Elections in Greece and the left’s challenge

September 18, 2015

The people of Greece will vote on Sunday, September 20, in another general election that will be a referendum on the SYRIZA government that took office last January promising to reverse the dire austerity policies embodied in the so-called Memorandums--but which capitulated to the demands of European governments and international financial institutions for an even harsher austerity program.

To win parliament's approval for the third Memorandum, former Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras needed the support of pro-austerity parties, including the two mainstream parties that accepted previous austerity measures in return for bailouts of the Greek financial system: the center-right New Democracy and the center-left PASOK. Among his party SYRIZA, nearly 40 members of parliament (MPs) voted "no" or present to register their opposition. After Tsipras resigned to trigger snap elections, many of these rebels resigned from SYRIZA to found a new project, called Popular Unity, to continue the struggle that Tsirpas' SYRIZA betrayed--the fight to overthrow the Memorandums and reverse austerity.

Sotiris Martalis is a leading member of the Greek socialist group Internationalist Workers Left (DEA), which co-founded SYRIZA in the early 2000s. He is a former SYRIZA Central Committee member and supporter of the Left Platform within the party, which now forms a central core of Popular Unity. This article is based on a presentation he made via teleconference to a group of socialists in Chicago one week before the election.

THE ROOTS of the challenge of Popular Unity lie in the battle within SYRIZA after Alexis Tsipras' capitulation to the lenders.

After the government's agreement to a third Memorandum of very harsh austerity policies in July--something that was opposed by a minority of SYRIZA members of parliament and a majority of the Central Committee--the Central Committee voted to hold a party conference in September, where the Left Platform wanted the party reject the Memorandum.

But immediately after that, Tsipras pushed through final approval of the third Memorandum in parliament--meaning that the party conference would be presented with a fait accompli. Almost 40 SYRIZA MPs voted "no" or present in the final vote in parliament. But the government had support from the conservatives of New Democracy and the social democrats of PASOK and Potami. The Memorandum was approved with around three-quarters of the 300 MPs voting in favor.

After that came Tsipras' decision to go for new elections, which meant that he blocked any real opportunity for the party to take a position on the agreement, even after its approval. In reality, he simply canceled the party congress. This pushed even more members of SYRIZA--people who were on the fence in the conflict between party leaders and the Left Platform--into opposition.

Rallying support for Popular Unity in Greece
Rallying support for Popular Unity in Greece

At this point, the new electoral alliance Popular Unity was formed, based on a declaration by 25 members of parliament for SYRIZA. Since then, several more MPs have said they will participate in Popular Unity.

This began a big struggle between the left and the leadership of SYRIZA to win the rank and file of the party. Local branches would hold assemblies to discuss the formation of Popular Unity and hold a vote. The results varied from branch to branch, but we always won a substantial part--in many cases, a majority--to leave SYRIZA and declare their support for Popular Unity.

Popular Unity won over the most active members of SYRIZA--they came with us to participate in Popular Unity, or they at least handed in their resignations. The resignations included the general secretary of the party and a majority of the Central Committee of the SYRIZA youth, among other leading bodies. Something like 60 percent of the regional committees opposed the SYRIZA leadership, and these members are leaving, too. Every day, we receive e-mails notifying us of other resignations, including members of important unions.

The forces that left SYRIZA to participate in Popular Unity include the Left Current, which comes from the Communist Party tradition in Greece, but is very left wing on class questions. There is the Red Network, which DEA participates in. And there is a section of the left tendency within the former majority in SYRIZA.

That left tendency went by the name of the Group of 53 Plus, because of a statement of opposition by 53 party members at one point. The 53 Plus have split into three parts. One part, a minority of the overall tendency, comprising around 100 cadres, participated in forming Popular Unity. Another section is demoralized by the failure of SYRIZA--some have handed in their resignation, but they are not yet participating in another left project. And another part remains in SYRIZA.

Popular Unity doesn't only consist of forces from SYRIZA--also participating are 14 different organizations from the left. Some were part of the anti-capitalist alliance ANTARSYA--most prominently, ARAN, or Left Recomposition, the second-largest group in the alliance, and ARAS, or Left Regroupment. In all, about one-third of the forces of ANTARSYA have decided to participate in Popular Unity.

THE DECLARATION of Popular Unity created a huge crisis in SYRIZA, and that has shown up in its falling popularity. One week before the elections, the opinion polls show that SYRIZA is running neck and neck with New Democracy, the main conservative party in Greece, which SYRIZA beat by a large margin in January.

When the election was first called, the polls showed New Democracy ahead, but that vote seems to have weakened, and now SYRIZA is generally in front. The reason for this, according to the newspapers' analysis, is that SYRIZA is winning voters to its right because of the shameless social democratic turn in the speeches of SYRIZA leaders, and because Tsipras has now proven that he may be in control of the party.

