an opportunity to make a decisive breakthrough as disappointment with the results of the new PASOK government develops. However this will only be possible on the basis of combative socialist policies which present a real alternative to the nightmare of capitalist crisis for Greek workers and youth, not on the basis of watering down our anti-capitalist ideas. In the next period, SYRIZA could move forward in leaps and bounds as a strong force based in the struggles of the working class against attacks and for a decent future. This is also linked with the need to re-organise SYRIZA as a democratic, membership-based party, capable of facing the challenges ahead and drawing fresh layers of activists into its ranks.

As the new government moves into conflict with the majority in Greek society – the working class and young people – a new period of struggle beckons. In this context, the idea of fighting for the socialist transformation of society will gain much wider support in Greece. We base oursleves on this perspective and will struggle (together with others) to push SYRIZA further to the left, as this is the only way it can become a vehicle for major political and social change."

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October 2009