Greece – a different strategy needed to stop austerity

In January this year, when Alexis Tsipras gave his speech following the magnificent Syriza election victory, he said: ‘Greece is turning the page. It is leaving behind austerity and five years of humiliation so that people can live in hope and dignity. We shall end the vicious circle of austerity because the verdict of the people makes the Troika a thing of the past’.

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In January this year, when Alexis Tsipras gave his speech following the magnificent Syriza election victory, he said: ‘Greece is turning the page. It is leaving behind austerity and five years of humiliation so that people can live in hope and dignity. We shall end the vicious circle of austerity because the verdict of the people makes the Troika a thing of the past’.

Just eight months later, on September 21st, the contrast was stark.  With his party now pro-memorandum, and having won enough votes to get back into government, Tsipras’s speech could almost have been written by the Troika itself.   He directed his words not against the EU, but only the old corrupt ways of the Greek political system. It was tough times ahead and the Greek people would have to rise to it.

The third memorandum, agreed by Tsipras in July, is the toughest yet. The Syriza government has committed itself to implementing a programme that cannot succeed.  The fresh dose of measures in Greece’s new €86bn bailout programme will make worse an economic depression, as severe as that in Germany and the United States in the 1930s. The Greek economy has contracted by 29% since 2009 and is still shrinking.

Greek voters took what they saw as the least bad option but did not swing back to the right. The right wing New Democracy  came well behind Syriza showing that it is still tainted by its role in the austerity coalitions since 2011. Pasok managed to improve on its January performance, but still only got 6%.  A number of factors  explain how Syriza came through to win.


First, 45% of the electorate didn’t vote. It was the lowest turnout  in a Greek election since 1945 and Syriza lost almost half a million voters since January.  For many poor and unemployed people, having to travel for the third time within a year to vote for mainly pro-austerity parties didn’t seem worth it.

Secondly, Popular Unity (PU), the anti-memorandum left split from Syriza, failed to offer a clear alternative. They only managed to get 2.8 %, not enough to get parliamentary representation. One Antarsya supporter claims that PU were too paralysed by a ‘nothing can really change’ mentality and believed that Tsipras’s call for a “second chance” would be better than letting New Democracy oversee the memorandum. The statement from  SEK, the Greek Socialist Workers Party, points out that Popular Unity were reluctant to align themselves clearly with the rest of the left – the Communist Party, who got 6% of the vote, or Antarsya who got just under 1% –  because as they were afraid of appearing too radical. Yet united, the left could have secured around 9% of the vote which would have provided a clear anti-austerity voice in the parliament.


Tsipras had a plan. He had his coalition mapped out in advance, with scant regard for the politics of his chosen partners.  The day after the election, he welcomed the right wing Independent Greeks (ANEL) leader Kammenos into his government.   Their racism didn’t take long to come out: a leading ANEL member also called Kammenos, tweeted anti-Semitic remarks and was forced to resign.

Syriza’s calculation was that having them ANEL in government would diffuse one strand of their opposition while Syriza dealt with the main issue of austerity. This thinking stemmed from Syriza’s Eurocommunist politics Eucommunists in the 1970’s – in Greece, in Spain and in Italy – advocated the ‘historical compromise’ of communists sharing power with traditional right wing parties.

These coalitions eventually weakened the left in these countries and today, too, being in government with to ANEL weakens the fight against austerity. Kammenos  – the ANEL Minister of Defence  – has allowed military spending to remain outrageously high. The ANEL presence in government is very dangerous.  The refugee crisis will require a strong anti-racist stand if it is not going to be used as a scapegoat  to deflect the fight against austerity away from the system. ANEL’s presence points in the opposite direction.

Negotiating ploy

Syriza’s capitulation to the Troika did not come out of the blue. At every turn, Syriza believed it could out-perform its enemy within the rules of capitalism. It could use the huge ‘No’ victory in the July referendum, not as indication that they should strengthen their anti-austerity stand, but as a negotiating ploy to secure a better deal from the Troika. Even now, Syriza somehow believes it can present it itself as austerity-lite when implementing the memorandum will mean the harshest of measures.  Its contradictory strategy arose not mainly from its ‘Europeanism’, but rather its reformist politics and its constant appeasement of the rulers of capital.

The greatest mistake that Syriza made was to believe that being an elected government was enough to take on austerity. It rated government over mass mobilisation. Its whole approach has been to put its faith in negotiation and rational argument. But the capitalist institutions of the EU had no respect for democracy.

Syriza’s predicament is not new. Left wing governments have always found that once in power, they are put under enormous pressure to cede to the capitalists. In the Chile in 1970-73, Salvador Allende thought a left government could achieve more than workers’ mass action. His faith in constitutionality was so great  he invited General Pinochet into his cabinet and Pinochet repaid him with the most brutal military coup.

Syriza thinks along the same lines. It has a working class following but a leadership that responds to the priorities of capitalism. Yannis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister, points out that under this memorandum, the Greek ruling class benefits. The memorandum proposes further public procurement – i.e. outsourcing and privatisation – which will be a windfall for Greek big business. The shipping magnates will  continue to generate huge profits and avoid paying taxes. .

The understanding of the fight against austerity in class terms will be vital now. The implementation of the third memorandum will hit the working class and their communities very hard and, whether Syriza likes it or not, there will be battles ahead.

In the election Tsipras claimed he would be able to soften the measures of the Troika. But the terms of the memorandum rule this out: they stipulate that the Greek government must agree with the Troika ‘any actions relevant to the memorandum’.

A massive wave of privatisation – including the ports – will be overseen by an outside body which will hold the funds. Pension ‘reforms’ (once a “red line” issue for Syriza) will scrap early retirement agreements and the welfare benefit system is be ‘reviewed’ (by the World Bank). Industrial action and collective bargaining agreements will be rewritten and households will have to pay outrageous property taxes on apartments and shops that they cannot even sell.

SW Golden Dawn

The only way to take on the implementation of the memorandum will be through mass mobilisation and building networks of direct democracy from below. Working class communities and workplaces need to draw on their experience of the last five years.  The battles that the workers of ERT gave when the government of Samaras and Venizelos shut the public national broadcaster down can be repeated by the Dockers, the electricity workers, hospital workers, and teachers.  Now is the time to build an anti-austerity movement on the ground – through strikes, occupations, protests and demonstrations.


The anti-fascism campaign also provides lessons for how to fight in the future.

After the elections, it is not surprising that activists are debating the lessons for the movement. But it must be remembered that that the implementers of austerity – now including Syriza – face both an embittered working class and a faltering world economy. There will be new battles ahead.

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