The Communist Party has conducted an effective electoral campaign, which has given it a small increase of 1 or 2 percent in the polls over its results in the January election. Its central strategy has been to attack Popular Unity, in an attempt to win away voters who disagree with SYRIZA. Literally a majority of the speeches of Communist Party leaders in the election campaign have been directed against Popular Unity.

ANTARSYA will also run in the election, though it isn't as visible. It hopes to win a larger part of the left-wing vote in protest against the government, but it will be very difficult to win enough votes to qualify for parliament. In January, ANTARSYA had fewer than 40,000 votes, and it takes several times this--more like 200,000 to 300,000 votes--to reach the 3 percent level needed to qualify for representatives in parliament.

As for the mainstream parties, the social democrats of PASOK are rallying behind a new leader, Fofi Gennimata. She has succeeded in winning back a lot of old cadres of the party. So PASOK has survived the crisis of the last election, when it was nearly kept out of parliament--it's now expected to do better than the last vote.

With the fascists of Golden Dawn, it's a contradictory picture. The polls show they will get more votes than in the last election, as high as 7 percent. But at the same time, they have been unable to organize even one successful public event at this point. For example, they attempted to hold their first open public meeting in Piraeus, and only around 150 people turned out. The anti-fascists protesting them were several times larger in number--Golden Dawn was only able to hold the event because they had the police guarding them on all sides.

Since Golden Dawn was put on trial for being a criminal organization, the fascists have had to retreat--to stop the open violence and attempts to control the streets. In order to maintain themselves as a legal party, they have even moderated their right-wing populist rhetoric against austerity. So in one speech, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, the führer of Golden Dawn, said that Greece must stay in Europe and shouldn't leave the eurozone right now.

Another example: There was a picture in the newspaper from an annual anti-Communist event organized by the right. Last year, Golden Dawn attempted to control this event. This year, the photo in the paper shows two women members of parliament standing together--one from New Democracy and one from Golden Dawn.

So the fascists are having real problems. Even with the refugee crisis coming to a head, they have been unable to mobilize, as they would have even a few months ago.

THIS IS an important political question that is looming over the election. The picture of Aylan Kurdi, the 3-year-old child who drowned when his family was attempting to get from Turkey to Greece, has dramatized the refugee crisis for people around the world, and the response in Greece has been an outpouring of solidarity.

The reality is that the policy of Fortress Europe has collapsed--it has been overwhelmed by the huge movements of people fleeing violence in the Middle East and Africa where the U.S. and Europe launched their imperialist wars. Every day, there are thousands of people who reach the Greek islands in small, makeshift boats.

The Greek state is responsible for registering these refugees, who are attempting to travel further north in Europe--they, of course, prefer to leave Greece where unemployment is so high. But under the treaties of the European Union, if a refugee is arrested or detained, they are sent back to the country where they entered Europe--which in many cases is Greece. So there are huge detention centers, with many thousands of people packed into them. In the central squares of Athens, you can see hundreds of people who have nowhere to sleep and who stay there every night.

The policy of European governments in closing their borders is a huge hypocrisy. It is causing many deaths and enormous suffering for those who survive the voyage to get to Europe. The policies must change completely--they must open the borders and give full rights to all the people who cross them.

In Greece, there has been a strong solidarity campaign, including people who organize to make sure food gets to the refugees and so on. On September 12, there were demonstrations in cities across Europe calling for the refugees to be welcomed. We had a demonstration here in Athens, in Syntagma Square outside parliament. It wasn't that large, but it was a sign that the tide is changing, including in Greece.

THERE IS more to say about the refugee crisis--and it will certainly be an urgent question in the weeks following September 20--but I want to return to the question of the election.

Since the beginning of the election period, Popular Unity has had very high expectations. But there have been big challenges. All this has happened in a very short period of time. From the declaration of Popular Unity to the elections on September 20 was just four weeks. The struggle to win the SYRIZA rank and file took up much of the first part of that time, so the Popular Unity election campaign has only really started in the two weeks before the election.

This timetable was engineered by the Tsipras leadership in SYRIZA. They called for new elections to take place very quickly for two reasons. First, the effects of the Memorandum haven't really hit, so the people haven't felt the impact of the new cuts, the taxes and so on. And second, the SYRIZA leaders didn't want to give time to Popular Unity to build a stronger campaign.

Many people hoped we would get the votes of all the left supporters of SYRIZA--the people who left the party in protest against the new Memorandum. In reality, Popular Unity has remained below 5 percent in opinion polls--though there is the possibility that the turnout for the left will be greater when the election takes place.

WE THINK there are two main problems that explain this.

