Greece elections: Syriza ousted amid voter disillusionment
Socialist policies and working-class mass action can end austerity
Niall Mulholland, Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI)
The recent general election in Greece saw a heavy defeat for Syriza (Coalition of the Radical Left) and a victory for the right-wing New Democracy. This follows four years during which the Syriza-led government approved mass privatisations and cuts at the behest of the ‘Troika’ (International Monetary Fund, World Bank and EU) despite coming to power on a wave of anti-austerity anger.
Greek people have suffered ten years of austerity under three ‘bailout’ agreements, with outgoing prime minister Alexis Tsipras’s Syriza overseeing the last package. Greece’s national output (GDP) has fallen by a staggering 25%. Around 18% of the population are jobless – the highest in the eurozone. Over 400,000 young Greeks moved abroad to find work. Over 30% of the population live in poverty.
From 2015 to 2018, the government voted for the Troika’s ‘memorandums’ and introduced anti-worker legislation, including further restrictions on the right to strike. A primary budget surplus until 2060 was agreed with the Troika which means the prospect of decades of austerity.
Tspiras called the snap election after poor showings for Syriza in the European elections. But his desperate throw of the dice failed. Voters punished Syriza in the polls after a €86 billion ‘bailout’, agreed last year, meant enduring yet more austerity.
The prospect of either of the two main austerity parties winning – Syriza or New Democracy – saw voter turnout drop to its lowest since 1974. 42% of the population did not vote. Support for Syriza from young voters and the working class fell.
It was New Democracy, the right-wing party that Syriza ousted in 2015, that returned to power, with a working majority. New Democracy won nearly 40% of the vote compared to 28% in the September 2015 elections and 33% in the May 2019 European elections.
Syriza’s vote fell from 35% in 2015, to just under 31%. A big factor in why Syriza did not fall further is because it appears to have taken many of the votes that formerly went to the cuts-making social-democratic Pasok (renamed ‘Kinal’, which got 8.1%). Widespread working-class fear of the hard neoliberal policies of New Democracy also appears to have stemmed the flow away from Syriza somewhat.
The Greek Communist Party (KKE) failed to pick up support, achieving 5.3% (5.5% in 2015 elections). Other left parties, like Anatarsya and LAE, lost votes compared to previous elections.
Diem25, the new party of Yanis Varoufakis, the former finance minister under Syriza, managed to get over the threshold to enter parliament. But this group talks of an ‘alternative’ to the bosses’ EU and a negotiated end to the worst of austerity – all previously rejected by Brussels.
One bright spot in the election was the fascist Golden Dawn losing all of its seats. Mass anti-fascist protests and scandalous court trials involving leading Golden Dawn figures helped lose them support.
Syriza was catapulted to power in 2015 after five years of deep recession and a series of strikes – including general strikes and mass protests – promising to stop austerity.
Many on the left presented Syriza as a model for across Europe. But Syriza, mired in reformist policies despite the socialist rhetoric, had no intention of mobilising the Greek working class on a clear anti-austerity and socialist programme and making a class appeal to the European working class.
At the time, the CWI advocated the adoption of bold socialist policies as the only way to end the misery of the working class. This would have included rejecting the memorandums, nationalising the commanding heights of the economy under democratic workers’ control and management, and imposing capital controls and a state monopoly on foreign trade.
If this led to Greece being kicked out of the eurozone and EU, a socialist government would have appealed to the working class of Europe to struggle against its own cuts-making governments and the bosses’ EU, for the socialist transformation of the continent.
Instead, the Syriza government sought to negotiate for modified austerity packages. But even this was too much for the EU ruling classes. Syriza was forced to sign an austerity package in February 2015. Under immense pressure from the ruling class to force through the cuts and from an angry working class in opposition to the cuts, Tsipras gambled and called a referendum on the austerity package.
Tsipras hoped a Yes vote would allow him to say he was following the will of the people who hated the cuts but feared being forced out of the eurozone and possibly the EU even more. But the No vote won with 61%, indicating the huge level of anger at billions of euros of social attacks being planned.
Rather than use this powerful mandate to reject the Troika and austerity, to take into democratic public ownership, control and management the main levers of the economy and to start the socialist reorganisation of society, Tsipras capitulated. Syriza imposed a €13 billion austerity package that saw pensions slashed and the continuing nosedive of economic production and incomes. Today, over 40% of Greek youth are unemployed.
Syriza’s dramatic swing to the right on economic policies is inevitably reflected in other areas. The riot police have been bolstered. Inhumane camps were set up for refugees fleeing conflicts in the Middle East. Tsipras cultivated close ties with Israel, and Egypt’s despotic General el-Sisi.
The ruins of the ‘Syriza project’ provide harsh warnings for other Left parties, like Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in Britain.
From this serious setback to the Greek working class and big disappointment for many on the left across Europe hard political lessons can be drawn.
The crisis of the capitalist system today is such that no ‘left populist’ party can meet the needs and desires of the working class with a ‘reforming’ programme that refuses to countenance breaking with that system.
As Greece starkly shows, it will be the ruling class that tames the left governments in these circumstances. The Greek left suffered big setbacks and demoralisation and has gone through splits in recent years. The unions appear acquiescent in many cases.
The series of general and partial general strikes against austerity were never seriously developed by the union leadership, to pose the question of who runs society and working-class power.
For Marxists, it is not a question of throwing up our hands in despair. The situation in Greece is very difficult for the working class and Left today but that means clarifying programme, ideas and how to rebuild are more important than ever.
It is not a time for the Greek left to turn their backs on the trade unions, no matter the rotten role played by some of the union leaderships. Marxists in Greece, as elsewhere, must be in the unions, arguing for combative policies against austerity, in preparation for the industrial struggles that will inevitably erupt given capitalism’s incapacity to deliver the goods for working people. Prime Minister Mitsotakis has signalled that he intends to make new attacks against the working class.
The CWI supports building genuine left unity and a fightback, on a pro-working class, socialist programme. This should involve, among others, militant trade unionists, anti-fascist campaigners, radical social movements and viable parties and forces of the left, including the KKE (Communist Party), which despite its leadership’s sectarianism, still commands significant working-class support.
New powerful working-class forces need to be built, in particular drawing in the younger generation, to take on the forces of Greek and EU capitalism.
On a wider scale, only the adoption of resolute socialist policies and the mass action of the organised working class can see an end to austerity and the transformation of society.