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Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 13, March 21, 2015

Greece - Caught Between Scylla and Charybdis: Europe and the Future for Syriza Government

Sunday 22 March 2015

by Harsh Kapoor

Let us begin with some jottings from history. In our imagination Greece occupies the bedrock of key Western ideas with its first city states and the idea of democracy, but that was ancient Greece. Modern Greece, as we know, has had an important place in Europe after it emerged breaking free from the Ottoman empire in the 1820s with the intervention of France, Britain and Russia. A very poor and essentially rural country then with a limited state under the deep sway of corrupt elites. Located at the confluence of Southern Europe and the Balkans, it was deeply marked by wars with Turkey (also a traumatic transfer of populations agreement with Turkey), a far Right dictatorship in the mid 1930s, the German occupation, its own civil war till 1949. Post-civil-war Greece of the 1950s and 1960s remained authoritarian and underdeveloped. The United States called the shots in these Cold War years and then came a spell of dictatorship from 1967 to 1974 to pre-empt the rise of the Left. Greeks have had it very hard and have a great tradition of resistance acknowledged in Europe.

Europe was marked by widespread anti-fascist resistance to overcome the wars that had destroyed and economically drained its people; peace was then seen as crucial for democracy.

Communists were at the forefront of the struggle against the colonels’ regime in Greece, in particular the Athens Polytechnic uprising of 1973. Repression of the uprising led to mass mobilisation that resulted in the overthrow of the dictatorship. The 1974 democratic and peaceful transition in Greece was hailed across Europe. It had alternating governments of the Centre-Left PASOK and the New Democracy Conservatives as the two principal political actors. In 1992 Greece (along with post-Franco Spain and Portugal) signed the Maastricht Treaty and in 2001 it joined the Eurozone—countries with a common currency.

Greece has been in the thick of its most severe economic crisis since 2010. The backdrop for this crisis dates to the 2008 financial meltdown that affected the world economy and the Eurozone. Across Europe the economic crisis has fuelled the rise of quick fix, ‘anti-political’ and ‘anti-systemic’ movements and also of the far Right while taking the sheen of the old established mainstream political parties leading to loss of influence. The story of decline of the old Left parties of Europe is independent of this and that started in the 1980s and reached its zenith in the crisis years starting 2007 on.

There has been much excitement among Left circles in Europe and across the world ever since a coalition of the far Left Syriza formed a government in Greece. Syriza is a broad network of political activists from different currents of the far Left, the feminists, ecologists, anti-corruptioniks and all of the resistance struggles against austerity of recent years as part of it.

The origins of Syriza go back to the period 2004-2008, the Coalition of the Radical Left, developed through the past years marked by crisis, but expanded its popularity in a somewhat alarming way in 2011. The open secret here is that during the long drawn 2011 Syntagma Square occupations in Athens, Left-wing anti-imperialists and ultra-nationalists rubbed shoulders on the same side in a toxic entente. This has created a short-term spill-over effect where the Right/Left, Left/Right axis appear in a blurred spectrum with a shifting base in crisis-marked Greece. By the 2012 elections, the Coalition of the Radical Left, Syriza, went from having five per cent to 27 per cent of the votes and making it the second-biggest party in Greece. In the January 2015 elections Syriza won 36.3 per cent votes giving it 149 seats in the 300-seat Greek parliament. It had to tie up with sovereigntyist Right-wing ANEL party [Independent Greeks] to obtain the majority required to form the government; as a result the new government has a rabidly reactionary Defence Minister. Syriza’s own Foreign Minister is a nutty ideologue of the ‘patriotic Left’ (formerly with the still unadulterated Stalinist Communist Party of Greece, the KKE).

Europe’s old Left parties, which were mass parties, have sunk in popularity and ceded ground to the far Right parties that are quite popular with the labouring classes (an uncomfortable reality mostly unacknowledged by the Left). The two though share ‘national sovereignty’ as the common repertoire and a rejection of the Eurozone and espouse economic autarchy vis-a-vis the European economic union as a solution. We have seen something similar in and around the world where the Left and Right came to share a common language with regard to globalisation.

The past few years has seen a number of governments in Greece collapse while trying to implement a slew of economic austerity measures imposed by the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund (the Troika).

The scale of the crisis has been enormous leading to the collapse of the basic social infrastructure in Greece, to the denial of access to health care for three million people, quite dramatic for a European country with a population of 11 million.

According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) figures of March 2014, 30 per cent of the Greek population live below the poverty line and 17 per cent of the people are unable to meet their daily food requirements. Umpteen media reports have described the huge increase in disease, suicide and preventable death. A large social crisis emerged, also providing fertile ground for the rise of the far Right and neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party; they went about distributing food to the needy while pushing ultra-nationalism. (Half a million people voted for it.)

The election of a pro-poor Left Government committed to oppose neo-liberal policies and adjustment measures resulting in mass unemploy-ment has the airs of a “Greek spring” with vast support of the population, larger than its real strength. Syriza’s opposition to externally imposed austerity policies is formulated in simple terms of defending national sovereignty against an outsider—the Troika. Syriza’s political campaign has relied a great deal on a patriotic and populist idiom, deploying a ‘saving-the-nation’ device and tapped into the vast reservoir of resentment within Greece.

(It is a matter of history now that in 1979-80, the iconic founder and leader of PASOK, Andreas Papandreou, had opposed membership to both the EEC and NATO saying they were part of the same syndicate; but those were different times.)

