In 2015, Syriza came to power promising change for the people of Greece. Now, the party looks set to lose office, weeks after damaging local and European elections. Greek socialist Nikos Lountos gives his take.
Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minister, has called snap elections for the 7th of July, three months earlier than the official end of his tenure. His decision was precipitated by the disastrous results of the European and local elections of the 26th of June. Syriza—the supposed Radical Left of Greece, who have governed for the past 5 years—look set to hand power back to a gleeful and rejuvenated political Right, grouped around New Democracy. It’s a state of affairs that has not gone unnoticed by the capitalist class, with the Stock Exchange celebrating the result with a rally, and the “international markets” sending the Greek yield bonds below 3%. The capitalists hope that a big victory for the party of the Right (New Democracy) will break the morale of the people who have been resisting austerity in Greece for so long.
The results of the European elections gave the Greek right great hope. They got almost 10% more than Syriza. And the candidates of Syriza for the local elections across the country suffered big defeats as well. Now Syriza is trying to gather as much forces as it can, supposedly to stop the spectre of the Right that will come to take revenge on the Greek masses. But Syriza’s message is hollow, and lacks any credibility. A case of too little, too late. And the failure of Syriza has had a damagaing impact on the Left; as New Democracy exploits Syriza’s failure to unleash a sustained and generalised attack on the whole Left, including those who are not part of Syriza, claiming that the party’s record is proof everything the Left says about resisting austerity is pure sloganeering. Syriza in a sense accepts all these lies; they say that their government was the best the Left could have done under these circumstances. Worse, some of their ministers blame the people for being ungrateful to their efforts, and for turning to the Right.
But the blame for the return of the Right falls squarely on the shoulders of Syriza. They, before anyone else, have turned openly to the Right. In fact, much of Syriza’s election pitch chimes with that of New Democracy. Syriza claims success because Greece now has primary surpluses, thus being able to repay its debt. This is supposed to have gotten Greece out of the tight control of the Troika. The reality is that Greece is now obliged to produce these surpluses for decades to come—while the country is coerced into more and more austerity every year. And therein lies the problem with Syriza. During its years in power, it was transformed from a champion of “anti-austerity” to a champion of fiscal surpluses; political jargon for squeezing the maximum out of the social welfare in order to keep the bankers happy, and thus gaining leeway for some emergency social benefits. From the €12 billion of surpluses they extruded since 2016 through austerity, they gave €9 billion to the bankers and €3 billion for “compensation” through social policies.
There is, therefore, a consensus between Syriza and New Democracy. The only difference is that New Democracy proposes to pursue this neo-liberal agenda even more aggressively; stopping any kind of social policies and offering the surpluses directly to the capitalists, through a new round of tax cuts on profits and property.
Both Syriza and New Democracy recognise that it’s completely impossible to keep on producing this kind of surplus, on the one hand because there is not much more to “burn”, and on the other hand because the agreements with the Troika were based on a prospective recovery of the global economy that never came. So, instead of more leeway, as they promised, any government will be obliged to unleash more attacks. New Democracy says it more clearly; they threaten to return the public sector jobs to the obligation of “one new worker for every five pensioned off”. They want to cancel the tax reductions on medicines and for gas and electricity for households. They plan to take back all the programs of protection for people who cannot go on paying their mortgage in full.
The economy is not the only area of consensus between the two parties. The worst turn to the Right for Syriza has been on “political issues”. Under the auspices of NATO and the EU, they reached an agreement on the name of the neighbouring Republic of North Macedonia, after decades of bullying from the Greek side. Faced with the reaction of the Right, Syriza promoted this agreement as a verification of the power of the Greek state to impose its will on its neighbours, as an expression of the status of the Greek army in the Balkans, and as an important move to strengthen Greece against Turkey. The same logic fueled the deepening ties between the Greek state and Israel, as well as the dictatorial regime of Egypt. Syriza claims that it reaffirmed the position of Greece as a member of the big league in the Eastern Mediterranean, at the expense of its Turkish rival, by seizing control of prospective underwater natural gas fields, and dividing it with Sisi, Netanyahu and the Republic of Cyprus.
