Greece shakes Europe

Submitted by Matthew on 28 January, 2015 - 11:18 Author: Micheál McEoin

On the night of the election in Greece (25 January), other visitors from Britain and I watched the exit polls with comrades from DEA (a left group inside Syriza) and international visitors in the Syriza building on Leonidou Street. Then everyone converged around the Syriza tent in Klafthmonos Square.

By contrast with the press crews and general buzz by the Syriza tent, the suited-up New Democracy members in Syntagma Square looked despondent. The Pasok hut near the University had been simply abandoned by its inhabitants during the afternoon; a padlock protected piles of unused election literature and plastic furniture, while graffiti on the front read: “No chance. Closed for good.”

As the extent of a the Syriza victory become known, the streets echoed with amplified renditions of Bella Ciao from the speaker system and crowds gathered in front of the University of Athens to hear from Tsipras. As comrades translated for us, Tsipras’s speech was a mix of national salvation rhetoric, denunciations of the Troika, and calls for European solidarity. In the crowd there was a sober recognition that the real struggle begins now, and that it will be hard and fraught with risk.

Later that night at the Syriza headquarters off Omonia Square, we were speaking to a party official and his phone rang. “I will be back down in a minute, I have to run upstairs”, he told us; “Evo Morales is calling for Tsipras.”

As we spoke again afterwards in the smoke-filled first-floor cafe in the building, we learned that the official had been active in student occupations in London against the tuition fee rises under the Blair government.

That a group of British Trotskyists could walk into the headquarters with no credentials, while the soon-to-be Prime Minister of Greece conducted negotiations in an office floors above, reveals how Greece has broken through the bureaucratic carapaces which usually insulate governmental politics. (In Britain, it’s said, even mainstream Labour MPs, let alone leftists, never get beyond Ed Miliband’s office door).

Syriza is not an establishment social-democratic party but a party with roots in Greece’s left tradition, with no previous ties to the deeply corrupt state and its political elite. Its presence in the corridors of power will shake the centres of capital across Europe and beyond.

Our group from Britain had arrived on 23 January. From Athens airport, we took the city’s modern metro system, via Syntagma Square, to the apartment which we were renting for the weekend.

At first sight, there were few signs of Greece being on the verge of a confrontation with the Troika. The streets were quiet, with people milling around with shopping bags from high street stores, and the city centre stations were clean and well-maintained.

Many comrades we spoke to on the left of Syriza told us that the intense social struggles of 2011-12 had given way to a period of relatively passive waiting, as people turned to the electoral road to replace the New Democracy-Pasok coalition.

Thanasis Kourkoulas, from the central committee of DEA (Internationalist Workers’ Left), which is part of the Left Platform of Syriza, told us: “This is not a pre-revolutionary period. People have not decided to take power and the economy into their hands. If they did, Syriza would not have just over 30,000 members and us 350... In 2012, after the elections, people hoped Syriza would be the government and that we could stop austerity by the electoral road.

“That didn’t happen so we still have a movement at a low ebb and many struggles here and there which continue to have a left political direction but are not able to stop austerity. Many more will vote Syriza but do not have self-confidence to fight on the streets and in workplaces, with some important exceptions.”

Yet the five years of shrinkage in Greece’s economy of small and scattered workplaces have scarred the face of Athens. In some whole blocks all shopfronts are either boarded up or shuttered, the pavements are cracked, and graffiti and political posters compete for space on walls and pillars. People sleeping in doorways only yards from city-centre restaurants, and large stray dogs roam the streets.

Our apartment was in Metaxourgeio, a traditionally working-class area of small metal-working workshops just to the north of the city centre. According to a comrade from the Trotskyist group OKDE, which has its office nearby, the area entered a period of decline in the 1970s, though a new migrant population and the opening of the metro station have gone some way towards arresting this. The back streets away from the main thoroughfares have a warren of small shops nestling amid the many empty units, with cafes dotted on the street-corners.

A mechanic looked on in amusement as we walked up to our apartment, and found a huge KKE sign protruding from the wall next to the front door. On the ground floor was a local KKE office, a reminder of Greece’s Stalinist party’s continuing roots in working-class areas. It is quite probable that the party owned the whole apartment block.

On the first evening, we headed straight for the Syriza main election tent in the central Klafthmonos Square. Young Syriza activists greeted visitors at many stalls — a large Italian contingent arrived about the same time as us. Stacks of election literature were piled in the corners. People sat around on chairs, smoking and listening to music. When we first arrived, a live broadcast of Tsipras’s rally in Crete was playing on the big screen.

Electioneering is forbidden on the day before the election, so on the 23rd we accompanied Syriza Youth on a last-ditch campaigning effort, dashing around the bars and cafes in centre of the city between Syntagma Square and Monastiraki.

Activists received a positive response from the mostly young people in the area’s trendy bars, and stuck election posters to each rain-soaked car windscreens that we passed.

