Greece interview: New gov't formed, but voters reject austerity

Green Left correspondent and SYRIZA activist Afrodity Giannakis during SYRIZA's election campaign. Photo by Andreas Tsatsaias.
Saturday, June 23, 2012

To the great relief of the big financial institutions and European powers, the right-wing New Democracy party narrowly came first with more than 29% of the vote in Greece's June 17 elections. However, the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) won nearly 27% on a platform of clearly rejecting the savage austerity policies forced on Greece's people in a bid to make them pay for the financial crisis caused by big banks.

All up, more than half the votes went to parties that reject the pro-austerity “memorandum” bail-out packages forced on Greece. However, thanks to Greece's undemocratic electoral system, which grants the party that comes first an extra 50 seats, ND was able to form a pro-austerity coalition with the support of PASOK and the Democratic Left.

Green Left Weekly correspondent Afrodity Giannakis spoke to Stuart Munckton on the election outcome and the next steps. Giannakis is an activist with the International Workers' Left (DEA), a revolutionary socialist group that was one of the founders of SYRIZA. Two DEA members were among the SYRIZA candidates elected on June 17.

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The world markets and the corporate media responded positively to the June 17 results, but at the same time a far left party got nearly 27% of the vote and one third voted for far left groups. So, what is your assessment of the elections?

On the one hand, more people voted against the austerity than the results show. There are many people who don’t have much access to alternative ways of information, so they were taken in by mass media propaganda.

After the May 6 elections [that failed to lead to a government being formed], the two major pro-memorandum parties, New Democracy (ND) and PASOK, got their act together and started promising to renegotiate the memorandum. Apparently some people believed that.

They are clearly lying, as they have already signed the memorandum agreement and officials from the International Monetary Fund, European Union, European Central Bank troika said they won’t renegotiate point blank.

At the same time, there was a huge campaign of scaremongering, aiming to intimidate people into voting for these two parties. In that, they had the help of their European troika friends.

This kind of interference had not happened to this extent before. The powers-that-be capitalised on the people of Greece wanting to stay in the European Union and the eurozone. So they threatened us that if an anti-memorandum party came into power, Greece would be kicked out of the eurozone and even the European Union.

The whole thing was very confusing, as the opposite was also stated (that there was no way Greece would be forced out, as it would be against other European countries’ interests). That added to the sense of insecurity.

They also made SYRIZA out to be unrealistic about Greece staying in the eurozone while renouncing the memorandum. They tried to discredit SYRIZA in every way they could, presenting its coalition of different groups as a disadvantage, playing the anti-communism card, calling SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras a demagogue.

Every time SYRIZA representatives appeared on mainstream TV, they were faced with a very hostile and aggressive attitude on the part of the journalists. A few times, SYRIZA representatives contradicted each other with their statements and the media made a big fuss about it.

They also said that SYRIZA didn’t have a program or a clear political direction. That was not true, as SYRIZA publicised five central election points in the first election and wrote up a more extensive and detailed program before the second election.

SYRIZA’s rise from less than 5% of the vote to almost 17% [on May 6] was sudden and unexpected. But it didn’t take it long to use its political and ideological background, as well as its members’ expertise, to create a good comprehensive program. This program is quite specific, while at the same time it’s open to modification according to the needs of the people through democratic processes.

What explains the drastic rise of SYRIZA? What are its proposed solutions to the crisis?

SYRIZA’s vote went up sixfold from the 2009 general election. It’s the highest result ever achieved by a left party in Greece. This is due to the party’s clear anti-memorandum, anti-austerity, pro-people stance, including years-long participation in the people’s struggles.

The very positive result shouldn’t make us overly excited, though, as the majority didn’t vote for socialist change. These voters may not agree with everything SYRIZA stands for. They trusted SYRIZA to reverse the disaster caused by corporate interests, based on the party’s clear positions, and that despite the fact that SYRIZA representatives were also very clear about the party’s left-wing identity.

In its election program, SYRIZA talked about cancelling the memorandum and all the laws linked to it. It proposed replacing it with a reconstruction plan, renouncing the odious terms of the loan agreement and renegotiating interest due and suspending payments.

Other policies include raising taxes for the rich to average European levels, cutting military spending, nationalising banks and other strategic services, combating corruption, taking measures for social and environmental reconstruction, deepening democracy, restoring a strong welfare state, and protecting public education, culture and sports.

Who voted for SYRIZA?

In both the May and June elections, SYRIZA came first among younger voters. SYRIZA also gained high percentages in the cities. Most of the conservative vote came from people in villages and others who rely mainly on TV as their source of information.

