What does the victory of radical left party SYRIZA in Greece's January 25 elections mean for politics in Europe, at Europe-wide and national levels? Both levels are closely intertwined, and since SYRIZA’s win have been having rapid feedback effects on each another.
Across Europe, the reverberations of SYRIZA’s win are being felt with rising force, both in “peripheral” Europe, but also in the German-led European Union “core”.
For example, conservative Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy felt he had to go to Greece to support his political brother and outgoing pro-austerity prime minister Antonis Samaras in the election campaign. At the other end of the spectrum, leader of the anti-austerity party Podemos Pablo Iglesias was in Athens for the final rally of SYRIZA, and given a special spot on the platform by its leader, Alexis Tsipras.
Today, the conservative Spanish media are doing all they can to torpedo opinion poll leader Podemos before the November national Spanish elections. Podemos spokespeople are bombarded with aggressive questioning, not just about Podemos’s policies for Spain, but about the latest developments in Greece.
It is hard to overestimate the importance of SYRIZA’s win. For the first time since World War II, a political force to the left of social democracy has won elections in Europe. It simultaneously opened the first breach in the great wall of neoliberal austerity.
In Europe, “neoliberal austerity” means moulding the European Union and the eurozone so as to advance the competitiveness of its leading firms — principally German — against rivals from US, Japanese and, increasingly, BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) nations.
Its recipe is removing obstacles to corporate interests, such as “excessive” minimum wages, labour market “rigidities”, “sluggish” public sectors and remaining state industries that could be sold for private gain.
Austerity in Europe operates with extra viciousness deriving from “peripheral” European countries membership of the eurozone and their loss of control of monetary and fiscal policy.
This makes the only “adjustment path” for economies running large external and public accounts deficits the infamous “internal devaluation”. This involves brutal cuts to wages and welfare payments in the hope of boosting the export income to offset the collapse in internal demand that comes with cuts to living standards.
This dynamic has reached a sadistic extreme in the Greek case, shrinking the economy by 25% and devastating the lives of millions.
The importance of SYRIZA’s win is shown by the popular enthusiasm it sparked across Europe, especially southern Europe and Ireland. This was shown on February 15 in the hundreds of demonstrations in support of Greece's negotiations with the Eurogroup of eurozone finance ministers.
It is also confirmed by the hostility towards the SYRIZA government from hard core neoliberals, led by the German government and the Bundesbank (German federal bank). These forces are intent on proving “there is no alternative” to austerity.
Germany is supported by Finland and Slovakia, as well as conservative forces governing Spain, Portugal and Ireland. These have been making their peoples pay the penance decreed by the Troika (EU, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund) for the economic sins of their bankers and real estate speculators.
They stand to suffer political backlashes if the SYRIZA-led government succeeds in applying its alternative program of social salvation and economic recovery favouring those most in need, based on making the wealthy pay.
One anonymous senior international banking insider told Reuters on February 21 about the hardliners approach to Greece: “They are squeezing them on everything, it’s part of a system to suffocate them, to make them realise the end is coming, to realise it is time to get on their knees.”
The popular enthusiasm for the SYRIZA victory among peripheral Europe’s working people has inevitably affected the social democratic parties, but in various ways.
At one end of the scale, where the social democracy governs in coalition with the conservatives — as in Germany — the advice for SYRIZA has been to come down to earth and “face reality”.
Where social democratic parties are governing by itself, as in France and Italy, they have posed as friendly allies to Greece — pleading with the neoliberal hardliners not to humiliate it too much, but not risking the ruling consensus.
Where social democratic parties are in opposition, as in Spain and Portugal, they have even welcomed the SYRIZA victory as part of their bid for government as a softer force than the right.
Sharpening class conflict
The election of SYRIZA has led to a sharpening of class conflict within Greece and across Europe.
The result of this conflict will be determined by several factors. First, the degree of support for SYRIZA within Greece. Second, the degree of support for the SYRIZA-led government and SYRIZA-like forces in the rest of Europe.
