Greece eyewitness: SYRIZA pushes rapid changes

Issue 
Cleaners sacked by the finance ministry rally for SYRIZA ahead of the January 25 elections. In one of SYRIZA's first moves, the

There were scenes of joy on the streets of Athens on the night of January 25 as results of the day's national elections gave a clear victory to SYRIZA -- the Coalition of the Radical Left.

Addressing ecstatic supporters, SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras, since sworn in as prime minister, said: “Greece is turning the page. Greece leaves behind the austerity that caused it's destruction. It leaves behind fear and intimidation, it leaves behind five years of humiliation and grief.

“Greece advances with hope, with dignity and steady steps towards a changing Europe.”

SYRIZA ran on a platform of rejecting the catastrophic austerity measures imposed on Greece that caused a deep social crisis. After five years of austerity, unemployment has risen to 31% and youth unemployment to about 50% — and even 20% of those with jobs now live under the poverty line. The rate of suicides has risen drastically.

SYRIZA is seeking negotiations with the aim of wiping out a large part of Greece's debt and tie any repayments to economic growth. Bail-out packages, which include austerity measures, have largely gone to paying private banks — in effect, forcing Greek people to pay for the global financial crisis they didn't cause.

SYRIZA's win has spread hope across Europe — where ordinary people across the continent are suffering from austerity — and to the left globally, but will face huge challenges from a Greek and continental elite hostile to change.

Green Left Weekly had a team in Athens to report on the elections, whose full coverage can be read here.

Below, Green Left's European correspondent Dick Nichols looks at the dramatic first steps of the SYRIZA government and the confrontation brewing with the European powers-that-be.

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It was the French Catholic daily La Croix that best described the size of the challenges facing Greece’s incoming SYRIZA government: they are “labours of Hercules”, a reference to the mythical Greek hero whose 12 feats against impossible odds made him immortal in the ancient world.

The most crucial of SYRIZA’s “Herculean labours” is renegotiating Greece’s unpayable and economically suffocating public debt, now at 175% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product.

Success or failure here will largely determine whether its other labours — the commitments to Greek voters on which it was elected — can be fulfilled.

Every action of the new government in its first week was — regardless if its own merit — aimed at strengthening its hand for this vital struggle. And those actions were nothing if not dramatic.

January 26: in government with ANEL

On January 26, the day after SYRIZA’s historic win left it two seats short of an absolute majority of 151 seats, the party made an alliance for government with the right-wing nationalist Independent Greeks (ANEL), a split from the former ruling New Democracy (ND) of ousted prime minister Antoni Samaras.

This was a choice SYRIZA had keenly wanted to avoid — the last week of its election campaign was a non-stop plea to voters to give it an absolute majority. As the counting progressed on election night, the growing probability that it would fall short brought an undertone of concern into celebrations at the party's headquarters.

“Now for the difficult decisions,” a SYRIZA full-timer muttered to me. He was referring to the coalition’s view as to which party might be its least intolerable partner in government.

Given the centrality of the debt negotiations with the European Union and SYRIZA’s rejection of the memoranda with the Troika (EU, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund), the attitudes of potential partners to these critical concerns would count for most.

That immediately eliminated PASOK (the social-democratic Panhellenic Socialist Movement), junior partner to ND in applying the Troika’s austerity packages from 2012.

It also eliminated The River, an eclectic party funded by the Bobolas family, owners of Greece's largest public works company and of a variety media outlets — including a majority share in the notoriously pro-austerity TV station Mega Channel.

The Greek Communist Party (KKE) was always out of contention, with its line that SYRIZA is “part of the system”. Its post-election assessment stated that “the new SYRIZA government does not constitute a political change in favour of the people”.

That left ANEL, which lost support at the election (down from 20 seats to 13), but which has been staunch in opposing the Troika memoranda from a right-nationalist “Greek-patriotic” stance. This generates virulent anti-Turkish and anti-German rants, as well as positions completely at odds with SYRIZA’s on social issues — such as over migrant, refugee and gay rights.

In announcing the agreement with SYRIZA, ANEL leader Panos Kamenos declared that “the time has come to rebuild what was destroyed by the memoranda and to free Greece from the chains of enslavement”.

According to the Spanish daily El Pais, the main condition for ANEL participation was that SYRIZA not pursue any permanent settlement of outstanding disputes with Turkey. The appointment of Kamenos as the new defence minister will also put SYRIZA’s anti-NATO stance on the back-burner for the time being.