Syriza’s youth wing is an autonomous organisation, the result of recent changes which saw amalgamation of the youth wings of the radical coalition’s component groups. The secretary, Elias Panteleakos, explained to me that the youth organisation has its own version of the factional platforms in Syriza. A left-Eurocommunist platform, which Elias described to me as Marxist, though also open to “post-Marxist” theorists such as Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau, has just under half the support at congresses of Syriza Youth. According to Elias, it is critical of the idea of a “national salvation government” and stresses the importance of relying on working-class and movement struggles from below. Another comrade told us that a more leadership-loyal faction has around 30% support, and the Left Platform around 12-13%. Oddly, the Syriza left is weaker among the youth than among older members.

The next day, Sotiris Martalis from DEA and the Syriza Central Committee, told us that over recent weeks Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras has applied major pressure on the questions of coalitions with other parties and election lists. Most of the youth, Sotiris said, are with the leadership. However, we found no enthusiasm for coalition with parties to Syriza’s right among the activists we spoke to.

Most of Saturday and Sunday (24th-25th), before the election results, we spent interviewing comrades from the Central Committee of DEA, Stavros from the Trotskyist Organisation of Communist Internationalists of Greece (Okde) and the women from the “glove revolution” of sacked cleaners at the Ministry of Finance.

We also attended a social event put on by Syriza Youth for delegations of European left groups. As well as the Italians, we met members from the Socialist Youth Front in Denmark, Die Linke and other European left parties.

The main downside of this election was the third place, with 6.28% of the votes, for the Nazi criminal gangs of Golden Dawn, despite the fact that seven of its outgoing 11 MPs and all its leaders were in prison, and disclosures and documents about the Nazi nature of the party.

Golden Dawn only lost 0.64% and 37,600 votes from June 2012. This shows in a more emphatic way that Golden Dawn cannot be dealt with just by courts and imprisonments.

In Piraeus B, where Pavlos Fyssas was murdered on 18 September 2013 by a Golden Dawn thug, Golden Dawn polled above 7%. Two years ago, the electoral mass of Golden Dawn could have possibly pleaded ignorance and claimed that they considered it just a “patriotic”, “nationalistic”, “anti-systemic” vote against corruption. But now Golden Dawn has been exposed openly as a Nazi and fascist party.

21 candidates from the armed forces were on the ballot list of Golden Dawn.

It is imperative for Syriza, the newly formed government of the left, and most importantly the revolutionary left, to sharpen its front against Golden Dawn and all the dark forces of fascism and racism through the revitalisation of the rank and file and the re-invigoration of the neighbourhood committees.

The old-line Stalinist Communist Party of Greece (KKE) got a slightly increased vote in the election — 5.5%, compared to 4.5% in June 2012 and 7.5% in 2009, before the Greek debt crisis broke.

Its 15 MPs would be more than enough to enable Syriza to form a left government, without a coalition with the right.

However, the KKE insisted it would refuse to give a vote of confidence to a Syriza-led government. It states its first priority and line of struggle as the front against Syriza.

“It has emerged as a new social democratic party in the place of Pasok, a new pole in the two-pole bourgeois political system... The president and leading officials of Syriza are feted in the mansions of the plutocracy, the IMF, the Bilderberg Group Meeting at Lake Como in Italy, the City of London... The KKE will not support any government that is bound by the anti-people strategy of the EU and capital... We fight for the emancipation of the working class and the people from social democracy and opportunism”.

Alexis Tsipras made a last attempt to meet with the KKE on Monday 26 January, but the general secretary of the KKE refused, stating that KKE had excluded the possibility of even vote of tolerance for a Syriza government a priori, and therefore there was no point in a meeting.

Syriza was then faced with two choices. It could try to form a government by getting a vote of tolerance or a vote of confidence from the Independent Greeks (ANEL) or Potami; or it could try to form a minority government, stating its programme as the six commitments of the Thessaloniki declaration and exercising pressure on KKE’s individual MPs (who are not immune from the pressure of KKE’s rank and file and supporters) to give a vote of tolerance to this government in opposition to KKE’s central line.

The KKE has in its time joined coalition governments with New Democracy (1989-91). No valid ideological or political idea prevented KKE from giving a conditional yes to cooperation with Syriza but proposing a minimum set of working-class demands as the basis for cooperation.

Extending the Thessaloniki pledges the Greek left should demand the following emergency steps be immediately taken:

• Support for all workers, the unemployed, the poor to have access to food, electricity, healthcare

• The restoration of basic salary to 750 euros and of a 13th month’s pension for low-income pensioners

• The restoration of industrial relations and collective bargaining right to pre-crisis levels

• The right to homes for all, and the termination of auctions of homes for arrears in payment

• Kicking out Eldorado Gold, in response to the struggle of the inhabitants of Chalkidiki

It is necessary for working class people and popular strata for Syriza’s rank and file and supporters to form their own structures in order to defend the Syriza government from the national and international attacks that they are bound to come sooner or later and to push the government to carry through pro-working class measures.

Other demands should include:

• Legalisation of all immigrants without terms and conditions

• Citizenship for all the 200,000 children of immigrants who were born or grew up in Greece

• Asylum, shelter and full rights to all refugees

• Compensation for victims of racist violence from police or fascist gangs

• Places of worship for Muslims

• Return and expansion of political rights for immigrants who live and work permanently in Greece.

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