Syriza election defeat after years of imposing austerity on Greek people

Defeated Tsipras (Wikimedia Commons)

The results of the 7 July general election in Greece saw the defeat of Syriza (“Coalition of the Radical Left”). This follows four years during which the Syriza-led government-approved mass privatisations and cuts at the behest of the Troika (IMF, World Bank and EU) despite coming to power on a wave of anti-austerity anger.


Greek people have suffered ten years of austerity under three bailout agreements, with outgoing prime minister Alexis Tsipras’s Syriza overseeing the last package. The country’s national output has fallen by a staggering one quarter. Around 18% of the population are jobless – the highest in the Eurozone. Growth of below 2% is measly, given how much ground was lost since Greece went into financial meltdown in 2008. Over 400,000 young Greeks moved abroad to find work. Over 30% of the population live in poverty.

Syriza governed with the Independent Greeks, a small right-wing nationalist party. From 2015 to 2018, the government voted for the Troika’s ‘memorandums’ and introduced anti-worker legislation, including further restrictions on the right to strike. A primary budget surplus until 2060 was agreed with the Troika which means the prospect of decades of austerity.

Tspiras called the snap election after poor showings for Syriza in the European Parliament election. But his desperate throw of the dice failed. Voters punished Syriza in the polls after a 86 billion euros ‘bail-out’, agreed last year, meant enduring yet more austerity. Higher taxes have eaten into middle class incomes. Tspiras’s paltry welfare legislation in the run up to the European elections failed to stop his party being swept from power.

Apathy with the prospect of either of the two main austerity parties winning – Syriza or New Democracy – saw voter turnout at its lowest since 1974. Forty two per cent of the population did not vote. Support for Syriza from young voters and the working class fell. In working class areas voter participation ranged from only 51%-55%.

It was New Democracy, the right wing party that Syriza ousted in 2015, that returned to power, with a working majority. In more well off areas, voter participation ranged from 66% to 72%. New Democracy won nearly 40% of the vote compared to 28% in September 2015 elections and 33% in the May 2019 European elections.

Syriza’s vote fell from 35% in 2015, to just under 31%, but an improvement on the just under 24% it won in May’s Euro elections. A big factor in why Syriza did not fall further is because in comparison with 2015 it appears to have taken many of the votes that formerly went to the cuts-making social democratic PASOK (renamed ‘Kinal’ it got 8.1%). Widespread working class fears of the hard neo-liberal policies of New Democracy also appears to have stemmed the flow away from Syriza somewhat. The Greek communist party (KKE) achieved 5.3%, a small fall in comparison with 2015 but well below the 7.5% it gained in the 2009 elections. Other left parties, like Anatarsya and LAE, getting 23,000 and 16,000 votes respectively, lost support compared to previous elections.

‘MeRA25’, the new party of Yanis Varoufakis, the former finance minister under Syriza, managed to get over the threshold to enter parliament. But this group talks of an ‘alternative’ to the bosses’ EU and a negotiated end to the worst of austerity – all previously rejected by Brussels.

One bright spot in the election was the fascist Golden Dawn losing all of its seats. Mass anti-fascist protests and scandalous court trials involving leading Golden Dawn figures helped lose them support.

Catapulted to power

Syriza were catapulted to power in 2015 after five years of recession, which saw ‘growth’ rates of -10% and youth unemployment hitting 25%. Wages fell by a third from 2010. Malnourishment rates jumped as did suicide rates.

Tspiras took office four years ago after a series of strikes, including general strikes, and mass protests, promising to stop austerity. Many on the left presented Syriza as a model for across Europe. But Syriza, mired in reformist policies despite the socialist rhetoric, had no intention of mobilising the Greek working class on a clear anti-austerity and socialist programme and making a class appeal to the European working class.

At the time, the CWI advocated the adoption of bold socialist policies as the only way to end the misery of the working class. This would have included rejecting the memorandums, imposing capital controls and a state monopoly on foreign trade and nationalising the commanding heights of the economy, under democratic workers’ control and management.

If this led to Greece being kicked out of the eurozone and EU, a socialist government would have appealed to the working class of Europe to struggle against their own cuts-making governments and the bosses’ EU, for the socialist transformation of the continent.

Instead the Syriza government sought to negotiate for modified austerity packages. But even this was too much for the EU ruling classes. Syriza was forced to sign an austerity package in February 2015. Under immense pressure from the ruling class to force through the cuts and also from the angry working class, Tsipras gambled and called a referendum on the austerity package. Tsipras hoped a Yes vote would allow him to say he was following the will of the people who hated the cuts but feared being forced out of the eurozone and possibly the EU even more.

But the No vote won by 61%, indicating the huge levels of anger at billions of euros on social attacks being planned. Rather than use this powerful mandate to reject the Troika and austerity, to take into democratic public control and management the main levers of the economy and to start the socialist reorganisation of society, the ‘radical’ Tsipras capitulated. Syriza imposed a 13 billion eruo austerity package that saw pensions slashed and the continuing nose dive of economic production and incomes. Today, over 40% of Greek youth are unemployed.

Syriza’s dramatic swing to the right on economic policies is inevitably reflected in other areas. The riot police have been bolstered. Inhumane camps were set up for refugees fleeing conflicts in the Middle East. Tsipras cultivated close ties with Israel and Egypt’s General Sisi.

From this serious setback to the Greek working class and big disappointment for many on the left across Europe hard political lessons can be drawn. The crisis of the capitalist system today is such that no ‘left populist’ party can meet the needs and desires of the working class with a ‘reforming’ programme that refuses to countenance breaking with that system. As Greece starkly shows, it will be the ruling class that tames the left governments in these circumstances. Only by adopting bold socialist policies and by mobilising the power of the working class in the workplaces, neighbourhoods and colleges can the Troika be forced back and austerity defeated.

The Greek left suffered big setbacks and demoralisation and has gone through splits in recent years. The unions appear acquiescent in many cases. The series of general and partial general strikes against austerity were never seriously developed by the union leadership, to pose the question of who runs society and working class power.

Ideas and programme

For Marxists, it is not a question of throwing up our hands in despair. The situation in Greece is very difficult for the working class and Left today but that only means clarifying programme, ideas and how to rebuild are more important than ever.

It is not a time for the Greek left to turn their backs on the workplaces and trade unions, no matter the rotten role played by some of the union leaderships. Marxists in Greece, as elsewhere, must be in the workplaces and unions, arguing for combative policies against austerity, and to regain what has been lost since the crisis erupted. This is preparation for the industrial struggles that will inevitably erupt given capitalism’s incapacity to deliver the goods for working people. The new right wing ND prime minister Mitsotakis has signalled that he intends to make new attacks against the working class.

The CWI supports building genuine left unity and a fightback, on a pro-working class, socialist programme. This should involve, amongst others, militant trade unionists, anti-fascist campaigners, radical social movements and viable parties and forces of the left, including the KKE (Communist Party), which despite its leadership’s sectarianism, still commands significant working class support.

New powerful working class forces need to be built, in particular drawing in the younger generation, to take on the forces of Greek and EU capitalism.

On a wider scale, the ruins of the ‘Syriza project’ provide harsh warnings for other Left parties, like Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in Britain. Only the adoption of resolute socialist policies and the mass action of the organised working class can see an end to austerity and the transformation of society.


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July 2019