By Mihalis Panayiotakis
If Europe is for us first of all the name of an unresolved political problem, Greece is one of its centers, not because of the mythical origins of our civilization, symbolized by the Acropolis of Athens, but because of the current problems concentrated here.
— Étienne Balibar1
The 2012 elections
On 6 May 2012, parliamentary elections were held in Greece. These were the first elections since 2010, when the debt crisis exploded and a ‘troika’ of lenders (the International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank, and European Commission) imposed austerity measures of unprecedented ferocity on the country. These led to “one of the biggest fiscal consolidations among developed economies during peacetime, with cyclically adjusted deficits declining by more than 16% of GDP within four years”, as current Bank of Greece Governor Yiannis Stournaras pointed out recently.2 At the time of the first 2012 election, Greece’s GDP had shrunk by approximately 20% since 2007, and the unemployment rate had hit 25%. These were also the first elections after the eruption of a massive, multifaceted, anti-austerity and anti-systemic movement that enveloped Greece. The results saw the rise of SYRIZA as a contender for government.
SYRIZA (Coalition of the Radical Left) was then a small parliamentary left-wing group, a political coalition composed of:
- Various splits and mergers of factions of the historical Communist Party of Greece (Kommounistikó Kómma Elládas, KKE) since 1968, notably the Coalition of the Left and of Progress3 (Συνασπισμός της Αριστεράς και της Προόδου, Synaspismos) and Renovative Communist and Ecological Left (Ανανεωτική Κομμουνιστική Οικολογική Αριστερά, AKOA)
- Trotskyists (such as the Internationalist Labour Left, DEA , affiliated with the ISO)
- Post-Maoists (notably, the Communist Organization of Greece, KOE, the largest group deriving from the ‘Marxist-Leninist’ movement in Greece)
- Libertarian communists (notably Ρόζα, Roza)
- Ecosocialists (Οικοσοσιαλιστές, Greek Ecosocialist Party)
- Socialist groupings (such as the Democratic Social Movement, DIKKI, a 1990s left split from the Panhellenic Socialist Movement, PASOK)
- Many previously unaffiliated leftists
The formation of SYRIZA in 2004 reflected a leftward drift of the parliamentary left of Synaspismos, due to developments in Greek society and economy, and the ‘political cauldron’ of the European and Greek Social Forum, in which various sectors of the anti-globalization movement participated and worked together. This opened up a space of dialogue between the various left traditions and organizations, which was critical to the emergence of SYRIZA – a coalition that became the de facto political umbrella of various grassroots, labor, ecological, and social initiatives. These included, to mention but a few of the most prominent, opposition to a catastrophic dam in the Acheloos river, opposition to the Athens 2004 Olympics, and support for initiatives to unionize young and precarious workers. After the crisis, SYRIZA’s identity became inseparable from the anti-austerity movement and the fight against the troika’s policies in Greece and the Greek oligarchy.
SYRIZA jumped from 4.6% of the vote (13 of 300 seats in the Parliament) in the 2009 elections to 16.8% (52 seats) two and a half years later, running on a pro-movement, anti-austerity, and anti-systemic platform, just 1.7% behind the leading conservative New Democracy party (ND), thus becoming the official opposition – for the second time for the left since World War II.4 This impressive outcome occurred despite other radical left or left-leaning parties having historic electoral success that night: The KKE reached a post-1990 high of 8.5%; the Greens just barely missed the parliamentary threshold of 3%, the highest ever percentage in parliamentary elections of a Green party in Greece; and the Anticapitalist Left Cooperation for the Overthrow (Αντικαπιταλιστική Αριστερή Συνεργασία για την Ανατροπή, ANTARSYA) reached an unprecedented 1.2% for the revolutionary left. The ANTARSYA, created after a prolonged period of various attempts at consolidating a communist, anti-capitalist, and revolutionary electoral pole, is a political and electoral coalition of the extra-parliamentary left, a confederation of smaller groups, coalescing in its current form after the December 2008 youth revolts. The largest parties of the coalition are the Greek branch of the Socialist Workers Party (SEK) and the New Left Current (NAR), a left-breakaway faction from the KKE from the early 1990s. The ANTARSYA has been very active on all movement fronts during the austerity period.
