Syriza supporters cheer during a rally on election night
What has happened in Greece over the weekend? The gist:
- Syriza, the Left-green anti-austerity, anti-“troika” party, won 36% of the vote, and 149 of 300 seats in Greece’s January 25 elections;
- The party has formed government with the support of a small right-wing, but anti-troika party, the Independent Greeks, who have 13 seats;
- Former governing party New Democracy was reduced to 28% and 76 seats. Centre-left PASOK was close to a wipe-out with 4.8%;
- Syriza’s leader and new PM Alexis Tsipras has announced that Greece will deal with the EU only, not the troika, and will be immediately reversing a whole series of imposed austerity measures on the poor and middle-income earners. They want the EU to write off the 200 billion euro debt it is holding, 50% of Greece’s total debt; and
- Syriza has to strike a deal with the EU for a new bailout for a bond payment on February 28, and a major one in July. The latter will be the decisive point at which Greece stays in, or leaves, the euro.
The hammer and sickle flew over Akadimias last night, in the centre of Athens — together with red flags, green flags, rainbow banners, European solidarity banners, Podemos, Left Group and Die Linke — as Syriza, the radical-Left coalition, stormed to victory in the Greek elections. A cold wind came in, rain spotted the night, but the crowds kept flowing in. The results had come early, courtesy of the unerringly accurate Greek exit polls. By 7pm we knew that the party had taken around 36-37% of the vote, enough to given it around 150 seats of the 300-seat parliament, within striking distance of an absolute majority.
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Prime Minister Antonis Samaras of New Democracy conceded before the counting had even begun. By 8pm crowds had started forming around the Syriza headquarters, a nondescript four-storey office building, a rope line hastily set up, as hundreds of activists, now MPs, began pouring into the building to get some basic instructions on what the hell to say if a mic were thrust into their faces. Hundreds of black lenses, close to the door, the media of the world, new MPs stopping to say hi to favoured journos in the scrum, laughing, double shake of hands, tears. Then a car pulled up, and out tumbled Alexis Tsipras, the 40-year-old Syriza leader, prime minister presumptive, a neat black-haired man in a blue suit and open-necked shirt. With a wave and few words he vanished into the office for some emergency talks about preliminary coalition offers.
Then the crowd streamed down Akadimias, the main street, to the colonnaded, frescoed law school, a ridiculous 19th-century imitation of past glories, somehow ennobled tonight. The music kicked in from the truck-sized sound systems, The Clash, Rock the Casbah, adopted son Leonard Cohen First We Take Manhattan, then someone in the crowd struck up the Italian radical anthem Bella Ciao, and everyone sang that. We didn’t know how to sing it, but we did by the end, then the Internationale started up, in Portuguese and Spanish and Greek and English, and we sang that, and then it was back to The Clash again.
Tsipras emerged on the portico to speak at about 11pm. By that time, in the Syriza campaign tent, we’d watched Samaras give his concession speech at Zappeion, the mansion in the park near parliament. A little defensive at first, he mellowed as he went on, said he’d left the country with a balanced budget and reduced debt, and his conscience was clear, and by the end, never have I seen a man so happy to be conceding a loss. He was thinking of two months on the beach and not having to run this damn country anymore. Live, Tsipras, if he felt the strain, wasn’t showing it. Five years ago he took the leadership of a party polling 3.5%, hoping to get it into double figures and be the swing part of a coalition, taking it Left.
Now he has the country, and Europe, on point. His speech was gracious, but not conciliatory, talking about bringing the country together but taking it in a new direction, a liberation from the absurd ratchet the place has been under for five years. He talked about a new Europe, inclusive, open and hopeful, but determined not to be under the sway of anti-human powers. Then he left the stage and the music kicked in again, and the party went till dawn. The final result was tantalising, but enough: Syriza at 149 seats, New Democracy with 28% on around 75 seats, with the one-time dominant centre-left party PASOK falling to 4.8%. Small parties “The River” (a “non-political” citizens’ grouping) gained about 6% and 16 seats. Right-wing (but anti-EU deal) party Independent Greeks (or ANEL) secured 13 — you think they’d be doing better, in Greece — with KKE, the Communists, on 5.5%. Third-party status went to neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, whose leaders campaigned from jail, awaiting trial for conspiracy to murder. They got 6.3%.
Syriza, the coalition of the radical Left centred on a large euro-communist party, had prevailed. The result gave it around 100 seats of the 250 designated for proportional representation — and its first place gave it a top-up of 50 seats, a rule designed to deliver “stable government” (i.e. not the Left), but that has now made it possible for a real alternative to take power. In three years in which Antonis Samaras imposed everything demanded by the “troika” — the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund, authorities charged with imposing a deal on the country — the GDP has shrunk by 25%, real unemployment is at 30%, youth unemployment at 60%, the suicide rate has doubled, a third of the country is without medical care, 20% have had their power cut off, and pensions have been slashed to 400 euros a month. The result has been a disaster, even by the troika’s inhuman measures, since the shrinking of the economy has increased the share of revenue required to repay the debt, which is now 175% of GDP, at 400 billion euros. The EU admitted a year ago that it hadn’t worked — they’d presumed unemployment would bottom out at 15%, and the economy would take off again — but the settings continued.