This begins with Spain, but also extends into the “core”, especially Germany, where “what to do about Greece” discussions increasingly appear in the media.
In this conflict, the neoliberals hold nearly all the economic cards, while Greece’s economic position is extremely weak. The SYRIZA-led government faces the permanent threat of capital flight (hence the possibility it might have to implement capital controls) plus a debt repayment schedule that will be very difficult to meet without debt renegotiation.
The latest Greek economic indicators reveal the country’s minuscule economic recovery is in danger and tax income is falling behind projections.
Nonetheless, the degree to which the economic power of Greece’s creditors and the ECB can be deployed against SYRIZA is constrained by the political price its brutal use exacts.
A recent example of a tactical error in this regard was the statement by European Commission president Jean-Clause Juncker that “there can be no democratic decision-making against EU treaties”.
The February 24 Greece-Eurogroup four-month bridging deal revealed these forces at play. The deal sparked much discussion across Europe and inside SYRIZA, where about 35% of its central committee voted against the deal.
My provisional opinion is that despite serious concessions that may well make it harder to recover the initiative, the deal was the least evil result possible in the circumstances.
The other alternatives, including those that might become preferable with a different balance of forces, were, at this point, greater evils.
The worst would have been a forced, uncontrolled exit from the eurozone (“Grexit”). This would have produced a greater bank run than that already taking place, a large devaluation of euro-denominated savings, and a further depression-intensifying economic decline.
With the bankrupt private Greek banking system dependent on ECB financing, the conditions did not exist for organising a controlled Grexit nor for a controlled default on paying public debt obligations.
Most importantly, none of these alternatives enjoy popular support support in Greece. According to the latest Public Issue poll, support of staying within the euro remains at 75%-80%. SYRIZA's leaders, elected with only 36.4% of the vote, are committed to building popular support for all of its proposals.
The Greece-Eurogroup agreement should not, however, be interpreted as representing unconditional and timeless Greek attachment to eurozone or EU membership.
In a March 8 interview, for instance, Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis said that if there was no acceptable concession from the European institutions on debt and the primary surplus they require Greece to run, then a referendum on EU membership or early elections was possible.
Going by the most recent opinion polls, such elections would deliver SYRIZA up to 47% of the vote and a large majority of seats.
Greece’s core problem is its private and public debt burden. Without reducing this, any chance of economic recovery and desperately needed job creation will remain remote.
The SYRIZA-led government has called on Eric Toussaint, of the Committee for the Abolition of Third World Debt, to lead a commission to determine which of Greece’s public debt mountain (175% of GDP) is noxious. This is a repeat of the work that Toussaint did for the Ecuadorian government before its partial debt default in 2008.
SYRIZA continues to demand a Europe-wide conference on debt restructuring, along the lines of the 1953 conference that restructured German debt.
Winning the vital struggle around debt will require further political gains for anti-austerity forces in Europe, starting with Spain.
As long as, on a governmental level, it remains Greece versus the rest, it will be hard to achieve a breakthrough on debt. However, if Podemos (possibly in coalition with the United Left) were able to win November elections, it would shift the balance of forces radically.
Podemos, however, is not yet SYRIZA. Formed just last year, it lacks the same developed program, structures, decision-making methods or political clarity.
Defending and advancing the anti-neoliberal bridgehead SYRIZA has created in Greece is therefore a race against time to give breadth, depth and higher degrees of organisation to anti-austerity forces in Spain, Portugal, Ireland and France.
In this context, solidarity with SYRIZA is key, including in Australia. An advance for the struggle in Greece is an advance for everyone struggling against neoliberal capitalism. Therefore, we must seek to build a broadly supported movement for justice for Greece, one winning backing within the Greek community and among all left and democratic people.
[Based on a talk delivered to a March 10 forum organised by the Sydney University political economy department. Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona.]