The challenge: creating real majorities

For SYRIZA's leaders, the priority was to form government and act fast on its undertakings to the Greek people. Despite the concern and confusion the ANEL alliance caused with some of SYRIZA ranks and supporters, the move allowed the coalition to quickly settle the question of government ahead of the looming debt negotiations with the European institutions.

All other options were judged to be greater evils. Take new elections: there was no guarantee that SYRIZA would do better, especially when it won on January 25 with the votes of many who were giving the party a go “just this once” and when participation at this crucial Greek election in decades was only 63.9% (despite voting being “compulsory” in Greece).

Forming a minority government, the only other alternative and one proposed by some in the party’s Left Platform minority, would have exposed SYRIZA to issue-by-issue negotiation. This at a time when it needed to act quickly to prove by its deeds that “this time the government really is different”.

Moreover, the more the Tsipras government could act freely on the issues of greatest concern to its supporters, the greater would be its freedom to tackle other commitments when the time is right.

By the same token, the grater the gains on issues of austerity and debt, the greater would be the pressure on ANEL not to break the coalition when SYRIZA enacts progressive social policy.

Such a scenario would also increase pressure on PASOK, the KKE and The River not to oppose progressive SYRIZA legislation.

A difficult reality underlay the decision to ally with ANEL, despite the dangers of disorienting SYRIZA’s own members and supporters. SYRIZA won an election with 36.3% of the vote in a poll with 36.1% abstention — out of 9.911 million registered voters. This meant only 2.246 million voted for the radical coalition.

Moreover, much of its support is recent, gained since the 2012 national elections. While sympathetic, this support is also provisional and dependent on reasonably quick advances.

The “Herculean labour” for the SYRIZA government is therefore to turn that minority support into majority backing for its program issue by issue.

Immediately after the ANEL coalition was announced, however, Tsipras began showing how this government would differ from its predecessors.

Tsipras broke with tradition to become the first prime minister not to be sworn in by a Greek Orthodox priest -- instead taking a civil oath before Greece's president. The new prime minister then laid flowers on an Athens monument to 200 communist resistance fighters killed resisting the Nazi occupation of Greece during World War II.

Those actions set the bars, streets and public transport of Athens abuzz. At the same time, outgoing prime minister Antonis Samaras put his stamp on these breaks with tradition by choosing not to turn up for Tsipras’s swearing-in.

Samaras also stripped the prime ministerial offices clean and “forgot” to pass on computer passwords. The street buzz kept growing.

One story doing the rounds was that the vengeful Samaras had even had all soap and toilet paper removed from the prime ministerial suite.

January 27: cabinet named

The 40-person cabinet named the following day confirmed SYRIZA was aiming for radical policy changes. Besides Tsipras and his deputy prime minister, founding SYRIZA member and economist Giannis Dragasakis, the cabinet contains:

* Economist Yanis Varoufakis as finance minister. Varoufakis, a former lecturer at Sydney University, describes himself as a “libertarian Marxist”. He is a long-standing critic of EU economic policy, recently dubbing the pro-austerity memoranda imposed on Greece as “fiscal waterboarding”. He will lead talks with the EU over SYRIZA’s pledge to renegotiate the memoranda with the Troika;

* Nikolaos Kotsias as foreign minister. From the University of Piraeus, Kotsias is a disillusioned PASOK diplomatic appointee with expertise in the Greece-Turkey relationship. He is responsible for a long list of publications critical of EU structures and its dominance by Germany. He was twice jailed during the 1967-1974 military dictatorship;

* Panagiotis Lafazanis as minister of productive reconstruction, environment and energy. The leader of the Left Platform in SYRIZA, Lafazanis has in the past supported a Greek exit from the Eurozone.

* Giannis Tsironis as deputy minister of environment and climate change. The leader of the Ecologist Greens, which ran in alliance with SYRIZA in the elections, Tsironis is dedicated to developing a Greece-wide plan for ecological conversion.

When the Ecologist Greens alliance with SYRIZA was announced on January 8, Tsipras said it was “a strategic alliance that aims not only to the forthcoming elections, but mostly looking forward to the joint formulation of environmental policy in Greece”.

January 28: shock of the new

Just two days after forming government and before the new cabinet had even met, Tsipras announced his government’s first measures. He said: “A new era has begun, a government of national salvation has arrived.

“We will continue with our plan. We don’t have the right to disappoint our voters.”

