World Politics

Greek General Elections: The Crisis of Left Politics

Soma Marik

For the second time in a year Greeks went to general elections to elect a new parliament. Syriza, led by Alexis Tsipras, won the elections. But this does not at all mean that Greece has emerged out of its crisis. Indeed, Greek left politics is also facing a turning point.

The Background to the Elections:

In the elections of January 2015, Syriza, constantly called a far left or radical left party, won 149 seats out of 300. Though it had won the election by promising to oppose the exploitation by banks, it swiftly took the path of compromises. After first not opposing directly the issue of debt repayment, in early July, the Tsipras government organised a referendum. Unexpectedly for them, there was a mass outpouring, and 61 per cent of the people taking part (6,161,140 of them, or 62.5 per cent of the total voters) voted a resounding OXI (No), i.e., they rejected the demands made by the Troika or European Central Bank, the European Commission and the IMF. In working class areas and among youth in some cases the No reached up to 90 per cent. But viewing parliament as the main terrain of struggle, Tsipras followed up this tremendous victory, not with mass mobilisations but renewed negotiations, where German imperialism bullied Greece, and compromise turned into supine surrender. The aggressive terms imposed by the Third Memorandum were indeed worse than what had been rejected. The question that naturally came up was, whether such surrender was without any alternative.

From 2012, Syriza had been insisting that it was opposed to debt repayment, for the socialisation of banks, and for the restoration of the minimum wages. This was why in 2012 they rejected any collaboration with any bourgeois party. And this seeming commitment to principle was why in January 2015 they got the first position in the elections, with 36.3% votes (2,245, 978). So the surrender for obvious reasons generated cracks in the party. In the Central Committee, initially 109 of the 201 members condemned the Troika’s impositions. 37 Syriza MPs voted against Tsipras’ proposals in parliament. The proposals passed with the support of right wing parties. But it was evident that Tsipras could no longer run a government in the current parliament. So he decided to go in for elections while his popularity lasted.

After the election proposal came, leftists in Syriza tried to quickly regroup and form an alternative party. 24 MPs including Panagiotis Lafazanis, formerly a minister in Tsipras’ cabinet, resigned and formed Popular Unity, a new party that proclaimed that it wanted to go back to Syriza’s original principles. The question came up, whether this would split the left vote and enable the right wing to forge ahead. Seemingly, it is Tsipras and the left that have won, but we need to understand what lies behind this victory.

Election Results:

The election of 20 September 2015 will occupy a special place in the Greek constitutional and electoral history. The Greek law makes voting mandatory, so though harsh punitive measures have usually not been imposed, polling tends to be high. This time, some 1.6 million of those who voted in the referendum were absent. Even taking the January polls as the bench mark, some 8,00,000 fewer people voted. The turnout was short of 56 per cent. So over 44 percent registered their protest by not voting. The moral legitimacy of the elections are thus certainly called into question, though after twice rejecting the mandate he had been given, Tsipras is hardly likely to be bothered by moral questions.

Syriza has obtained 35.5% of the votes, or 1,925,904, substantially down from the 2,245,978. Their sears also went down by four to 145. At this point we need to issue  a reminder that the Greek electoral law is loaded towards the top party, which gets a bonus of 50 seats. So the 145 implies 95 won, and 50 bonus. The biggest warning is, despite the decline in votes, the Fascist Golden Dawn’s voters turned up – it secured only 9000 votes less than in January, so in terms of its percentage the figure went up. The party in fact obtained one seat more than last time. The KKE (Communist Party) clung to its percentage and seats. New Democracy, the party getting second place, obtained 27.8% votes and lost one seat. ANEL, the bourgeois partner of Tsipras last time and possibly also this time, lost both votes and seats, getting 10, which however will allow Tsipras to form a government now that the Left of his own party is absent. But the coalition will of course not be very strong.

Tsipras has two advantages. First, the departure of principled leftists from the party enables him to position himself as the best bet for the Greek and the European rulers. Secondly, the main bourgeois opposition party finds itself solidly trounced. But there are plenty of difficulties. Over the past two  months, Syriza leaders have indirectly admitted that the bureaucracy has consistently carried on non-cooperation with them. Secondly, it is evident that the bulk of left voters have still voted Syriza. Those who did not vote Syriza mostly chose to stay away rather than vote Popular Unity. With 155,142 votes, it was unable to cross the 3% mark, which gives parties seats in Parliament.