Year by year, the entire country started to run out of money. The streets north of Omonia, the inner north of the capital, many of them unchanged since the last boom of the ’70s, have become shabby, half-emptied concrete colonnades, filling with rubbish gathering in closed shopfronts. Working-class and then middle-class suburbs regrouped around soup kitchens and food pantries. Most people run their heating for two to four hours a day. Brothers and sisters borrowed from each other to get by, then cousins from cousins, until eventually that shell-game couldn’t be played anymore, because no one had anything left. Some 30% of votes had given New Democracy a last chance in 2012, the more centrist voters of PASOK deserting their party, but hoping that one last offering would appease the gods.
“If a bailout doesn’t come through Greece will default, and its status in the euro remains uncertain.”
When the suffering simply deepened, and ND — a party stuffed with political dynasts and elite families — made no sign of being anything other than an agent of European will, the voters turned, in the space of a few months. “Everyone’s angry,” a financial trader told me in the bar of the Hotel Grande Bretagne, the headquarters of the establishment, on Syntagma Square. His friends, his family are ND, or were. “They shout down the phone at each other. Everyone’s angry. They’re voting Syriza.” About 15% of Syriza’s latest tranche of votes came directly across from the Right. Without it, the vote would have had both parties in the 30% range, a far less compelling result. Syriza won the election by dint of a massive and sustained social-political movement. But ND also lost it decisively.
So what does Syriza plan to do now as regards the troika and the “memorandum”, the deal that imposed this unnecessary depression on a whole society? Well, the first thing is that they don’t recognise the troika at all, and will only negotiate with the EU. The coalition centred on what was once the Greek Communist Party (the Stalinist KKE is a group that jumped back out of the multi-communist-party alliance, and refounded itself, in the ’90s) has a forceful brains trust, of, let’s say, non-bourgeois economic thinkers: John Milios, their senior adviser, Yanis Varoufakis, ex-Sydney University lecturer and a bit of a local god during the ’90s, who will be finance minister, and Costas Lapavitsas. If you want a clue on how the Greek government now sees the world, read Varoufakis’ The Global Minotaur, and Lapavitsas’ Crisis In The Eurozone.
Syriza want the EU to wipe out the 50% of Greece’s debt that it bought from the banks — about 200 billion euros. It is simply going to repudiate the explicit conditions on levels of social spending that the troika imposed and restore power to people’s homes, a universal medical system, and pensions and benefits to a liveable 700 euros per month. It is going to restart the public broadcaster ERT — closed in a single evening, replaced by a shell broadcaster — and re-nationalise a range of other privatised organisations. So it says. It will also build on the informal sector that has sprung up by necessity, collective health clinics, cafes, agricultural co-ops and more, to create a “third space” — a social sector, working outside and beyond the cash economy.
The economy is the first and most pressing issue, but Syriza also has a comprehensive social and political institutional policy — to, as Varoufakis says, “root out the oligarchies” that continue to dominate Greek life. That involves taking on the power of the old families who dominate politics and key industries like shipping, to destroy racist and neo-Nazi networks within the police force, and to retire the moribund but remnant representatives of the “deep state”, the old junta-era anti-democratic hard Right in the military and other institutions. No one thinks there would be a coup, but concerted resistance to Syriza’s authority, by the police, for example, is a real possibility. This will be especially so when Syriza enacts a more humane immigration policy — the country, porous and on the EU border, practises mandatory detention, roundups, and street checks of anyone in possession of a tan — and enacts reforms such as same-sex civil union, and citizenship for Greek-born children of migrants (who do not automatically acquire it currently).
Tsipras has already announced that some of these reforms are just going to have to wait until the agon with the EU starts. That’s imminent. Greece needs a “bailout” for a bond payment at the end of February. The “bailout” simply transfers EU taxpayers’ money to European banks, so the term is ridiculous; the money never leaves the electronic ledger system. It’s a minor payment, and the EU may allow for some face-saving deal — not least because it now realises it could do with a bit of demand stimulus in the economy. But the big one comes in June/July, with a bond issue of half a billion euros due. That will require a bailout, but by that time Syriza hope to be running a domestic budget that includes a 12 billion euro deficit. And that is where the hammer could come down.
If a bailout doesn’t come through Greece will default, and its status in the euro remains uncertain. There is currently no legal way to throw it out, but that could be drafted. Should it stay in and default, the euro will plunge. The financial markets and other countries could simply force Greece out by refusing to recognise the Greek national bank and other Greeks banks’ capacity to participate in the most basic international finance functions. At that point, could it simply continue printing euros, literally and figuratively? Or would it have to issue a new currency? The issue’s a pretty simple one — the country isn’t self-sufficient in basic fuel or raw materials. Default would be a political and social emergency of the first order.