The KKE has followed its own unique path of political isolation and purism since 1991. It is indeed a working-class party in membership and strength, and its union arm, the All-Workers Militant Front (PAME), the communist semi-autonomous trade union, has been at the forefront of many, if not most, union struggles in the private sector. The party considers the Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) imposed by the lenders on Greece since 2010 and the ensuing austerity to be simply current strategies of capitalism; it is suspicious of any political goal other than the toppling of capitalism. It is fiercely anti-EU, but it considers the issue of currency to be secondary. In fact, its General Secretary, Dimitris Koutsoumbas, recently stated that if Greece left the Euro now, it would be a worse option for the working class than if it remained, as long as society remains within the limits of the current socioeconomic system.5
The May 2012 elections resulted in a hung parliament, as no party won an absolute majority and no coalition could be formed that was backed by more than 151 MPs in the 300-seat parliament. Thus, new elections were called for June. Although initially leading in polls in a very polarized election,6 SYRIZA again came in second (in part because of the widespread media scare campaign against it), securing however 26.9% of the vote and 71 MPs. SYRIZA’s rise almost halved the Communist Party’s May vote (to 4.5%) and decimated the ANTARSYA (0.3%) and Green (0.9%) electoral support. The vote in both elections, but especially in June 2012, had strong class and age characteristics. As pollster and political scientist Yiannis Mavris notes:
… [SYRIZA’s] support is concentrated in large urban centers and among salaried employees, the economically active population and younger age groups. By contrast, the supporters of New Democracy… tend to be older, from rural or semi-urban areas, and are drawn chiefly from among the economically inactive population.7
These elections shaped events to come over the next years, determined the social and political coalitions that emerged, and led to SYRIZA’s victories, first in the 2014 European Parliament election, and finally, in the January 2015 election.
Before analyzing the events of 2015 and the referendum that followed, we will examine the historical roots and the position of the Greek left since 1989, as well as the economic and social developments in Greece that propelled the radical left to its first electoral triumph in post-war Europe.
Political lineage from the 1980s to the 2010 crisis
It is difficult to write about what led to SYRIZA’s 2015 electoral victory, without taking into account the Communist-led Greek resistance to the Nazi occupation (1941-44), the Greek Civil War (1944-49), and its aftermath. The moral and political capital that the left gained from its national liberation struggle – its martyrdom first at the hands of the occupying forces and then under the state of emergency that prevailed in post-civil war Greece – was proportional to its bloody trials and tribulations.
Upon restoration of democracy in 1974, after a 7-year military junta, and all through the 1970s, Andreas Papandreou’s PASOK appropriated the heroic left tradition as part of its populist arsenal. Forced to a neoliberal turn after its first, more ‘radical’ four-year term in government, PASOK slowly shed the veneer of a socialist party and, following the developments of socialist parties everywhere, transformed itself gradually into a mainstream ‘third way’ social-democratic party, imposing an austerity policy in 1985 that eliminated all of the working-class gains achieved in its first term. At the same time, PASOK continued the clientelist practices of its predecessors and of those of its political cadres who came from the Union of Democratic Center. It promoted friendly “new rich” dynasties, thereby ushering in a period of renewed8 scandals and corruption that would eventually trigger its defeat.
Perestroika9 and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 were a time of turmoil for the left, but the developments in Greece, pointed at least towards a new unity: The 1968 split of the KKE between a Eurocommunist (ΚΚΕ εσωτερικού, KKE Interior) and a pro-Soviet faction (keeping the name of KKE), was bridged by the Greek Left (Ελληνική Αριστερά, EAR) (which resulted from a split in the KKE Interior in 1986) and KKE in 1988, as they collaborated to form Synaspismos, which contested the three elections in 1989-90, in the shadow of the Koskotas banking scandal that shook the ruling PASOK.10 Synaspismos was formed as a unified party in 1991, after the ‘renewing’ faction of the KKE left the party on its defeat by the ‘loyalist’ faction at the party’s 13th congress, an internal battle decided by a handful of votes.11
The elections of 1989 were a watershed for Synaspismos as they led to a temporary governing coalition with the ND and after that, participation in a national unity government (known in Greece as the ‘ecumenical government’) together with the ND and PASOK, under a senior Greek banker and former Bank of Greece governor, Xenophon Zolotas. This very controversial collaboration in government resulted in the aforementioned split of the KKE and in continuous electoral hardship for the left over the next fifteen years. Other, smaller parties of the left, prominent among them the AKOA (the other part of the 1986 split in the KKE Interior) and the New Left Current (NAR), formed by the majority of the ΚΚΕ’s youth that left the party in protest to these development, denounced Synaspismos’ political embrace with bourgeois parties.
After 1990, the interest of the radical left in popular organizing started to fade noticeably. The student movement, a historical stalwart and breeding ground for left recruitment and radicalization, dominated by the left in the post-war period, transformed from a bastion of radicalism to an apolitical and in general conservative body dominated by ND and PASOK youth, as witnessed by the results of student elections from the late 80s onwards. It thus lost, until the mid-2000s, much of its political impact, despite isolated struggles and mobilizations. At the same time, trade union membership started to decline, if not in absolute numbers at first, certainly in relative union participation, especially in the private sector.12 This retrenchment on many fronts resulted from a series of deep societal transformations that began in the 1980s, but peaked after the neoliberal capture of the socialist PASOK under Kostas Simitis in 1996.
