Less than five years ago, Syriza was the great hope of the radical left internationally. Irish activists in the water charges movement saw it as the principled voice against EU austerity. One term in government later, having implemented what the right could only dream of, Tsipras’s party was kicked out of office. Peadar O’Grady looks behind the results of the recent Greek elections.
The results of the Greek elections this month showed a clear loss of support for the ‘Radical Left’ party Syriza, which, despite its radical name, has spent its 4 years in government cutting wages, pensions and public services, implementing a vicious austerity deal with the EU. Health budgets have been cut by more than 50% since 2009. The bailout money ended last year but the cuts and repayments will go on until 2060! Greek national debt now stands at €355 billion, 180% of GDP.
The winner of the election was the New Democracy party, Greece’s Fine Gael, Christian Democrats in the European Peoples Party in Europe, despite their record of implementing the first austerity plan. They fought the election offering the usual right-wing fairy-tale of reduced taxes and foreign investment as the answer to Greece’s woes. However, with Syriza offering no alternative, and no promise to relieve its programme of austerity, many of its supporters, particularly younger and working-class voters, stayed at home (voter turnout overall has decreased from 71% in 2009 to 56% in 2015 and 58% in 2019). While turnout was up slightly on 2015 it was left-wing voters who did not turn out this time. Syriza called the election after a dismal Euro and Local election result in May, scoring only 23% to New Democracy’s 32% but did better in the General election on July 7th getting 31% of the vote to New Democracy’s 39%.
Founded in 2004 as a coalition of left-wing parties, Syriza rose rapidly in support after the dramatic collapse of the Greek Labour Party (PASOK) on the back of growing public demonstrations and general strikes against PASOK’s austerity deals with the EU after the crash of 2008. After their election victory in 2015 Syriza backed a referendum to Vote No (‘OXI’ in Greek) to the EU austerity plan from the ‘troika’ of the European Commission, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Despite a clear win for the No Vote of over 60%, Syriza shocked the demonstrators, and their own supporters, by going ahead with an even more severe austerity plan instead of refusing the loans, repudiating the bankers gambling debts as odious debt to the point of breaking with the EU.
The EU austerity deal agreed to by Syriza commits Greece to running a surplus of 3.5% in order to service the bailout loans. The austerity to repay these bailout loans has destroyed Greek public services and only weakened ed its economy; a sign of the deal being a punishment for rebellion rather than any solution to the Greek economic crisis of political and business corruption and banking-loan speculation. While in government Syriza also backed the EUs ‘Fortress Europe’ approach to migration and supported US imperialism in the Middle East.
Other left-wing parties such as anti-capitalist Antarsya, or the Popular Unity party, (PU broke with Syriza in 2015 over the austerity deal) together failed to get more than 1% when they needed to get at least 3% nationally under Greek election rules to have any seats in parliament.
There was better news for former Syriza finance minister Yanis Varoufakis’ anti-neoliberal party MeRA25, which has a weaker activist base but won 9 seats in the 300-seat Greek parliament, with just over 3% of the vote. Good news also was the collapse of the fascist Golden Dawn party who fell below the 3% limit and so have no seats, but this has to be balanced with the rise of a smaller far right party, Greek Solution, who gained 4% of the vote and 10 seats.
The Greek tragedy played out since the economic crisis of 2008 is that an inspiring upsurge of popular protest against paying the debts of corrupt politicians and bankers was diverted into a political strategy by Syriza of collaboration with the very bankers and bureaucrats that had caused the crash in the first place.
The Greek movement against unjust bailout loans to service the debts of the rich deserved more solidarity from across Europe and deserved political leaders with a strategy of practical resistance to the bullying of the EU institutions.
The lesson is hard to miss that a focus on building electoral alliances like Syriza cannot be at the cost of losing touch with movements in communities, trade unions and workplaces -the only force for progressive change in industrial economies. Whether it is economic or environmental crises, the pro-market policies of right-wing parties like New Democracy, Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael or the UK Tories all make workers bear the cost.
Organising at the coal face of struggles, building the people power to press change on the profit addicted corporations and their political backers is not just an option but a political necessity. In Ireland, the mass movement of the water charges faced down the hated tax and set a political mood that still influences what the government can do. Greece’s left can rebuild but it must learn from the failed strategy of compromise and collaboration. Occupying seats in institutions without the active support of movements in communities and workplaces turns on the very people who it is supposed to represent.