Last but not least, the Syriza government endorsed the brutal EU policy against refugees and migrants, coordinated with the EU’s Frontex and with Turkey in order to close the borders. The Aegean sea turned into a mass grave and their policies pushed thousands of people to try to come to Europe through even more lethal routes.
With this unmatched adaptation to the needs of Greek and European capital, Syriza managed to waste and gave offense to the spirit of revolt that culminated in the summer of 2015. Indeed at that time—when 62% voted No to the capitulation to the Troika—the polls had Syriza on 50%, with a massive 30% difference between them and New Democracy. But Syriza turned that massive support on its head, and four years later New Democracy is now 10% ahead.
Nazis Beaten Back
In a sense, the Greek results in the European elections seem an anomaly. Mainstream rightwing parties suffered defeats almost everywhere. But New Democracy appears to be coming back with an absolute majority. But this is a superficial take, and does not tell you the full picture on the ground. The main feeling after the betrayals of Syriza is anger, not passivity. The struggles never stopped during these 5 years. And they were not for nothing; they managed to leave their mark on the situation. The most pronounced of these was the decline in votes for the Nazi Golden Dawn. They lost half their votes compared to the previous European elections, and ended 5th instead of 3rd as they did in 2014. This was the result of a combination of sustained antifascist campaigning and bitter battles in the neighbourhoods. It was also the result of the effect of a trial against Golden Dawn— after the murder of the musician Pavlos Fyssas at the hands of Golden Dawn stormtroopers—that has been ongoing for the last four years, and has fueled a massive antifascist backlash. The final phase of this trial is underway, the Nazi leadership is accused of several crimes, and of running a criminal organisation disguised as a political party. The situation has generated savage infighting, with a big chunk of their cadre leaving Golden Dawn’s ranks, in an effort to distance themselves from Nazism. There is no reason for complacency, but their retreat is an important victory, and a counterargument to those who suggested that the failure of the Left in government would automatically translate into a fascist surge.
Struggle has not gone away in Greece, even if it is not always in the headlines. Even during these final weeks towards the elections, there is strike action in the hospitals, in banks and in the public broadcaster. There was a victory of the women’s movement that managed to impose its definition of rape in law against the original intention of the government, as well as a recent and very radical LGBTQ Pride parade, that had a massive attendance. New Democracy may win an absolute majority, but they will still have to contend with these forms of resistance.
But, the weaknesses of the Left in gaining at the expense of Syriza was also exposed in the recent elections. The Communist Party (KKE) came out of the elections some tens of thousands of votes weaker. The Popular Unity—a group that split from Syriza after the capitulation of the summer of 2015—collapsed to less than 1%. Even Antarsya—the coalition of the anticapitalist left, who were never part of the Syriza government—lost 5 thousand votes compared to 2014. Both the KKE and Popular Unity, combined a sectarian attitude towards the voters of Syriza with an underestimation of the potential of the struggles to shift the balance of forces. At crucial points their critique to the government was reduced to heavy personal attacks, while in real terms they declared themselves incapable of developing the serious struggles that could shift the situation to create an anticapitalist alternative. The result was pessimism and further disconnection from the people who were losing hope in Syriza. The pull towards sectarianism didn’t leave Antarsya unaffected. Parts of it slipped towards the same path. There were good results, especially in areas where Antarsya managed to forge common fronts of struggle. In the neighbourhood councils of the capital, Athens, Antarsya’s candidates added up to 3.4%, and there are now six neighbourhood councillors elected, along with one more in the main municipality council.
More struggles, more common fronts and more anticapitalist answers, not fewer, will be needed after the 7th of July. New Democracy may come, eager to take vengeance, but they know that they are stepping on unstable ground, and will still be faced with intense anger and resistance.