As new social tensions appeared between 1990 and 2008, a realignment of forces took place leading to the emergence of new or reinvigorated political actors. These included: 1) the anti-war movement (very active and massive in Iraq Wars, NATO aggression against Serbia, and the Kurdish struggle, especially after the Greek government turned over the PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan to Turkish authorities), which was mainly driven by party initiatives (primarily from the KKE); 2) a multi-faceted environmentalist movement; 3) anarchist groupings arising as an alternative to what was perceived, especially among the younger generation, as a socially static and ossified left; 4) the anti-globalization movement and the Greek and European Social Forum, which were, among other things, catalysts to the formation of SYRIZA; and 5) numerous anti-fascist, anti-racist, and anti-xenophobic initiatives.13
Society and economy before the European crisis
The Greek economy, in the period preceding the great crisis, was on a generally upward trend by most indicators. As Greece struggled to meet the Maastricht criteria for Euro membership,14 inflation dropped to single digits from over 20% in the early 1990s, the GDP boomed as lending rates plummeted, and a series of successive bubbles provided a temporary boost for the economy. The successful ‘Greek model’ was based on massive borrowing, public and private. Prospective Euro membership led to debt-fueled growth and destabilized a Greek economy that was already deindustrializing and had become a low-value-added service economy.15
At the same time, unemployment remained high, never dropping below 8% after 1992. Labor standards were dismal and real wages stagnant. Mass migration from Albania and the former USSR saw an increase in labor availability and labor exploitation. As the last of the bubbles burst after the 2004 Olympics, employment possibilities were becoming increasingly poor, especially for younger workers. Precarious work became the norm and the term ‘700 Euro generation’ was coined, describing well-educated youths trapped in low-paying, precarious and dead-end jobs, thus endangering any prospects of achieving ‘middle-class’ status. This all, assisted by persistent police brutality against youth, came to an explosion in December 2008.
The youth revolt of December 2008 can probably be considered the point of departure of the Greek political crisis. Although it occurred well before deficits and bond-spreads shot up, it appears in hindsight as a premonition of the disaster to come. It was the critical point at which grievances of a generation without any viable future met with the fear of a looming crisis and the institutional violence against youth that had become commonplace. It was a massive uprising, mixing the violent and the non-violent. In the first 10 days alone (the events lasted until early January), there were more than 250 young protesters arrested, scores of officers injured, and according to the Business Council of Athens, some 500 shops or businesses destroyed.16 The events included the storming of police headquarters, overturning patrol cars, clashes with riot police as well as peaceful protests outside parliament (met with police violence nonetheless), and a series of school occupations throughout Greece. As Andreas Kalyvas points out, “From the point of view of mass, there were days with more than 100,000 participants nationwide, some 600 schools and 150 university facilities across the country occupied, and numerous labor unions, civil associations, NGOs, and social movements in daily strikes and marches.”17
The events, triggered by the murder of 15-year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos by a police officer in downtown Athens, spread to all of Greece, from small towns to the suburbs of Athens (almost every major Greek city saw some form of student/youth unrest). They were fueled by the persistent repression of youth protest and culture by Greek law enforcement, highlighted by the extremely violent police repression with which the student movement against private universities of 2006-7 was met. Its actors were a broad spectrum of youth across social classes, but through these events, native Greek and immigrant youth at the margins of society, proletarian and those under the threat of proletarianization, without any hope and prospect, emerged for the first time in the spotlight and demanded political space.
During and especially after the events, the mainstream media tried to dismiss the protests as apolitical, meaningless, and dangerous. At the time the radical left, except for the KKE,18 was supportive of the demonstrations, but SYRIZA was the only parliamentary party to support them.
Austerity and the Greek Great Depression
On 23 April 2010, from the remote Greek island of Kastelorizo, then Prime Minister Giorgos Papandreou announced that Greece would ask its European partners to allow it into their ‘support mechanism’ as, in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2007, the country’s borrowing costs had shot up to unmanageable levels.19 Thus, the country entered the era of MoUs and austerity. There followed a phenomenal decline of wages, living standards, social protections, regulations, and democracy.
Between 2009 and 2014, Greece lost approximately 25% of its GDP,20 and the unemployment rate peaked at over 26%,21 of which nearly three quarters were long-term unemployed not receiving any unemployment benefits. Meanwhile, youth unemployment ranged between 50-60%. The percentage of people at risk of poverty or social exclusion reached 35% in 2013,22 the largest 5-year increase in Europe. Child poverty jumped from 23 to 40.5% between 2008 and 2012.23 Wages were crushed, losing on average approximately 26% of their pre-tax purchasing power up to 2013,24 while the minimum wage dropped from approximately €710 (net, pre-tax) to €586 (€511 for young workers).25 The healthcare system, significantly defunded, buckled under pressure26 as did mental health. Suicides increased dramatically and homelessness became a massive phenomenon in the major cities of Greece for the first time in living memory. According to some estimates,27 over 300,000 Greeks (most young) have emigrated from the country, of whom nearly 200,000 were well educated professionals (doctors, engineers, programmers, etc.).28
The scale of devastation and social catastrophe has been immense. Greek working people suffered the equivalent effects of a war, indeed a class war. Even the IMF pointed out29 that income inequality in Greece had reached dangerous levels and, according to a 2014 Pew survey, Greeks viewed the levels of inequality in the country as a major problem more than in any other OECD country polled.30
This happened while the very principles of bourgeois parliamentary democracy were undermined. Police violence and impunity escalated, often in conjunction with the fascist right, whose violence was tolerated and protected.31 Strikes, private and public sector, were repeatedly stopped by forced ‘conscription’ of workers. Press freedom suffered through both the shutting down of the public broadcaster, the ERT, and the falling in line of all major (oligarch-owned) TV channels and newspapers around the pro-troika position, as well as persistent police violence against journalists. Between 2009 and 2014, Greece fell 56 places to 99th on the Reporters without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index rankings.
