Rise of left gov'ts pose need for popular power

SYRIZA leader and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Podemos secretary-general Pablo Iglasias.

Experience proves that left-wing movements can win government, but nevertheless not hold power. Democracy, in other words the exercise of power by the people and for the people, requires much more.

The problem is now being faced in Greece with with radical left party SYRIZA, which won elections in January. It will have to be faced in Spain if the new anti-austerity party Podemos wins November elections.

It was faced in the past, in Venezuela with the election of Hugo Chavez as president in 1998, in Bolivia with Evo Morales in 2005, in Ecuador with Rafael Correa in 2006, and several decades earlier with Salvador Allende's government in Chile in 1970.

In fact, the question is faced by any left-wing movement that forms a government in a capitalist society. When a left force arrives in government, it does not hold the real power: economic power (via the possession and control of financial and industrial groups, the major private media, large-scale commerce, etc.) remains in the hands of the capitalist class, the “richest 1%”.

Moreover, this class controls the state, the legal apparatus, the economic and finance ministries, the central bank and more.

In Greece and Spain, as in Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela and Chile, a government determined to carry out real structural changes must come into conflict with the holders of economic power to weaken and then do away with the capitalist class's control of the major means of production, services and communication, and of the state apparatus.

Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador

In Venezuela in 2002-2003 and Bolivia between 2006 and 2008, the government was in open conflict with the capitalist class. But the decisive structural changes to the economic system have not yet been carried out. These countries remain clearly capitalist.

There has been real progress in favour of the people: adoption in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador of new constitutions resulting from profoundly democratic constitutive processes; broad-based public re-control of natural resources; increased taxes on the very rich, particularly in Ecuador; and major national and foreign private companies; significant improvements to public services; cuts in social inequalities; strengthening of the rights of indigenous peoples; and recovery of national dignity with respect to the great powers, in particularly the United States.

We can only understand such gains if we take into account the great popular protests that have punctuated their history. In Ecuador, four right-wing presidents were forced from power between 1997 and 2005 due to large-scale protests.

In Bolivia, huge battles against water privatisation took place in April 2000 and late 2004. Protests against the privatisation of natural gas in 2003 led to the fall of president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, who fled to the United States.

In 1989, Venezuela was swept by large popular struggles, which initiated the major battles against the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that shook the world during the 1990s and early 2000s in the “anti-globalisation” movement.

But there were even more spectacular events to come. When Chavez was ousted in a military coup in April 2002, huge spontaneous popular protests led directly to Chavez returning as president within 48 hours.

The democratic political changes in these three South American countries are systematically left unmentioned in the Western media. On the contrary, there is a systematic campaign of denigration that seeks to present the three countries’ heads of state as populist and authoritarian.

The experiences of these three countries in adopting new constitutions are highly pertinent. They should be a source of inspiration for the peoples and political movements of other countries.

Just compare the situation with that of Europe and the lack of democratic procedure concerning the adoption of European Union treaties. That said, the new approaches being tested out in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador are also subject to contradictions and significant limitations, which need to be analysed.

Syriza and Podemos

Popular mobilisations are a decisive factor for left-wing governments to come into being and survive.

If governments, such as now led by SYRIZA in Greece and potentially soon by Podemos in Spain, really want to break with the austerity being implemented throughout Europe, they will immediately face conflict with powerful conservative forces at the national and European Union level.

Simply by stating that they wish to apply measures desired by the population, who reject austerity on a huge scale, SYRIZA and Podemos encounter stiff opposition from European bodies, most European Union governments, the directors and shareholders of major private companies and the IMF.

Even voluntarily limiting their program for change, these forces are encountering strong opposition because the propertied classes and European bodies ― which are intimately linked and mutually supportive ― want to push their attacks, coordinated at European scale, even further against the economic, social and democratic rights of the people.

It would be an illusion to think it is possible to convince European authorities and the heads of the ― mainly financial and industrial ― major companies to abandon the neoliberal course that has been reinforced since 2010.

French President Francois Hollande and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who timidly propose slightly loosening the bridle of austerity, are at the same time seeking to apply the “German model” in their respective countries: further weakening collective bargaining rights and workers' wages and conditions. They are no allies to SYRIZA or Podemos.

Another element to consider when we compare the situation of the Greece's new left-wing government with that of Chavez, Morales and Correa.

Starting in 2004, the considerable rise in the price of the raw materials that their countries exports allowed them to greatly increase tax revenues. These were were used to fund vast social programs and big public investment projects.

The governments of these three Andean countries applied a model based on heavy public investment, growth in working-class consumption, raising of low salaries, and nationalisations accompanied by generous compensation for the former owners.

Living conditions for the poorest were greatly improved, as was their infrastructure. The profits of local capitalists were not affected ― in the financial sector, private profits even rose.

It is easy to see that a left-wing government in a peripheral European Union country cannot have the same room to manoeuvre as these South American governments. The countries on the fringe of the European Union are crushed by an unbearable burden of debt.

The European authorities intend to exert all the pressure they can, as was shown by the European Central Bank's restrictions of Greek access to credit in February.

Difficult way forward

This means there is no easy way to implement an economic and social program that breaks with austerity and privatisation. Left-wing governments will have to disobey creditors, the European authorities and the IMF (who are largely mixed up together) to be faithful to their electoral promises.

A refusal to pay a substantial part of the debt will be a key element in government strategy, as will stopping privatisation and fully re-establishing social rights.

This combination is vital because, among the creditors, there is the support for those who propose cutting Greece's debt burden in return for continuing with privatisations and further casualisation and restrictions on workers' rights.

It is difficult to see how a left-wing government can avoid socialising the banking sector (expropriating private shareholders and transforming the banks into a public service controlled by the people), strictly controlling the movement of capital, imposing a crisis tax on the wealth of the richest 1%, refusing loans from institutions that come with the condition of continuing austerity, and refusing to pay a debt that is largely illegitimate, illegal and unbearable.

One of the many instruments available to a left-wing government to encourage participation and popular support, while reinforcing its position vis-a-vis illegitimate creditors, is to audit the debt with active citizen participation to identify what part of the debt can be repudiated.

[Abridged from Campaign to Abolish Third World Debt (CADTM). Translated by Adam Clark Brimmig. Eric Toussaint is an anti-debt campaigner and CADTM spokesperson.. He was a member of the Ecuadorian Committee for the Integral Audit of Public Credit, set up by Correa in 2007, that led to Ecuador repudiating a large portion of its debt as illegitimate. In a March 6 Subscribe to Green Left now! You can also like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.