Also, people living in the countryside are not quite as badly affected as people of urban areas. It is usually the case that city people are in the forefront of the struggle.

There is much propaganda in the corporate media saying the people of Greece have brought this on themselves, suggesting this is a case of Greek people’s living beyond their means. What’s behind the crisis and who among the people in Greece are being made to pay for it?

It’s not ordinary people in Greece that overspent or made mistakes in running the economy or managing the country’s money. The reasons for the crisis are inherent to the capitalist system and we can see the spread of the crisis to many countries.

Ordinary people of Greece have suffered as a result of neoliberal measures for many years, while the rich got richer. There was rising casualisation of employment, worsening employment conditions, undermining of welfare services, etc.

On the other hand, not only did capitalists get more and more concessions, most of them evaded paying tax altogether. The Greek shipping industry pay no tax at all.

At the same time, taxation has got unbearably heavier for the poor, along with continuous price rises. On top of that, there were a lot of economic scandals, with public money illegally going to private hands.

It’s not the rich paying for the crisis, it’s the poor bearing the burden through cuts in pensions, wages and the dismantling of health and welfare services.

There’s been a lot of slandering of the people of Greece to the effect that we live at the expense of European people, specifically people in Germany. But most of the money [that comes from spending cuts] goes to the banks and loan repayments. The Greek governments gave Greek and European banks 200 billion euros since the first memorandum in May 2010.

Economist Paul Krugman recently argued against the idea that people in Greece are lazy; in fact, they are the second hardest-working people in the world after the Koreans. The culprit is the financial kleptocracy, not the Greek people.

SYRIZA is the second biggest party in parliament. What do you see as the way forward? A combination of SYRIZA’s opposition in parliament and building the extra-parliamentary resistance?

SYRIZA’s electoral victory is something very positive for Greece and also for the left movement in the rest of Europe. The measures signed on February 12 by the previous government are absolutely vicious.

They are the worst we’ve seen so far and are due to be enforced now. The package involves cuts of 11.6 billion euros ($14.5 billion) by 2014. This amount will come from brutal pension and wage cuts, tens of thousands of sackings in the public sector, a huge health cut. So it will be the poor people who will pay again and suffer even more.

PASOK and ND were in a rush to form a government and go ahead with these plans. Democratic Left, a right-wing split from SYRIZA, is also in the new government. The pro-memorandum parties were very keen on having a strong government. They aimed for broad popular support. It seems like they are concerned about the duration of the new government’s term.

They want to minimise the people’s resistance and to have enough time to realise their plans. The three parties together have 179 out of 300 seats in parliament.

The three parties have also tried to drag SYRIZA into the government. They accused it of being irresponsible, as SYRIZA says there’s no way we’d consent to these policies and that the party’s role is to be in the opposition and make it hard for the government to pass the austerity package.

At the same time, we need a strong movement from below and strong support from the people. SYRIZA has organised a lot of open assemblies and we’ve got many people involved. This is something we didn’t have much success with before, partly because of our own weaknesses and partly because of the people’s lack of interest.

A lot of people have responded to it now and we’ve had big assemblies as well as very successful public election talks and other events. We are hoping that people’s consciousness will change and we’ll take the right way forward, whatever that may be.

We don’t have any set ideas about what exactly should be done next, apart from the programmatic positions, which are a minimum platform for people to agree on and work with us, and then we’ll see. We’ll take it from there. We don’t want to impose anything that people don’t agree on.

Some political forces accused us of deceiving people about our good intentions. I’m talking about the Communist Party mainly, it's been really negative towards us or any collaboration with us. It dropped from 8.5% on May 6 to 4.5% in the June poll.

But this is the approach we want to take and I think that we have the will and the right ideological basis to do it. At the same time, even if you believed the leaders could prove too weak or not adequate for this big task, there is such a strong rank-and-file involvement in SYRIZA that we stand a very good chance of moving in the right direction.

The different components in SYRIZA are also helpful, as they enrich SYRIZA with their input and make for a lively and democratic organisation.

At the same time, we have to take appropriate action against the rise of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, which not only managed to gain legitimacy, but got close to 7% in the May and June elections.

It has gradually become more and more audacious and is involved in increasingly more criminal acts against immigrants and left-wing people. In that, it has the active support of the police. About half the police force voted for it in both elections.

We are aware it would be hard for SYRIZA to achieve any substantial victories alone. That’s why we call on all other left forces to put aside their differences and join in a united front on an anti-memorandum basis.

Read poems by Afrodity Giannakis.