Having to face the effects of the hyper-austerity policies dictated by the troika and the repression organized by the Greek government, the Greek working class and large segments of the afflicted population responded promptly. The series of general strikes (forty-two in number in the first five years of the crisis alone)32 and their accompanying demonstrations organized by the Greek General Confederation of Workers (GSEE) and the union of Public Employees (ADEDY) could be said to be more show than substance. Most of these strikes had low participation rates (under 20% in the private sector, though accurate participation numbers are hard to find and the numbers quoted by various sources are widely divergent to say the least) and seemed to be more about ritually exorcizing austerity than organizing a coherent struggle. Both union confederations were bureaucratized and clientelist, with strong ties to the ruling (and later co-ruling) PASOK. A similar ritual ineffectiveness afflicted the much more militant PAME marches held separately on days of general strikes. However, popular discontent expressed itself even through these limited forms. This was demonstrated especially in the GSEE protest on 5 May 2010 in Athens, at the start of the austerity period. A massive (union estimates put the number of demonstrators at 150.000), angry, and determined demo, culminating with an attempt to storm the parliament building, it was stigmatized by the tragic death of three bank employees, trapped in their office when a group of (alleged) anarchists firebombed it. The shock of this incident ‘froze’ the militant mood and ushered in a small period of retreat. Despite quite a few similar but smaller union-organized marches, the next significant wave of protest started with the ‘squares’/’indignant’ movement on May 2011, which was perhaps the pinnacle of mass popular resistance to the austerity regime.
The events that led to the Greek ‘indignados’ (aganaktismeni, meaning outraged) movement are noteworthy: following the similar spontaneous protests in major squares in austerity-ridden Spain, an explicitly non-partisan call was made through social media for gatherings in Syntagma Square in Athens and in other squares in cities around Greece. The initial gatherings were far more successful than expected and this had a very strong feedback effect as the daily peaceful assemblies grew in size and strength. The numbers of protesters started at 35,000 in Syntagma alone on the first day, 25 May 2011, reached 80,000 by the end of the month, and shot up to hundreds of thousands by June 2011, when the peaceful demonstrators gathered in Syntagma joined with successive union protests. This confluence of movements was met then, for the first time in the ‘aganaktismeni‘ demos, with extreme police violence as the squares became increasingly ‘politicized’.
These demos took place all over Greece and were truly massive – a June 2011 poll by Public Issue,33 showed that 52% of respondents (2,700,000 adults according to the polling company) either would “surely participate” or “probably participate” in the “movement of the squares”.
Syntagma Square was split between the ‘upper square’ and the ‘lower square’. ‘Upper’ was where raw emotions and abusive chants against the parliamentarians were expressed, with plenty of Greek flags and a patriotic/nationalist rhetoric; ‘lower’ was where the ‘youth of December 2008’ and those from a radical left background gathered, organized assemblies, experimented with participatory procedures, and invited speakers to discuss everything from democracy to the economy.
There were currents within the Greek radical left (mainly, the KKE)34 and in certain anarchist circles that did not seem to be comfortable with the Greek indignados movement at all. SYRIZA stood by its side from the beginning, as did the ANTARSYA despite some misgivings on their initial anti-party and anti-political rhetoric.
The movement, although in decline by the end of August 2011, was critical in helping to produce, in its wake, massive demonstrations on October 2011, disrupting the parades for a national holiday, and then again on 12 February 2012, probably the largest protest (perhaps a half-million) before the rise of SYRIZA, as the second memorandum was voted by the Greek Parliament.35 The demo was attacked by riot police before it even had the chance to start, and ended in road fights and burned buildings.
At the same time, as the crisis unfolded, a series of local and broader struggles and initiatives erupted. It is impossible to catalogue all the forms that this spontaneous or organized resistance took, but some stand out:
- The ‘I’m Not Paying’ movement (Den Plirono) started in early 2008, before the crisis exploded, as a protest against high toll-road rate increases, but soon after the first troika memorandum in Spring 2010, it spread around the country, taking other forms such as refusal to pay for (hiked) city transport tickets.
- Even before the murder of anti-fascist rap artist and activist Pavlos Fyssas by Golden Dawn thugs, a broad anti-fascist movement developed throughout the country, with anarchists at its militant core, that took on Golden Dawn and the police force that enabled and regularly supported it.