The Interests of Euro-Capital:

The biggest winner in this election is European capital.  Had Tsipras lost the elections, he might have done a “left” turn and posed at least parliamentary opposition to debt repayment. But was this surrender inevitable? Advocates of Tsipras, like Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, are insisting that this was indeed the case. That is not the reality. After the results of the referendum came out, the Greek Rightwing was in utter disarray. What was necessary was a political battle. What was the demand of the day was  the postponing of debt repayment, or even raising the slogan of not repaying the debt and urging people to come out on the streets behind this demand.

But Tsipras is not the sole problem here. There is also a problem with the leftists who have left to form Popular Unity. The slogan of rebuilding the original and uncorrupted Syriza is still a slogan to build a party whose centre of gravity will be in the parliament. That Popular Unity did not cross the 3% bump and enter parliament is being blamed in certain quarters on Antarsiya and the EEK who formed a bloc and got some 46,000 votes (0.85%) – which showed that their votes increased in percentage and in absolute numbers despite the decline in the total number of voters. Had this been added, the left might have got at least 9 seats.

But the reply to this had been given even before the elections by the OKDE (Organisation of Greek Internationalist Communists, Section of the Fourth International and a constituent of Antarsiya). In the statement issued by them on 3 September, they argued that in the first place, Popular Unity had clearly expressed the position that they were fighting to register protests, not for power. Under the circumstances, calling upon people to vote for Popular Unity meant accepting their programmatic positions, which were at variance with Antarsiya. Antarsiya did not see Syriza as a revolutionary party, so rebuilding a “pure” Syriza was not part of Antarsiya’s agenda. For them, Syriza was a bloc of reformists with revolutionaries in which the reformists dominated and whose orientation was the parliament.

Secondly, formed as a result of elections being declared, Popular Unity had an electoralist appearance. OKDE argued that its main task was to build mass movements. Moreover, OKDE argued that PU had till recently been in the Cabinet, had shown great respect to bureaucrats, so the centrality of parliament meant or them not waging extra parliamentary struggles hard enough.

If battles are waged, keeping opposition to austerity at the centre, te mass movement perspective and the parliamentary perspectives can start coming together. Greek leftists have the same problem as others in countries where democracy of whatever value exists – how to develop a revolutionary strategy incorporating democracy. Failure to do so will mean shuttling between parliamentarism and mass movements that ignore the parliamentary institutions.

The crisis of Greece is yet to be over. One dimension of this is the set of demands presented by the Troika. The European leaders have insisted that Tsipras must waste no more time, but must start “reforms”. In other words, he must use his parliamentary majority to implement the agreements. These include a promise to ensure primary surplus of 3.5% of the GDP from 2018. In that case funds in the hands of people must go down even mote, because neither will taxes be raised on the rich, nor will the economic crimes be checked.

To this is added the immigrant issue. Many impoverished people travel to Europe in the hope of a better life. On the streets of Greece one has watched huge numbers of Bsngladeshis, Pakistanis, and yes, Indians. Not only do they try to find a living for themselves, but they have to work terribly hard to remit money home. So Greece is full of people who do not have proper papers and are therefore “illegal”. These people work for 12, even 14 hours a day. And the rightists do two things, simultaneously. They abuse the Greek workers, who demand an 8 hour working day and minimum wages, as lazy. And at the same time they spread aggressive nationalist hatred against the immigrants and refugees. If the Tsipras Government had anything positive to its credit, that was the relatively humane behaviour it meted out to such people. But now it is under pressure to halt that.

In search of an Alternative Left?

Adding the votes of all the left groups, blocs and parties outside Syriza does not carry much political significance. The Communist Party had allied with rightists to defeat the Right Social Democratic PASOK. But it will ally with no left party, believing it has a divine mandate for an eventual majority. Popular Unity will have to decide whether it will make leaving the Euro, bank nationalisation, and sutained struggles against European and Greek capitalists central to its tasks. The difference with Antarsiya seems to be, not just a greater stress on parliament, which might be necessary, but a bit of hesitation about making the exit from the Euro central to its campaigns, though midway though the election process it did call for that. For substantial sections of the Greek left, it is like the Eagles song Hotel California:

You can check out any time you like

But you can never leave.

That Syriza retreated politically but still won the elections has a significance going beyond Greece. Pablo Iglesias, leader of  Spain’s Podemos, stated bluntly that in this game of chess they could not ask for more. As long as the class struggle remains a parliamentary game of chess, this will indeed be “realism”.