The first is that it will be a real dilemma in a lot of people's minds who are afraid that if they vote for the radical left, it will lead to a government of the right coming into office. So there is a pull to vote for SYRIZA to keep out New Democracy. Even though they disagree with the policies of SYRIZA, even with the Memorandum that Tsipras negotiated, they are pulled toward the idea that it is better to have a government led by Tsipras than a government run by the conservatives.

The second comes from what we believe are problems in the electoral campaign of Popular Unity.

Let me be clear: We in the Red Network and DEA believe the formation of Popular Unity is a huge opportunity. During all these years, and over the last eight months after the January election won by SYRIZA, we worked inside SYRIZA to build a left wing--one that that could challenge the leadership and the concessions it made, which have produced the new Memorandum.

With Popular Unity, we have a political formation that can continue the struggle against austerity and against the Memorandums. If you compare the place of Popular Unity in the elections and in parliament now with where we would have been building a left opposition to Tsipras from outside parliament, it's clear that we are in a better position today.

We also knew, however, that Popular Unity would continue to reflect the problems of a formation that brings together revolutionaries and reformists. Many Popular Unity members and leaders are very good on many class questions, but at the same time, they start from the point of view of left nationalism. They talk about economic policies in terms of how we can make Greece more productive--and about how Greece is a debt colony.

This leads toward a particular political problem in the message that comes from Popular Unity. Instead of focusing on reversing the austerity of the third Memorandum--reversing the cuts in wages, the cuts in pensions--they focus on the question of the currency: an exit from the eurozone and the adoption of the drachma.

We believe that the currency question is secondary to the central question of challenging austerity by any means necessary--whether or not this means a break with the eurozone. Changing currency will not be a simple solution that ends the cuts and turns the tide in the economy, because the ruling class, in Greece and internationally, will still have the economic and political advantage.

In a joint statement, DEA's Antonis Davanellos, Olivier Besançenot of the New Anti-capitalist Party of France and Miguel Urbán Crespo of Podemos in Spain emphasized this point:

For us, what is most critical is to end the policy of austerity, be it within the framework of the euro if the situation permits it, or outside it if the people cannot achieve their aspirations. We do not confuse the means with the ends--we are not partisans of this or that currency, because the real question before us is to know who controls the monetary system. Whether the credit system is based on a national or European currency does not change much as long as either of these remain under the influence of the traditional groups of the financial speculators who make up their own banking laws.

The focus instead on the currency question from important forces within Popular Unity has led to some of the problems we face in the lead-up to the election.

Nevertheless, as the Red Network participating in Popular Unity, our opportunities, our forces and our possibilities are bigger now than when we were in SYRIZA. We have a larger weight for the socialist arguments we are putting forward.

We support, of course, with all our resources, the campaign of Popular Unity and work toward winning the largest percentage of the vote that we can. And when our candidates speak on television or at meetings, we concentrate on the struggle against austerity and connect that to socialist perspectives--we put a different focus on Popular Unity's message.

When the vote comes on September 20, the most important number is whether Popular Unity gets more than 3 percent, which is the level needed to get representatives in parliament. We believe that it's likely that we will get over 3 percent, as all the polls have shown so far. If Popular Unity gets over 5 percent, as we hope, several of the Popular Unity candidates from the Red Network, including Maria Bolari and Antonis Davanellos, could get seats in parliament.

THAT'S THE situation with Popular Unity. For SYRIZA, the crisis is certain to continue after September 20.

Because support for SYRIZA has fallen since the January election, the possibility of remaining in government will depend on forming a coalition with other parties. SYRIZA's previous coalition partner, the right-wing populist party ANEL, may not qualify for parliament, but even if it does, SYRIZA will have to have support from the pro-austerity center-left parties PASOK and Potami.

But even then, that may not be enough to secure a parliamentary majority. Plus, because the austerity measures imposed under the third Memorandum are so harsh, the government will need to be very strong and stable, so there is a possibility of an even wider coalition government, tying SYRIZA with the conservatives of New Democracy.

If this takes place, it will open a new crisis for those who remain in SYRIZA--a new part of the membership will leave in protest, and this, too, will increase the opportunities for the left to mobilize the struggle against austerity and present an alternative.

There will be new questions in the unions, too, after the elections, including for those in the SYRIZA union fraction who continue to support Tsipras. The level of strikes and struggle has remained low, as it has throughout the year since the election of SYRIZA, but that can change when the austerity measures start to hit.

These struggles will pose the questions for workers in immediate terms: Do you support a strike against austerity, or are you against it? What will you vote for and what will you propose in the unions to confront Memorandum policies? The answers to those questions will show even more sharply the differences between the policies of the SYRIZA leadership and those of Popular Unity, which will give the left more opportunities to win over supporters.

So this gives us hope, not only for the election itself, but also for what happens on September 21 and after--when we establish Popular Unity on a permanent basis and prepare for the struggles ahead.

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