- In December 2010 in Keratea, a small town of 8000 people near Athens, a local movement, pretty much universally supported in the area, emerged to oppose a planned toxic landfill, operated by one of the Greek oligarchs. This led to clashes with police, barricades and roadblocks. The struggle was, in the end, victorious. A similar but even more prolonged and violent struggle has been raging in the northern Greek peninsula of Chalkidiki where a Canadian gold mining company, in collaboration with the same Greek oligarch, is laying claim to thousands of acres of pristine forest. Since 2011, local inhabitants have been active and on a daily war footing against the company, its toxic plans, and its thugs. The situation has often been violent, with the police systematically siding with the company against the protesting citizens.36
- The 595 fired cleaning women workers of the finance ministry remained in protest on the street and camped outside the finance ministry building, fighting riot police and braving a host of administrative and repressive measures for nearly two years, until rehired by the SYRIZA government.
- In June 2011, the Greek government decided to suddenly shut down all public broadcasting, abolish ERT (the public radio and TV broadcaster), and fire everyone working there. A huge movement in their support materialized. Many of the 2,650 fired ERT employees along with a massive solidarity movement kept on broadcasting, unpaid, through the internet and digital TV channels. In one of the first bills introduced by the SYRIZA government, ERT was restored and all its workers rehired.
- Steelworkers at Chalivourgia Ellados, where the union was dominated by the PAME/KKE, went on a 9-month strike (November 2011 to July 2012) that created a large wave of support for the workers but ended in their defeat.
- The Coca-Cola 3Ε strike in Thessaloniki and the nation-wide call to boycott the company were to continue until the workers’ demands on rehiring laid-off workers and reopening of the company’s Thessaloniki plant are met.
The most impressive and unique element of resistance and survival against the austerity measures however was the emergent grassroots and solidarity economy, along with spontaneous social infrastructure initiatives. This included takeover of factories37 and self-organized initiatives of food and goods distribution that eschewed middlemen to both farmers’/producers’ and consumers’ benefit, local currency schemes in many towns, social groceries and pharmacies which delivered food and pharmaceuticals to the poor at low prices or for free, as well as social soup-kitchens and even hospitals, which provided urgent or chronic care for many of the hundreds of thousands of Greeks and immigrants who had lost access to public hospitals. The range of similar initiatives was enormous and enveloped the country.
2015 elections and their aftermath
On 25 January 2015, after two and a half years in opposition, SYRIZA was elected to govern. The years since the 2012 elections saw a decline in movement activity, as social expectations transferred to the political realm and the prospect of a SYRIZA electoral win, which eventually seemed inevitable. This change of attitude and the necessities of political preparation for government, led to a shift of the party from the street to offices.
The first signs that SYRIZA was close to taking the government came in May 2014 in the Greek elections for European Parliament, which SYRIZA won (while its leader, Alexis Tsipras, ran for President of the European Commission), and in the ‘greater Athens’ regional elections where SYRIZA managed to elect Rena Dourou as governor of the periphery.38 In December, SYRIZA forced through an early parliamentary election. Running on a platform of restoring ‘hope’, SYRIZA won, with 36.3% of the vote (149 of 300 seats), against 27.8% for the ND (76 seats). The KKE reached 5.5% (15 seats) while the ANTARSYA saw its vote recovering slightly from the June 2012 elections, to 0.6% (but remained under the 3% threshold for parliamentary representation). SYRIZA formed a government with the right-populist and anti-austerity Independent Greeks (ANEL), which gained 4.75% of the vote (13 seats). SYRIZA chose to collaborate with the ANEL over the ‘center left’ parties such as PASOK and Potami, because both of these parties were tainted with large-scale corruption in the case of PASOK and alleged ties to Greek oligarchs in the case of Potami.
SYRIZA came to power promising a combination of two things that would soon prove incompatible: remaining in the Eurozone and putting an end to the austerity disaster in Greece. SYRIZA strove to be the first domino in a democratization of Europe that would begin in Greece, reclaiming the social Europe that was lost after the defection of the Social Democratic parties to neoliberalism. Its electoral platform, the ‘Thessaloniki Program’, was a very moderate call for an emergency program, mildly redistributive, aiming to relieve the hardest hit and repair the fractures of the Greek small and middle scale economy – not a radical left manifesto. On this basis, it created a social alliance broader than the one it had achieved in June 2012. As Mavris pointed out, analyzing the vote, “SYRIZA remains the party that primarily represents the strata of salaried workers… and of the unemployed… in the two-year period 2012-14, SYRIZA’s social base expanded significantly to include other segments of the population negatively affected by the crisis. This applies not only to the agricultural and traditional segments of the lower middle class, but also to groups within the economically inactive population (such as pensioners and housewives), which the party had been unable to attract in 2012.”39
The SYRIZA/ANEL government in its first six months passed a number of important and progressive bills, such as re-hiring public sector workers whose jobs were unjustly terminated (ERT, cleaning ladies, and teachers), ushering in a new law for citizenship to second-generation immigrants, restoring access to public hospital care for the hundreds of thousands of uninsured and also abolishing the €5 entry ticket to public hospitals, initiating a humanitarian relief effort for the most afflicted, and taking steps to eliminate prison overcrowding.
