Greece erupts as government and ‘Troika’ impose new savage cuts

Workers and left parties must organise serious campaign to kick out the government

Xekinhma, Greek section of CWI, on massive general strike in Greece on 15 June 2011, photo Stephan Kimmerle

Xekinhma, Greek section of CWI, on massive general strike in Greece on 15 June 2011, photo Stephan Kimmerle

On Sunday 12 February the Greek parliament voted for the new austerity cuts demanded by the European Union (EU), International Monetary Fund (IMF) and European Central Bank (ECB) – the ‘Troika’. These cuts are a precondition for a €130 billion (£109 billion) bailout to prevent the Greek government defaulting on its massive debts. But the prior announcement of new cuts provoked a 24-hour strike on 7 February and another 48-hour general strike on 10-11 February and enormous protests throughout Greece.

Niall Mulholland spoke to Andreas Payiatsos, from Xekinima (the Socialist Party’s counterpart in Greece) a participant in the huge protests in Athens.

How big were the demonstrations against the latest austerity cuts?

The demonstration last Sunday in central Athens was enormous. It was called by the unions and supported by all the main left parties. Up to 500,000 people marched to a rally at Syntagma Square, outside the national parliament building.

Salonika and other Greek cities and towns also saw big demonstrations. Islands like Corfu and Crete were also affected.

Was the 48-hour general strike effective?

Sunday’s rallies were preceded by a 48-hour general strike which succeeded in shutting down all industry, public services and transport. The demonstrations on those two days were relatively small. Most people saw Sunday as the crucial day for protesting; as it was the day parliament would vote on the cuts. So, Sunday saw people back out in the streets in huge numbers.

The international media mainly reported on the riots and clashes between some protesters and police. What was the real character of the street demonstrations last Sunday?

There were some very large trade union contingents taking part in the 12 February mass protest in Athens. A union linked to the KKE (Greek communist party) had a contingent of tens of thousands. There were also huge numbers of people not under any banner. The mood of demonstrators was very angry. People shouted “thieves” and “liars” and “traitors” at the parliament building, as the MPs deliberated over new cuts that will pauperise even bigger parts of the population.

However, clashes between riot police and rioters (anarchist groups play a role in this but so do provocateurs) started at around 5.30pm. The police acted with their usual brutality. They indiscriminately attacked demonstrators and used tear gas. The anarchists gathered around them some youth, many of whom are understandably enraged by the situation and conditions they suffer.

Unfortunately, some of these youth were drawn into reckless and counter-productive acts, including looting, by the desperate plight they face. A reported 93 buildings were damaged or destroyed. Even ambulance crews and firefighters were attacked as they tried to deal with emergencies and fires.

Despite all this, many protesters stayed at the square in their tens of thousands.

What will the new cuts package mean?

This new austerity package is an assault on the poorest in society. The minimum wage will be cut by 22% to just €480 (£402) a month. For under-25 year olds, it is a 32% cut, which means living on €430 (£360) a month. But the worst affected are the young apprentices (nearly all young employees are now branded ‘apprentices’). They will see their monthly wage cut to a mere €350 (£293).

As well as this, the measures include sacking 15,000 public sector workers as part of a longer term aim of shedding 150,000 civil servants jobs. Labour laws will be ‘liberalised’ to make it easier for bosses to fire workers.

All this comes after years of austerity cuts that have left one-in-three Greeks living in poverty, rising homelessness, crime, alcohol and drug addiction and broken families.

Greece is in its fifth year of recession/slump. Soup kitchens in Athens now cater for many thousands, including educated professionals as well as immigrants. The Orthodox Church says it is feeding 250,000 people a day.

Can the Greek coalition government carry out the cuts?

The so-called ruling ‘grand coalition’ government, headed by an unelected, EU-imposed ‘technocrat’ [prime minister Lucas Papdemos], is actually very weak.

A week ago, the three coalition parties, Pasok, New Democracy and Laos, had a big majority of 266 MPs out of 300 MPs. But the austerity bill was voted through by just 199 MPs. This is because many MPs felt the heat of the mass opposition and decided to vote against the cuts or to abstain, usually to try to save their political careers.

These dissident MPs were expelled by their parties, which has caused a political earthquake. Pasok, over some months, and New Democracy, in one fell swoop, lost 29 MPs each. Pasok now has fallen to 131 MPs.

The demagogic, far-right Laos lost 3-4% poll support in one week and felt compelled to exit the government just before the vote. Nevertheless, two of its ex-ministers broke ranks and voted for the cuts.

Pasok and New Democracy now make up the government with just 193 seats between them. Pasok has only 8.7% support in polls and ND has gone down by 10% in just over a week to 21%.

Can the left win elections?

The government stated this week that an election will be held in April. Pasok is set to suffer big losses at the hands of the electorate and likewise New Democracy.

At the same time, the left is picking up in the polls. The KKE and Syriza now have a huge opportunity and jointly have over 30% support in the polls.

But to really capitalise on the situation they must adopt fighting socialist policies and lead the mass struggle to overthrow this government and to defy the demands of the financial markets.

They need to urge their supporters to initiate workplace mass meetings to organise occupations and prepare for an indefinite general strike to overthrow the government.

So although the government managed to get the cuts passed in parliament, it is hanging on to power by a thread. The huge anger in society and opposition to cuts has not abated. The unions have shown a glimpse of their power but have not moved to decisively get rid of the government.

The left parties rhetorically call for the fall of the government and for elections but take no concrete initiatives in this direction. The KKE and the Synaspismos left current call, abstractly, for “strikes, occupations, revolt” etc, but do not give any concrete proposals to organise for strikes or occupations to develop the struggle.

What does Xekinima call for?

The economic and political turmoil is bound to continue. The unions are discussing another general strike within days. But this must not just be to ‘let off steam’ but a serious effort to kick out the government.

We call for the organising of indefinite general strike action, for mass occupations and protests, to bring down the government. It is a government of thieves which has lost the trust of the people.

Democratically elected assemblies in all the districts need to come together on a city wide, regional and national basis to lay the basis for a government of workers and those exploited by this system, with a programme to end capitalism. Namely, refuse to pay the debt and end all cuts; nationalise the banks and major companies and run them democratically by working people and those exploited by capitalism; and introduce an emergency democratic plan to rebuild the economy.

We call for a wave of new city square occupations in Athens and Salonika and other cities and towns, for example, to create a focus so that resistance can continue; to build for and to encourage a new strike wave, and a wave of workplace, college, school and community occupations.

What is the socialist answer to the crisis?

Not surprisingly, 54% of Greeks are now “against the EU” and 35% are “against the euro”. Despite their fears of the ‘unknown’, many Greeks ask themselves; ‘can the situation be any worse outside of the eurozone?’

The surge in electoral support for the KKE and Syriza shows that the left is in a position to potentially form a majority government.

The rank and file of the left parties and unions need to organise from below for socialist policies and democratic, campaigning structures in order to fight for a government of workers and those exploited by capitalism.

Such a government would repudiate the ‘debt’, take the economy into public ownership, under democratic workers’ control and management, introduce jobs and a living wage for all and ensure massive investment in welfare, education and housing.

A workers’ government would reject the capitalist EU and instead link up with the working class of the other debt-stricken EU countries, and the whole workers’ movement in the EU, in a collective struggle for a socialist confederation of the continent.