Greece: Right-wing government defeated, deeper radical left unity needed

SYRIZA logo.

By Antonis Davenellos

October 14, 2009 -- Socialist Worker -- The results of the October 4 elections in Greece were a political earthquake that have created a new situation in the country.  Certainly, the top news is the electoral and political defeat of New Democracy (ND), the traditional party of the right wing, which has been in power since 2004. With only 33.4 per cent of the vote and 91 seats in parliament (down from 151 in the 2007 elections), ND had the worst showing for the right in Greece since the civil war of 1946-49. The same evening of the elections, Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis resigned from the leadership of ND.

The crushing defeat of the party has opened up a period of deep political crisis for the right, a crisis that by all indicators will be long lasting. There are a least four candidates to be the new leader of the party -- and they can't even agree on the manner in which a new leader should be elected.

The reasons for the collapse of the right are many. The corporate media like to highlight the scandals -- many of them -- involving members of Karamanlis's cabinet. But other reasons proved to be far more serious: In the five-and-a-half years of ND governments, the working class and the youth have accumulated many bitter experiences from the neoliberal reforms of the right. The repression with which Karamanlis answered the youth rebellion of last December has isolated the right among young people.

More important than any other reason, though, was Karamanlis' attidude amid the economic crisis.

At his annual speech on the economy in September at the Thessaloniki International Fair, the prime minister openly endorsed the need for harsh measures to bring down the national debt and budget deficit, even using the term "freezing" in relation to wages and pensions -- a move which, according to opinion polls, instead "froze" hundreds of thousands of working people against ND and created, a month before the elections, a wave of outrage against the party.


The winner of the elections is the social-democratic party PASOK (Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement). Under the leadership of Georgios Papandreou Jr. -- the son and grandson of former prime ministers -- the party gathered 43.9 per cent of the vote and elected 160 members of parliament (MPs), getting the majority it was seeking by a comfortable margin of 10 seats.

PASOK conducted a classic social-democratic campaign. Party leaders spoke of income redistribution and of raising social spending, while condemning the "medieval" conditions in labour relations. They gave attention to environmental matters, speaking of some sort of "green development". Yet for all that, PASOK never assumed any concrete obligations to meet the important demands raised by workers and youth.

For example, on the critical subject of raising wages and pensions -- against Karamanlis' policy of "freezing" them -- PASOK's program speaks of increases above current official inflation rates, which translates to ... 0.3-0.5 euros (45 to 75 cents) per day.

This tactic of doubletalk, though, had a dual effect. On one hand, PASOK was recognised by the ruling class as the most suitable alternative to the threat of government instability and political crisis brought on by the rapidly advancing collapse of Karamanlis. On the other, PASOK became the way to punish Karamanlis, making the social-democratic party the beneficiary of popular anger.

But this electoral shift to PASOK was made without any enthusiasm -- without creating a popular current for "change". In real numbers, PASOK received 3 million votes -- exactly as many as it got in 2004, when it was defeated by ND, and Karamanlis came to power! This numerical paradox can be explained by the drop in voter turnout.

In Greek politics, there is a traditional "overpoliticisation" in contrast to other European countries. In the era since the fall of dictatorship in 1974, Greek voter turnout was, on average, around 80 per cent. But since the elections of 2004 and 2007, it has gradually declined, and in this latest vote, it dropped to 68 per cent. This reflects Greek voters' questioning of the two-party system that has taken place in other countries in the neoliberal era.

This observation is important in understanding the dynamics of political developments in Greece. The day after the elections, the media stated that "the country had a strong government", with many adding that the total vote captured by the two parties of power remains at a high level (79 per cent).

But all this is a numerical game than political analysis. The very evening of the elections, future ministers of PASOK, watching the rapid collapse of ND, were forced to admit that "the political cycle of replacing [parties] in power has narrowed" because of the crisis, and because of the convergence between social democrats and the right on economic and social policies. In reality, things are much worse for all of them: the torrent of anger that demolished Karamanlis now confronts PASOK.

For the time being, the angry public is observing the new government, waiting for its first serious moves in power. But everybody knows the 'honeymoon" will be very short. And a contradictory party like PASOK -- following the same policies as Karamanlis, while it is forced to use populist rhetoric -- could prove to be much less resilient than ND to the blows of the movements of workers and the youth.