There was an outpouring of popular good will as the SYRIZA/ANEL government took office and attempted to negotiate with the country’s creditors. Soon, however, any illusions that the SYRIZA leadership might have harbored about the flexibility of the European Union (EU) and the possibilities of reforming the Eurozone were sinking. It was obvious that the main goal of the Greek government’s interlocutors was to topple it or force it to collaborate with the old, corrupt political system.
By late June 2015, faced with a final ultimatum by the troika, Alexis Tsipras announced a referendum on this ‘offer’.40 Again, despite frenzy from the oligarch-owned media and threats of Greece being expelled from the Eurozone by all sorts of European political actors, an unexpected 61% of Greek voters, significantly polarized on an income and age basis, expressed their disagreement with the new austerity deal – this, in the face of capital controls induced by European Central Bank which imposed a €60 daily limit on bank withdrawals and restrictive oversight of international monetary transactions (including import/export transactions and credit card use abroad), as yet another external form of pressure. It was a brief glimmer of democracy.
Despite the referendum victory, the European elites remained unmoved and came back with an even more extortionate and punitive austerity and oversight plan41 that reduced Greece to the status of a protectorate, threatening to collapse the Greek banking system if it was rejected. Tsipras’s government caved in on 12 July 2015 and accepted, under the blackmail of immediate economic obliteration, a new loan MoU of austerity measures.
Matters in Greece are still evolving, a split in SYRIZA has already occurred and the prospect of new elections is looming. Tsipras and SYRIZA seem to still remain high in opinion polls, despite the memorandum, but things are in a flux, and the new austerity measures, apart from being anti-social and undemocratic, seem also to be non-implementable, designed to fail from the start.
SYRIZA, like the European left as a whole, is at a crossroads. It is obvious that the strategy of remaining in the Eurozone in order to achieve a pan-European anti-austerity shift has failed terminally. Tsipras’s July 12 capitulation seems to herald a new era for the EU, in which this last in a series of moves away from democratic accountability, combined with total domination of banking interests over the EU economies, has turned the Eurozone into an inescapably anti-democratic debtors’ prison for the periphery countries, and proved any economic policy outside of neoliberalism unachievable within its bounds.
I believe that SYRIZA can still play a significant role in reinventing the left’s conception of European policy, if it manages to deliver a counter-strategy that includes a Euro exit option. The lessons of the SYRIZA calamity must be heeded by the European radical left. For the last seven years, Greece has been at the center of an unresolved European political problem. SYRIZA has given this problem a name and has bared its dictatorial face for all to see. But now, what is needed from Greece, from the entire EU radical left, goes beyond ‘simple’ activism. It demands an alternative political strategy that will apply productive capacities, cultural capital, factory takeovers, and new forms of worker based economic collaboration (collectives, a new cooperative movement, commons-based initiatives) and solidarity networks, to undo the capture of institutions and lives by the undemocratic forces that on 12 July 2015 extinguished the few rays of hope that the Greek working classes and movements spent sweat and blood to create.
On August 20th, Alexis Tsiras announced his government’s resignation, admitting in a televised address to the Greek people that “The political mandate of the 25 January elections has exhausted its limits and now the Greek people have to have their say”.42 Elections were set for 20 September 2015. The next day, a group of 25 SYRIZA MPs that had already voted against the proposed deal, most of them members of the party’s ‘Left Current’, announced the creation of a new party that they named Popular Unity (Λαϊκή Ενότητα, LAE). The party has stated that they will attempt to organize a ‘front of the No vote’ of the 5 July referendum. This is a party that, according to Stathis Kouvelakis, a former senior member of SYRIZA, has as its main planks “the rupture with austerity and the memoranda, the rejection of all privatizations, and the nationalization under social control of strategic sectors of the economy (starting with the banking system), the cancellation of the major part of the Greek debt (starting with the immediate interruption of its repayment), and, more broadly, a set of radical measures that will shift the balance of forces in favor of labor and of the popular classes and open up a path for the progressive reconstruction of the country, of its economy, and of its institutions”. These goals, Kouvelakis notes, “cannot be realized without exiting the Eurozone and breaking with the whole set of policies institutionalized by the European Union”.43
A few days after the formation of Popular Unity, 53 members of the SYRIZA Central Committee and the Political Secretariat announced their resignation from the party to join Popular Unity,44 as have many SYRIZA members throughout the country. Popular Unity has sought an electoral partnership with many smaller left wing groups, but has failed, so far, to reach an electoral agreement with the ANTARSYA.
Apart from the ‘Left Current’ party faction that has quit SYRIZA to form the LAE, a large number of Central Committee members that were affiliated with the presidential majority but as part of the “53+” party tendency45 announced their resignations from office, one after the other, among them Tasos Koronakis, who resigned as secretary of the party. This was in large part due to the SYRIZA leadership’s evasion of internal democratic procedures, especially its postponement of the emergency party congress originally scheduled for mid-September (after the elections) – a move seen by most members of the tendency as a leadership gambit to retain the initiative on the platform that SYRIZA would run on in the forthcoming elections and beyond, as most of the 53+ wanted a clear roadmap for exiting the new MoU austerity plan that the SYRIZA government was extorted into signing.
