Greece: Politics 'indicate a left turn'

November 21, 2014
Students in Greece have faced repression for protesting government measures like education spending cuts.

For the first time since the eurozone crisis began in 2009, the Greek economy has reported a yearly growth of 0.6%. Unemployment is also down ― to a still-staggering 25.8%.

However, you wouldn’t see any economic change on the streets; rather, the only changes visible in Greece are political.

The Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza), has been consistently polling anywhere between five and 10 points higher than the coalition government led by conservative party New Democracy.

In February next year, the Greek parliament will elect a new president. Failure by a ruling government to claim a majority vote for its presidential candidate triggers a new national election.

With the coalition government now bleeding numbers, this scenario seems likely. In facing defeat at the polls, the government's true face is becoming increasingly visible.

Over the past five years of crisis in Greece, two things have been a certainty: politics and protest. In recent days, the two converged in a dangerous manner on the streets of Athens.

Authoritarian tactics

This year marks 41 years since the Polytechnic uprising; a protest at the national technical university that led to the fall of the Western-backed military junta, which had ruled for seven years.

In Athens, memories of the junta live on. November 17 is a day to remember the power of positive change that left politics can bring. The three-day remembrance culminates in a march towards the US Embassy.

The demonstration is part of a defined cycle of life in Athens.

On November 17, 1973, government tanks stormed the university and killed 24 people; mainly students. The murderous junta was supported by Western powers ― a fact not lost on the thousands of present-day demonstrators.

This year, in the lead up to November 17, students of the law school arrived to find police blocking access to university grounds in the name of stopping sit-in occupations. In Greece, it is illegal for police to enter university grounds.

Two students were injured when police used stun grenades and tear gas to stop students entering the grounds of the Polytechnic University itself.

Police aggression at the Polytechnic and riot police on the steps of the law school has brought back memories from a bloodier time in Greek politics.

Speaking outside the law school, Stathis, a member of the Greek Communist Party’s (KKE) youth wing, said police blocking access to university was “a big move by the state … They [the government] want to frighten us … they don’t want us to fight for our rights, they use police to frighten us and to make the ordinary person afraid”.

He raised parallels with 1973: “It is scary though, 41 years since the polytechnic, to see police on the campus [but such] violence is the logical weapon of this state.”

The legal framework for such acts is shaky at best. However, laws stopping police from entering university grounds have been significantly weakened in recent years. This is part of a push by the government to paint protest as a criminal act.

On the lawns of the Polytechnic, Yiannis, a member of the anti-capitalist party ANTARSYA, said that event, “brings back memories from 1973, that’s for sure, and this is quite tragic. Right now we have to fight again for certain rights that were thought to be fundamental.”

He said that, based on the actual support it enjoyed among the population, the government “was a minority government”.

He said: “They are trying to pursue policies that are supported by the International Monetary Fund and the European Union, as if these policies are the only possible way. [They believe] it is as Thatcher said, 'there is no alternative' to neoliberal policies, so they are trying to persuade people through terror.”

Yiannis said this year's November 17 anniversary was “by no means a regular anniversary, it is an anniversary that right now is very close to the fight of the struggle, because what the Greek youth was fighting about 41 years ago, we fight for today”.

Police attacks

The demonstration, involving tens of thousands of protesters, was largely peaceful. Small pockets of violence broke out in the inner-Athens suburb of Exarchia near the Polytechnic. Anarchists and police clashed until the late hours of the night.

More worryingly, police attacked two registered reporters during the demonstration. The government has promised an investigation.

At some points in the march, police were four, sometimes five rows deep. Police put on gas masks in unison as the demonstrators approached.

It was a show of force by performance, and a performance by force. On November 17, the face of intimidation was the face covered by a gas mask.

Critically, police forced the protest to take a detour, blocking access to parliament. What it revealed was a government so afraid of its own electorate that it deployed riot police outside its own parliament. Greek democracy has never looked so authoritarian.

These are the tactics of a government that is starting to consistently lose in the polls and is desperate to change the narrative of Greek politics from that of a crisis to that of a post-crisis recovery.

The left challenge

Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras has been busy courting political king-makers from the Greek business community. He has met Gianna Angelopoulous and leaders of “the Federation”, an alliance of the Greek business elite.

Angelopolous and the Federation are crucial players that have traditionally backed the main ruling parties New Democracy and PASOK.

Tsipras was also recently in Spain to attend the first conference of the new left party Podemos. He gave his formal support to the party, which emerged out of the anti-austerity Indignados mass movement and is ahead in the polls.

In Spain, Tsipras spoke of a left rise in Europe, saying that Greece was “on the brink of a historic change”.

If Syriza and Podemos were to win in upcoming elections, it would challenge recent efforts within the eurozone to frame any economic recovery around a strictly neoliberal agenda.

Syriza's statements

Speaking in London at the November 6-9 Historical Materialism Marxist seminar, an academic and member of Syriza’s national leadership, Stathis Kouvelakis, defined Syriza as “a very traditional party of the left, and at the same time, one of the most advanced examples of the processes of the opposition after the 1990s and specifically the 2000’s in Europe.”

He called it “a very heterogeneous party which integrates nearly all traditions of the socialist and the communist left”.

Kouvelakis said: “This means that the point of the balance within the party is somehow unstable, always complex and problematic. At the same time, this is a strength, because it really means all of these traditions can come together to compare differences and recruit forces.

“This actually contributed, crucially, to the fact that in 2012 [during the 'Movement of the Squares'] we appeared as a credible force because Syriza was a united political proposal.”

On the issue of Greece leaving the eurozone, Kouvelakis said it was “quite a complex debate because there are various arguments based pro and contra but the core of the question is if our program is feasible. [This means] overturning austerity politics within the framework of the eurozone.”

On the chances of the political right attacking the left in government, Kouvelakis concluded: “We will be blackmailed, we will be pushed, but we will not withdraw our demands.

“We will go ahead, with all circumstances, and we will go ahead and ask for the support of the people.”

The political scene in Greece is complex. The Greek case has its own peculiarities. It has a historically significant communist party ― the KKE ― that has the support of the largest workers' union. It also has active anarchists in the streets.

Greece's two traditional parties of power, PASOK and New Democracy, are clinging on to their electoral dynasties. There is also a fascist party ― Golden Dawn ― that is increasing its support to become more than just a protest vote.

Athens is unstable. The streets are peppered with political slogans and attacks. Poverty is evident on nearly every corner. Shops remain empty, but the voice of the people remains strong.

At the Polytechnic on November 17, Achilleas, an out-of-work journalist and a member of Syriza's youth group, summed up the political situation on the ground: “Everyone in Greece knows that the government is going to lose the next elections … it's not the first time that the law school and the polytechnic school have been closed by authorities, but it is the first time that police have been so brutal against the demonstrators.

“Despite it being 41 years since the Polytechnic [uprising], it is more relevant today.”

He summed up his view of the way forward out of the ongoing crisis in Greece, saying: “Government is the spear of the people, but the people have to fight hard.”

In February, we are likely find out what a left government in Greece within the eurozone actually looks like.

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