First, and most importantly, the €751-a-month minimum wage was restored. Under the Troika-pushed memoranda, it had been slashed to just €586.06 and €510.95 for people under the age of 25.

Next, it was announced schemes to privatise the ports of Piraeus and Thessaloniki would be halted and pensions reinstated. Then, after cabinet had met, Lafazanis announced the suspension of plans to sell the public power corporation.

Other announcements included ending fees for prescriptions and hospital visits, rehiring some public sector workers sacked by previous governments and restoring the right of workers and unions to negotiate collective agreements.

Three measures stood out in this day of attacks on neoliberalism’s “There-Is-No-Alternative” principle. First, the cleaning women sacked by the finance ministry, who have struggled against Troika cutbacks for over two years, were rehired.

As new finance minister Varoufakis said: “One of our first moves will be the immediate cutting of costs at the ministry, for example, the number of advisers and this spending cut will fund the rehiring of the cleaning ladies at the ministry. It will be a symbolic first move.”

Next, migrant children born and raised in Greece will have Greek nationality.

And lastly, as a symbol of the overall aspiration of the government, the barricades that have for the past six years defended the parliament against popular protest were removed.

The reaction: blackmail

All that good news was too much for the vested financial and economic interests to bear.

On hearing that privatisations had been frozen, some Greek bank stocks lost more than a third of their value, while yields on Greek bonds rose and the Athens stock market lost over 9% on the day.

Next came the inevitable concern from Standard & Poor’s, as it revised its Greek sovereign rating outlookthe , prelude to a formal downgrade. The agency that had certified US bank toxic “assets” as AAA warned that a Greek bank run might eventuate, noting that accelerated deposit withdrawals from banks had created “a credit concern”.

On the same day, the Wall Street Journal reported that Greek ship-owners, responsible for 15% of global tonnage and fearful of being asked to pay tax for the first time, were developing a Plan B to shift operations to London, Monaco, Singapore or Dubai.

Behind these threats lay the biggest menace of all: that if no agreement is reached with the EU on debt restructuring, an isolated Greek economy might face a liquidity crisis due to ECB credit strangulation, similar to that which hit Cyprus in 2012-13.

This was “solved” when, despite rejection by the Cyprus parliament, the EU forced bank depositors to take a “haircut”.

Economist Richard D. Wolff described the Cyprus “solution” like this: “This is blackmail. This is basically the officials of the banks and the political leaders going to the mass of people and saying to them, ‘This awful deal makes you, who have nothing to do with the crisis and didn't get any bailout, pay the costs of the crisis and the bailout.

“You must do this, because if you don't, we will do even more damage to you and your economy. So give us your deposits, give us your money, pay more taxes, suffer fewer social programs, because if you don't, we will impose even worse on you.’”

So tense was the mood created by these reactions that by the evening ofJanuary 28, Dragasakis said the government would not carry out unilateral actions or any changes in the banks without first consulting their private shareholders.

On January 29, Tsipras met the president of European Parliament, German social democrat Martin Schulz, while the Eurozone financial czar, Dutch social democrat Jeroen Dijsselbloem, planned to visit Athens on January 30.

Both sides have described talks so far as “cordial” and “useful”.

Varoufakis also said he would travel to Paris to talk to his French counterpart about Greek proposals and Dragasakis said he received reassurances from ECB chief Mario Draghi that Greece would not be subjected to a liquidity squeeze.

At the same time, Bank of England governor Mark Carney, without mentioning Greece by name, has come out with a strong attack on austerity policies in the Eurozone, saying they could cost the continent another “lost decade”.

Struggle just starting

In short, all sides are jockeying for position before the serious negotiations begin.

It would be wrong to underestimate the power of blackmail of the financial and economic interests besieging the Greek government. But it would also be an error to underestimate the strength of the “collective Hercules” that is the SYRIZA government and its growing support in Greece — and across southern Europe.

SYRIZA’s win is already deepening tactical divisions within the European powers-that-be. Tensions are growing between its hard cops (led by the German and Finnish governments and the Bundesbank) and some of its softer cops (mainly European social-democrats).

The hard cops’ line that “debts must be paid” is losing support. The soft cops’ acceptance of some degree of debt restructuring makes it possible to discuss SYRIZA's proposal to halve Greece's €321 billion Greek public debt burden.

And that is after just four days of SYRIZA government. Their struggle, which demands the solidarity of all progressive people, continues.

GREECE: THE END OF AUSTERITY? from Theopi Skarlatos on Vimeo.

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