There were huge celebrations on the night that Syriza won the Greek general election. Many people turned out to hear Alexis Tsipras declare victory. People are optimistic despite Syriza swiftly forming a coalition government with the right wing Independent Greeks.
The first statements coming from the new left wing ministers are reinforcing this feeling: the privatisation of the electricity company will stop; negotiations over the sell-off of the Port of Piraeus, one of the biggest in the Mediterranean, will be reopened; second generation immigrants will have the chance to get Greek nationality.
These statements have reinforced the left wing credentials of the government, and the prevailing mood is one of joy among the people who have been humiliated by austerity — the previous Tory government is gone, the old parties have faced a crushing defeat, and there has been a huge swing to the left.
The hope is that now Greece can win a better deal from Europe over its monumental debt repayments. But this better deal is very vague. Syriza is saying that until now the country had to negotiate with the Troika — the European Commission, IMF and European Central Bank. This will stop as it is “illegal” according to European Union treaties. Instead it will deal with the institutional representatives of the EU.
The proposal for cancelling part of the debt is posed as similar to the deal that wrote off Germany’s debts in 1953. This proposal is not immediately negotiable. The question of debt cancellation is postponed until some form of Europe-wide consensus has been reached. Whether this will even materialise is an open question, as only the Greek government is proposing it.
Short of that, the government has to negotiate on other aspects of the debt, such as extending the time scale on repayment, such as over 50 years instead of 20 years. As the European Central Bank has just initiated another round of quantitative easing, the question of interest rates is also open to negotiation.
So instead of cancelling the debt, Syriza could negotiate better terms for its repayment — smaller payments over a longer period.
But before they can discuss even this kind of deal there is one more hurdle: what will happen with previous terms and conditions? Greece is in a bail-out, and the final instalment of money promised by the Troika is dependent on the country pushing through another austerity package. The new government is saying it will not accept this as it has promised the end of austerity. The EU will say that this must be implemented before any new talks on future debts can begin.
This will be a major test for the new government. As the pressure from the EU mounts, so will the crisis over this debt. But the EU faces a big problem. It cannot provoke a crisis with Syriza. It would be a big political problem to launch an offensive against the Greek government as the mood across Europe is increasingly anti-austerity.
This is a strong card in the hands of the Greek government, and the Europe-wide anger at austerity will strengthen Syriza’s hand. This is why these elections are a big headache for the EU; if it concedes on Greece then it will have to do the same for Spain, Italy and the rest.
Inside Greece the pressure is from below, not just over the Troika and austerity, but on reversing the huge cuts to services, the job losses, factory closures and so on. The fear is that people take the victory as a cue to move without waiting for the blessing of the government. So the government has restated its plans with the ministerial statements. The minister responsible for the civil service promised that all public service workers who were sacked illegally will be reinstated.
But there are so many cases like this that it is too early to say how it will play out. One such question is that of the fate of the state broadcaster ERT. The previous government closed the broadcaster as part of cost cutting measures. The journalists launched their own service, and two of their demands are that they get their jobs back and that the new ERT should no longer be controlled by the government.
It is unclear how Syriza will respond to these demands. Meanwhile the journalists’ union will have to decide whether to wait or take the initiative. The left inside the union are saying they should organise a solidarity rally, as they were evicted by the police, and they should march back into the building.
A challenge for the revolutionary left
Syriza’s victory raises the issue of the revolutionary left and its strategy over the coming period.
The traditional left party, the Communist Party, which is an important force in Greek politics, polled 5.5 percent. The CP leaders are celebrating the fact that the party increased its share by one percentage point on the June 2012 elections.
It is presenting itself as the left opposition to Syriza. Any left opposition to a left wing government must support workers’ demands and oppose any potential compromise on austerity.
But this will be difficult as the party has been very sectarian and will struggle to attract those who might become disillusioned in the event of such compromises.
That is why the revolutionary left of Antarsya is so important. Antarsya does not have the forces that the CP has, but it is positioning itself to perform the role of a left opposition. There is a large layer of people who are halfway between Antarsya and Syriza. Many of those who voted for the revolutionary left in the local elections or inside trade unions, or were part of the anti-fascist mobilisations. voted Syriza in January.
Another aspect of what a left wing opposition would have to do is highlighted by the alliance Syriza constructed with the Independent Greeks (roughly the equivalent of Ukip).
This is very serious when it comes to relations with the Middle East. The previous government supported the Coalition strikes on Iraq and Syria, and the US base on the island of Crete is crucial for this. The new defence minister is right wing, a former Tory who is part of the Independent Greeks. How would this play out if Israel was to launch another war on Gaza? These questions will become very important.
The biggest lesson that the left can learn from Greece is not simply to copy its programme or find a young leader like Tsipras. Syriza rose out of real struggles and movements. People’s anger does not automatically translate into a vote of the left. What will make a difference is whether the left takes initiatives to confront racism and austerity, and whether it takes the initiative to oppose the European Union.
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