However, it accepts that political action in and against the European Union is the route to take. In a bold and internationalist stance, the Syriza has broken with the anti-European rhetoric of the old Left and has opposed an exit from the Euro, saying it will be disastrous for the future of Europe. But they are caught in a vortex as they try to negotiate their way with bankers and EU officialdom. The size of the Greek public debt is gigantic—323 billion Euros—and the hands of the Left Government are tied to prevailing economic agreements across Europe.

Syriza is arguing for a bailout package with the EU that would create a new solidarity in Europe based on fair fiscal, and social and labour policies. Millions of people haven’t been paid wages, pensions and unemployment benefits. Discontent has chiselled space for acceptance of violence in daily politics. Syriza, while it gets down to providing economic relief to citizens, must now to draw the line without fear of breaking its ties with the street, by not closing its eyes to banalisation of xenophobia and anti-outsider/immigrant sentiment. It is an explosive situation. In a time of economic and social unrest the European Union was awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize for keeping the Peace and Tolerance in Europe. Be that as it may, Europe cannot look away from the serious social crisis in Greece; it has a special responsibility to come up with a social Marshall plan.

Tucked within the Greek turmoil has been another crisis that has been spinning out of control—xenophobic violence against migrants and asylum-seekers, on Roma, on Gays and on Leftists, mob violence against migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, North and sub-Saharan Africa; these have been witnessed right through the years 2013 and 2014.

EU officials have agreed to extend the Greek economic bailout for four months at the end of February 2015, allowing the nation a little breathing space not to impose new austerity measures, but also requiring Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and co. to continue paying back the European Union.

The Syriza Government’s economists are framing—with the Troika breathing down their necks—proposals to expand the income generation of the Greek state and reduce its expenditure. At the same time, the new Greek Government is moving to raise pension and the minimum wage levels and ending the previous government’s privatisation programme. A very daunting task. Syriza has come up with its first proposed legislation to partly deal with the humanitarian crisis, but so far it has ducked the class question with regard to structural inequalities in Greece to craft practicable alternatives expected by the movements of the unemployed, poor and disenfranchised that brought Syriza to power. This can be counter-productive in the long run.

In Greece’s economic pyramid, the big untouchables have been the Greek Orthodox Church, always exempt from paying taxes on its vast properties, and the shipping oligarchs who wield immense power and evade taxes and influence political futures. Syriza plans to tax the rich and clamp down on tax evasion, as part of austerity measures; some of these may not pass with the EU. Moreover Greece’s immensely powerful shipping magnates, faced with a property tax dragnet, are likely to fund any forces that undermine and bring down Syriza. The beleaguered far Right Golden Dawn party is likely to see a rise in its funding from dubious sources to destabilise Greece and tie down Syriza.

Syriza’s Left project will certainly have mass popular support to stave off opposition from the wealthy oligarchs inside Greece, but it cannot use its popular support to challenge the unfair demands of the European monetarists in the driving seat at the EU. Syriza has the goodwill and support of a wide number of intellectuals from across Europe. It must therefore internationalise the campaign across Europe to get support from social movements, trade unions etc. for organising giant protests against austerity in Brussels, Berlin or Paris. But the prime responsibility for this will have to be shouldered by the European Left. The Spanish, French, Italian and German democrats, labour organisers and social justice campaigners should jointly organise mass actions to hold back the “Troika” from strangling the government in Greece. The common interest of Europe is at stake: today it is Greece, tomorrow it will be other countries.

It is difficult to say how long the Syriza Government will survive in Greece and whether it will be successful; but if this is looked at only as a national problem and not taken to be an opportunity by the Left groups across Europe everyone will miss the bus. A failure of the Syriza Government will certainly open the floodgates in terms of rise in the social and electoral prospects of the far Right formations within Greece. Let us not forget that Golden Dawn had had 21 MPs in parliament and got some seven per cent of votes. Elsewhere in Europe too we are already seeing a phenomenal rise of ultra-nationalist extremist forces.

An intense cross-border European solidarity can help shift the question of national sovereignty into a call for democratisation and a Europeanised economic policy. The EU has to stop being a technocratic instrument of economic policing and become socially accountable to the people. A whole new model is needed to deal with the crisis across Europe, the public debt burden and a common poverty and social alleviation programme should be Europeanised without leaving it to national governments. A radical new Euro-Left strategic vision is the key here: A basic requirement would be to shelve the age-old baggage of Left nationalism. It should campaign for a Europe-wide common approach so that the EU doesn’t treat each affected country in a piecemeal manner by placing the burden of crisis separately. It should resist all calls for pre-Schengen closed borders within Europe. It must also actively mobilise to face head-on the growing mutation of nationalist sentiments into fascist hysteria—a grave danger to Europe.

Nurtured and educated by the groundswell of radical grassroots movements against austerity, a new Trans-European Left alliance can (re)emerge as a popular force among the precarious layers of the new labouring poor, not just its traditional forte—the proletariat; with enough bargaining power to refashion a Europe that isn’t just in the service of big elites and capital. Will they rise to the occasion? This isn’t about capture of state power but about capture of people’s imaginations, the Left’s own imagination and energies that connect the local, national struggles with common European (and international) ones. The continued economic crisis is undermining Europe’s common political and economic future, it is time to take the bull by the horns before it is too late; or else nationalists, populists, and isolationists will have a field day.

The author is a Left-leaning activist who spent several decades in France and runs the South Asia Citizens Web