Syriza’s leadership believes that the whole process has been so irrational that they will be able to get a deal that can be a) sold to the Greeks population as a way up and out of the misery, b) sold to Syriza’s supporters and groups to the Left of it, c) sold by the EU to northern banking and capital, and d) sold by Angela Merkel to the German public. It’s a possible that Varoufakis and co have a card up their sleeve they haven’t told us about — such as investment from sovereign-wealth funds, or national capital coming in from China or India, all for political reasons of superseding European limits, and the monopoly of money markets. I hope to God they have, to be honest.
“Possibility and hope has been the accent of younger European supporters — many of whom have never, as adults, seen even an illusory moderate-progressive victory …”
Through Monday, however, the accent was on hope, undimmed even by revelation of the death of Demis Roussos (Yanni is still with us). Across the city, which like all urban centres had gone strongly for Syriza — ND’s support bases were reduced to conservative rural areas in the southern Peloponnese and the north — people were talking about hope, about what could be done. Co-ops are having meetings, dusting off proposals, journalists are talking about re-occupying ERT, there are meeting to drive occupations happening in Exarcheia. But for many there was already a bum note, with the announcement that Syriza had concluded a coalition deal with Independent Greeks/ANEL, the rumour and then official confirmation coming at around 3am that a coalition agreement had been struck, with the details to be hammered out in the morning.
The reasons for such a deal are obvious: ANEL is resolutely anti-troika, while the “non-political” To Potami (“The River”) does not have a firm opinion yet. The KKE will not enter into any agreements and argues that Syriza is about to become the representative of capital and the EU, enforcing a deal. PASOK will give Syriza confidence and supply votes, but is very much hoping it will collapse, and a slice of votes will return to the centre. Without 151 seats, Syriza could wait out the “six-day” process, whereby the first, second and third parties get two days by turn to try and form a government, if the previous group haven’t been able to. No one can but Syriza, but waiting it out to claim a minority government involves Golden Dawn getting a chance to ostensibly try to form a government from prison.
But the Syriza leadership believe they need more support than that available simply from the Left, so falling short of a majority has its advantages. Nevertheless, dealing with ANEL has dismayed many. It is not a fascist party, but it is anti-immigrant, anti-secular, and its leader, Panos Kammenos, has made more than a few anti-Semitic remarks in parliament about networks of powerful Jews and Muslims evading taxes — unlike every other Greek on more than minimum wage, of course (for some reason, he also hates Buddhists).
That is an ugly, ugly choice to make — but it’s an ugly, ugly situation, and the focus on “hope” and possibility has obscured the encounter with the EU, a white-knuckle engagement that is to start quite literally the day after tomorrow, and amid a fresh flight of capital. But by the afternoon, Tsipras had been sworn in as Prime Minister — refusing the usual blessing by an Orthodox patriarch — and later visiting Kaisariani, where in 1944 the Nazis executed a number of Communist partisans, including the brother of the veteran Syriza MP Manolis Glezos (your correspondent interviewed Syriza in their garage-band days).
The prospect of what is to come has rather sharply delineated the mood around Syriza’s supporters. Possibility and hope has been the accent of younger European supporters — many of whom have never, as adults, seen even an illusory moderate-progressive victory, like the Blair ascension of 1997, let alone a real and more thoroughgoing one. Among older supporters — and Jesus, I appear to be in this camp — the victory is welcome for the position it will give the Left from which to conduct a fight in the crisis that is about to unfold. Indeed, through the days leading up to and of the poll, I could not feel the excitement and sense of possibility that I’d seen in 2010-11, when the crisis was pure, and the power equation between parliament and the people was being shifted by daily marches, demonstrations, anarchist raids, the three days of uprising over the police shooting of a 15-year old boy in Exarcheia, the genuinely radical area near the polytechnic. Though not expecting revolution, I wondered if a power shift was possible, of unknown dimensions. Didn’t happen, and maybe it couldn’t have. We’ll never know. But the energy has now flowed back to a parliamentary victory, which has captured a state — and of course taken a tiger by the tail.
But this evening a storm broke over Athens, a big one, torrential rain and thunder. In the once-sparkling, now dowdy centre, people came out from the cafes and hotels to watch as lightning crashed over the Acropolis. Thousands of years ago, people stood here and watched the same thing, and reasoned, that if they lashed out and hit and threw things when they got angry, then this display too must be that same thing, from creatures on an entirely different scale. But the gods were eventually tamed and turned into legends of wars, and became reason and its powers, and there is no cause to believe that the process cannot occur afresh and now. The lightning cleaved something in me like splitting a rock, and I felt a sense of possibility return. Nothing could be more encouraging than the doddling incomprehension with which elite pundits are assessing the Syriza victory (and American mainstream coverage, well, it might as well be brony fanfic). You couldn’t choose a better leadership, at that level of the fight, than Syriza, for a new Europe and a new West, and whatever days are to come, they’ll be great, and there is a place in the battle.