At the time of this writing, it is unclear how many of the original 201 members of the SYRIZA Central Committee will remain in the party. But there is a very large wave of resignation from office and party membership all over Greece, some heading to the LAE, some continuing to support SYRIZA, some not taking a stand either way. The largest party of the radical left in Greece is in a process of redefinition and rearrangement.
The SYRIZA leadership is insisting that it has not adopted austerity as a policy choice, but has only done so under blackmail and will fight these policies with the tools it will have as a government ‘from the inside’. It has announced that it will introduce measures that will ‘ameliorate’ the most socially destructive parts of the new MoU deal and advance a new parallel plan that would help create space for more progressive policies even within the asphyxiating confines of the deal with the lenders.46 It is also hoping that a large enough debt restructuring will be agreed upon this autumn to allow the government to claim that this austerity package will at least be the last one.
The elections will determine whether the Greek electorate is patient enough to re-elect SYRIZA on the downgraded, but more ‘realistic’ hope that the new program seems to promise, and whether the LAE, ANTARSYA, or other small formations will manage to convert the dynamic of the ‘No’ vote to a renewed political dynamic.
1. É. Balibar, We, the People of Europe? Reflections on Transnational Citizenship, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 2.
2. Y. Stournaras, ‘Speech by Bank of Greece Governor’, at the London Conference at Chatham House on 02/06/2015. http://goo.gl/z5HR9K
3. Renamed Coalition of the Left of Movements and Ecology (Συνασπισμός της Αριστεράς των Κινημάτων και της Οικολογίας) in 2003
4. The first was the United Democratic Left (EDA), which received 24.2% of the vote in 1958.
5. Dimitris Koutsoumbas, Public Speech at Ermoupolis, 23 July 2015; online at www.rizospastis.gr/story.do?id=8533360
6. See for example the opinion poll time-series for the period referenced at Wikipedia en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opinion_polling_for_the_Greek_legislative_elections,_2012
7. Y. Mavris, ‘Greece’s Austerity Election’, New Left Review, 76 (July-August 2012), 95-107.
8. ‘Renewed’ because this was picking up where the post-Civil War conservative right left off. Despite many of its right-wing critics, PASOK did not ‘invent’ corruption in Greece; it simply continued on the well trod path of scandal, clientelism, and corporatism that the right was based on.
9. The reform and transparency efforts by the Gorbachev government in the USSR, widely seen as precursors to the dissolution of the USSR and the collapse of Soviet-style communism in Eastern Europe.
10. The scandal is discussed in detail in a plethora of sources. See M. J. Jones, Creative Accounting, Fraud and International Accounting Scandals (Chichester, UK: Wiley & Sons, 2011), and J. Garrard, and J. L. Newell, Scandals in Past and Contemporary Politics (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2006), 132-34.
11. The KKE’s position on the events of the 13th congress can be found at interold.kke.gr/about/history/overview-congress/overview15/index.html
12. The decline in union membership is shown in OECD Union Density statistics (the ratio of trade union members to the total number of wage and salary earners): union density was at 38.5% in 1982, remained at 37.6% in 1992, and then declined precipitously to 25.5% in 2002 and 21.3% in 2012 (see OECD statistics available at stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?DataSetCode=UN_DEN)
13. For example, the Movement to Deport Racism and the Immigrant Sunday School, as well as an assortment of ‘antifa’ initiatives all over Greece, created mainly by anarchists. The KKE assisted this movement by a drive to unionize migrant workers throughout Greece.
14. The criteria are: low inflation rates, fiscal deficits under 3% of GDP, and government debt to GDP ratios under 0.6. www.ecb.europa.eu/ecb/orga/escb/html/convergence-criteria.en.html
15. For an analysis on the financial, geopolitical and historical underpinnings of the current Greek debt crisis, see V.K. Fouskas, C. Dimoulas, Greece, Financialization and the EU: The Political Economy of Debt and Destruction, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)
16. As reported in the press at the time see [in Greek]: news.in.gr/economy/article/?aid=966466
17. A. Kalyvas, ‘An Anomaly? Some Reflections on the Greek December 2008’, Constellations, 17:2 (June 2010), 351-56.
18. Then Secretary General of the KKE Aleka Papariga, stated on 12 December 2008, in an ANA/MPA interview: “The molotov cocktails and looting of the hooded individuals, whose steering center is linked with the state secret services and centers abroad, have absolutely no relationship with the mass rage of the pupils, the students, the people in general”. The ANA/MPA article went on to present Aleka Papariga’s position that “recent events were exploited in order to turn attention away from and disorient the mass mobilizations of the youth and the people against authoritarianism and the anti-popular policy”. In the interview, Papariga reiterated her harsh criticism of SYRIZA, stressing that “the KKE has fundamental differences with that party in strategy, ideology and policy”; www.hri.org/news/greek/apeen/2008/08-12-12_2.apeen.html#03.
