With Greece facing a snap general election on 25 January 2015, there is the genuine prospect of a radical left government coming to power in an EU country. Syriza, a party born from a coalition of Eurocommunists, social movements and anti-globalisation activists, is riding high.
The general sentiment among Syriza officials and activists is that they will win the election and form the next government. The party won the European election in May 2014 and achieved some significant wins at the regional elections. It has been leading nationwide polls for months, scoring 29 per cent in late December 2014. The majority-friendly electoral law allows for an absolute majority at 35 to 40 per cent of the vote, depending on the number of parties passing the threshold.
Of course, victory is by no means assured. Syriza will most likely win the election but fall short of an absolute majority. Between now and polling day the party will be blasted by a tsunami of propaganda and fear-mongering. At the time of writing, it seems likely the party will have to form a coalition to get into government.
Syriza’s problem is that it there are no likely partners: The orthodox communist KKE, which campaigned with the slogan ‘Don’t trust Syriza’ in 2012, has ruled out any form of cooperation. The ostensibly social democratic Pasok is in a deep crisis, losing many of its voters to Syriza and thus attacking its rival fiercely. It is however facing the danger of a split between the factions of leader Evangelos Venizelos and his predecessor and prime minister Giorgos Papandreou. In general, the Greek party system is highly unstable and it is unclear which and how many parties will make it into the next parliament.
If Syriza does fall short of an absolute majority, EU elites might exert pressure on all non-Syriza parties – except probably the fascist Golden Dawn and the KKE – to form a so-called government of ‘national unity’ against Syriza. The near past provides a precedent for such interference. In November 2011, then-president of the EU commission Jose Manuel Barroso orchestrated the imposition of a technocratic government led by a central banker to enforce austerity in Greece, with the support of both traditional mainstream parties, Pasok and the conservative New Democracy. Nevertheless, Syriza activists remain optimistic – and they have a history of surpassing expectations.
If Syriza succeeds in forming a government then it will face a huge number of challenges on the domestic and European level. At home, it will encounter fierce opposition from big business, the austerity parties and the Greek media. Greek economic elites might use the EU’s legal framework to work against Syriza. For example, bank owners could file lawsuits at the European Court of Justice against the restructuring of the banking sector.
For Syriza itself, being in government may strain the relationship between the party leadership and its supporters and change the dynamic within the party. Syriza will have to find a balance between its two roles – first, representing a credible alternative to the establishment, and second, bringing forward a project for government. Care will have to be taken not to damage the party’s links to the social movements, and it will need to extend its presence within society to build a bedrock of support to withstand the attacks.
Greece is particularly vulnerable to pressure from external, EU elites. Instead of preventing a Syriza government through threats as they did in the Greek election of 2012 (when German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble called Syriza ‘demagogues’ and French president François Hollande ‘warned’ Greeks that other countries would ‘want to end the presence of Greece in the Eurozone’ if the party won), many within Syriza expect their European adversaries to play a more patient game in 2015. ‘They won’t do us the favour to openly oppose us. This time, if they are hostile it would be a good thing for us,’ says Andreas Karitzis, a member of Syriza’s central committee.
European elites might instead choose to let Syriza come to power and then make it fail, either toppling the left government project as soon as possible with maximum pressure or attempting to corrupt the party. The latter would ensure the continuation of the austerity agenda, but also prevent leftists and movements across Europe from rallying behind Syriza and Greece.
John Milios, professor of political economy and a Syriza MP, considers this plan to be more probable: ‘I think they will try to do with Syriza what they did with left parties in Italy, who were very left when in opposition and neoliberal when in government… That means that we need to be careful within the party. In Marxist terms, class struggles are everywhere, even inside the party. This is why we need workers to mobilise, to support the party and put forward proposals themselves.’
In the view of Karitzis, the European elites will rely on the austerity regime established in recent years through new institutions and contracts. ‘They will accept us, negotiate with us at the beginning. They will say: “Let’s see what you can do. There are rules you cannot violate, there are agreements you should respect.” They are confident they created a situation since 2012 that no government can change.’
But Syriza will certainly try. One of the first actions of a Syriza government will be to demand a reduction of public debt in Greece and Europe through an international debt conference. European governments and institutions will probably enter negotiations without making any concessions. Karitzis says, ‘They are convinced that we will eventually compromise, that time is against us, so they won’t be too hostile in the beginning.’ Giorgos Chondros, director of Syriza’s department for environmental policy, expects negotiations to drag on for a while. ‘We will not only have to fight the Greek elites, but also the European ones. This makes our situation much more difficult. We’ll need the support of movements in the whole of Europe.’ John Milios anticipates ‘psychological warfare’ from EU elites and creditors.
Greece will most likely violate some of the provisions of the EU’s deficit rules. ‘There is no doubt that the numbers we see about Greek government accounts, the banks’ asset books, are all forged,’ Yanis Varoufakis, professor of economics and Syriza advisor, says. The true state of public finances will probably come to the surface soon after a Syriza government is instated.
Party figures argue that for economic reasons the Eurozone cannot afford to kick Greece out. European elites could, however, exert pressure in other ways. They could trigger a bank run inside Greece. They could tarnish the image of Greece as a tourist destination. The European Central Bank (ECB) could stop returning profits from interest on Greek government bonds. Less structural funds for infrastructure projects like roads might be awarded to Greece – according to Varoufakis, the rules concerning these funds have been loosened in the past to support the current Greek government, meaning they could simply be applied more strictly to harm a Syriza government.
Investors in Greek government bonds have been reassured by ‘winks’ from Berlin and the ECB, suggesting that should Greece not pay, the debt would be covered. Varoufakis warns that ‘they might as well do the opposite to increase financial pressure on a left government.’ All of these measures would damage Syriza’s ability to deliver important promises to re-establish free access to healthcare, increase the lowest pensions and introduce rent subsidies.
Possibly the most serious strategy would be for the ECB to threaten to stop providing liquidity to Greek banks. Varoufakis describes this as a ‘nuclear weapon’ which could bring the Greek banking sector down almost immediately. It would be extreme, but not unthinkable: In December 2014, the ECB threatened to effectively cut off Greek banks unless the government complied with Troika wishes. Varoufakis is convinced that a Syriza government must be prepared for this form of blackmail if it is to last long enough to negotiate a new deal for Greece.
Despite all these challenges, there is still optimism among Syriza members. Although many consider it possible that their government could last only for a few weeks, they say their chances are better today than they would have been in 2012. They see fractures within the neoliberal bloc that they can try to exploit, like the ECB’s fear of deflation, the position of Italy’s prime minister Matteo Renzi, and the recent conflicts within the French government. By getting into government and implementing first measures, Syriza hopes to accelerate existing debates, especially within European social democracy and the trade unions.
‘The main idea is to support society’s self-confidence, to fight the idea that we are totally dependent on somebody else and that we cannot make our own plans as a people,’ says Alexandros Bistis, Syriza’s main campaign coordinator. For Andreas Karitzis, European societies are in danger of accepting that they are not free to decide on economic policy. ‘There are historic times where you have to fight for your values, like democracy, liberty, dignity,’ he says. ‘We should try to give hope to people.’
Lisa Mittendrein and Valentin Schwarz are activists with ATTAC Austria and are part of a solidarity campaign with the Greek left. This article is based on research for their report With Greece for Europe: Why we need to support the Greek left now, which can be downloaded free.
In Britain the Greece Solidarity Campaign is organising in support of the Greek left and movements.