The left

However, the left in Greece wasted a serious opportunity in these elections. Its percentage total remained at about the same level -- 13 percent. The Communist Party of Greece (KKE) remains the third party, with a small retreat to 7.5 per cent from 8.2 per cent in earlier elections. This stagnation shows that the tactics of its leadership has reached their limits. KKE is a party characterised by its absolute isolation of its forces from the rest of the left and mass movements outside its control, and also complete adherence to Stalinist orthodoxy. In these elections, the KKE was forced to ask for the support of "other radicals" outside its ranks, without any success.

Its more serious decline in the larger working-class areas highlights even more its political weaknesses. In this context, the public remarks by the party's general secretary for the last 20 years, Aleka Papariga, that she could possibly be replaced may be the beginning of internal developments.

SYRIZA -- the broad united front coalition of the radical left, in which the International Workers Left participates -- got 4.6 per cent of the vote, electing 13 MPs. It registered a small decline from the 5 per  cent of 2007-- a result that was seen as a big success at the time.

Despite the drop, the result has been recognised as a victory in the mass media since many polls at the beginning of the campaign gave SYRIZA less than the 3 per cent minimum for candidates to gain entrance to parliament.

The reason for these low expectations was that SYRIZA appeared to suffer from the pressure put on it by PASOK to achieve an independent parliamentary majority. PASOK was assisted in this effort by the centre-left orientation of the right wing of Synaspismos (SYN), a reformist left party and the largest tendency in SYRIZA. At the same time, SYN went through a paralysing leadership crisis, from which it emerged with many losses, despite the reaffirmation of its young chairperson Alexis Tsipras, who is supported by the SYN left wing and party youth.

SYRIZA passed this critical test mostly thanks to the determination of its left-wing supporters, but also because of the politics of its campaign: attacking the political measures of ND in their specifics, condemning the politics of PASOK, and demanding a "protective shield" for working people and the youth from the attacks of the bosses.

Activists put out the demands of SYRIZA on a massive scale. These included calls for the abolition of "rented" and "temporary" labour, mass hiring for hospitals and schools, and an increase in real wages and pensions. This approach put SYRIZA in position to clash with Karamanlis and clearly differentiate from the generalities of PASOK.

Also participating in the elections was an alliance of many organisations of the far left (among them the Greek Socialist Workers Party, or SEK) under the acronym ANTARSYA. This grouping got 25,000 votes (0.36 per cent), a low percentage surpassing only extremely sectarian old Stalinist-Maoist groups.

This showing certainly doesn't do justice to the continuous presence and efforts of these comrades in resistance movements. And it is proof that in Greece -- as in many European countries -- the prerequisite for national electoral tactics for the far left is united front collaboration at a broader level.

Far right

Meanwhile, the racist, extreme right-wing party LAOS received 5.6 per cent of the parliamentary vote. This is less than it expected given the conditions of collapse of the big party of the right, ND. Nevertheless, the crypto-fascists of LAOS remain a significant threat. That underlines the importance of the antiracist struggle that SYRIZA has adopted as one of its main orientations -- and which DEA is organising with all its forces.

A further comment must be made about what the European press calls "the triumphant return of PASOK". This is an obvious attempt to prop up the European social-democratic parties that have suffered successive electoral defeats, as in Germany.

This euphoria is completely out of touch with reality. Greek capitalism is going through a deep crisis. The chairperson of the Bank of Greece informed the newly elected government that the deficit by the end of the year will skyrocket to 12 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP), making a joke of the previous predictions of 6 per cent. Thus, the harsh policies that Karamanlis dared to propose, and which led to his party's demise, will reappear -- this time as the mandatory framework for the policies of the new prime minister Papandreou.

At the same time, the movements of mass resistance have not retreated from the scene. The continuous small and big struggles by workers and the youth will be now the real opposition to Papandreou. This opposition from below, large and militant, has already proved in Karamanlis' case that it can push "powerful governments" toward collapse.

Two years ago, when PASOK was still in crisis after its electoral defeat, SYRIZA was polling numbers as high as 18 per cent. A section of the base of social democracy had turned its search for hope toward the radical left.

This connection is still possible. Only this time, it won't be in the paper results of opinion polls. It can happen in the streets -- in the struggles against the policies of a government that, while speaking about workers and the people, is being shaped by the interests of the bankers and the bosses.

One major requirement for this to happen is the unifying of a truly radical left. SYRIZA won this bet in the elections of October 4, and now must keep going in a period that certainly looks very important and interesting.

[Antonis Davenellos is a leading member of International Workers Left (DEA) and the left coalition SYRIZA. This article first appeared in Socialist Worker, the newspaper of the International Socialist Organization in the United States.]