19. Greek 10-year government bond yields reached 11.24% on April 28 2010, up from less than 5% most of the past decade, after a 6 months of increases. This was to be dwarfed later in the second austerity deal with the troika in the summer of 2012, when 10-year bond yields surpassed 40%.
20. See data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.MKTP.KD.ZG/countries?page=1; the aggregate 26% decline is also mentioned in the CIA fact book.
21. According to Eurostat Unemployment trend figures ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Unemployment_statistics#Unemployment_trends
22. Eurostat, ‘People at Risk of Poverty or Social Exclusion’;
23. UNICEF Office of Research, ‘Children of the Recession, Innocenti Report Card 12’ (2014), 8; online at www.unicef-irc.org/publications/pdf/rc12-eng-web.pdf
24. ILO, ‘Global Wage Report 2014 / 15 Wages and income inequality’, 2015, 7; online at
25. See data from The Federation of International Employers, online at
26. See, for example, A. Kentikelenis et al., ‘Greece’s health crisis: from austerity to denialism’. The Lancet, 383: 9918 (22 February 2014), 748-53.
27. Erik Olsen, ‘Pressed by Debt Crisis, Doctors Leave Greece in Droves’, New York Times (1 July 2015).
28. Reported by Ellie Ismailidou in Market Watch (17 May 2015); available at www.marketwatch.com/story/greeces-scariest-deficit-has-nothing-to-do-with-money-2015-05-07
29. ‘Fiscal Policy and Income Inequality’, IMF Policy Paper (February 2014).
30. Pew Research Center, ‘Emerging and Developing Economies Much More Optimistic than Rich Countries about the Future’, (9 October 2014);
31. Amnesty International Report, ‘A law unto themselves: A culture of abuse and impunity in the Greek police’ (2014);
32. Mentioned in GSEE press release 9 July 2015, [in Greek] www.gsee.gr/apantisi-se-osous-kataskevazoun-esoterikous-echthrous
34. Thus, in its positions for its 19th Congress, the KKE Central Committee stated that: “The so called ‘movement of the outraged’ was supported, encouraged – if not planned as well – by bourgeois mechanisms, with the aim to manipulate, to prevent radicalization by diverting parts of the worker aristocracy and sections of the petty-bourgeoisie. Parts of the working class and the unemployed were attracted to this ‘movement’. Among its lines there occurred a coalition between right and left opportunism, reactionary slogans dominated, slogans of petty-bourgeois democracy, aiming against the class oriented movement”; quoted by the party’s radio station at http://goo.gl/K9VsWy
35. Costas Douzinas has suggested (“SYRIZA: the Greek Spring”) that the rise of SYRIZA as a political alternative was a consequence of the “squares movement”;
36. See F. E. I. Hartlief, K. McGauran, and R. van Os, I. Römgens, Fool’s Gold: How Canadian firm Eldorado Gold destroys the Greek environment and dodges tax through Dutch mailbox companies, (Amsterdam: Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations, March 2015), pp. 29-33; available at
37. In the most prominent such case, workers in the Vio.Me factory in Thessaloniki took over the plant and proceeded to self-manage it cooperatively. This initiative persists to this day.
38. The periphery in Greece is the highest-level local governing structure. The Periphery of Attiki which Rena Dourou won, is the largest of these regional governments, and home to 3.8 million voters.
39. Y. Mavris, ‘The social forces of the anti-Memorandum alliance’ (11 February, 2015); www.mavris.gr/en/621/the-social-forces-of-the-anti-memnorandum-alliance
40. The ‘Juncker offer’ included, among many other things, VAT hikes in food, tourism, heavy tax burdens on professionals and small businesses, horizontal cuts in welfare expenditure and welfare subsidies, cuts in the lowest pensions, cuts in public sector wages, harsher foreclosure legislation, not restoring collective bargaining (banned by a troika order in 2012) as SYRIZA had introduced a bill to do, the go-ahead to privatizations that the previous government had begun – and that SYRIZA had initially announced its intentions of stopping – and a return of all banks to private control.
41. These included most of the provisions of the Juncker Plan, on VAT, pensions and taxes, privatizations, labor law restraints and, critically, created an obligation for the Greek government to submit all bills it introduced to Parliament for troika approval. At the same time, for the first time the issue of the unsustainability of Greek debt was admitted, albeit indirectly, in an EU document (See ‘Euro Summit Statement’, Brussels, 12 July 2015; www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2015/07/12-euro-summit-statement-greece/).
42. BBC News, “PM Alexis Tsipras quits and calls early polls” 20 August 2015,
43. S. Kouvelakis, ‘Introducing Popular Unity’, Jacobin Magazine (21 August 2015); at www.jacobinmag.com/2015/08/popular-unity-syriza-left-platform-lafazanis/
44. “Massive defection from SYRIZA’s central committee”, ekathimerini (26 August 2015).
45. A tendency that was principally a mixture of libertarian left and left post-Eurocommunist members of SYRIZA, strongly associated with social movements and struggles.
46. SYRIZA, ‘pre-election Government Program Plan, in Greek’; available in Greek at goo.gl/EDAoCb.