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Tim Holmes puts the left coalition’s success in the context of the suffering inflicted on Greece by a radical-right austerity programme.

by Tim Holmes

The elation surrounding left-wing coalition Syriza’s stunning victory in the Greek elections at the end of January was difficult to describe. Thankfully, we don’t have to: cameraphone footage circulated on social media has already spread some of the atmosphere across national boundaries. Viewers witnessed the near-incredulous roar of applause when initial results – suggesting Syriza might win a parliamentary majority – came in. They have seen for themselves the dancing, chanting, flags flying and choruses of Bella Ciao, anti-fascist anthem of Italy’s partisans. From online broadcaster AJ+ and documentary-maker Theopi Skarlatos, they caught a glimpse of the backstory: from its roots in Greece’s dire social problems, to the grassroots organising and campaigning, to the night of the election.

They might not reach many, but these are powerful images that stick in the mind. A renewed sense of hope and possibility already stirs among Europe’s progressives – and those farther afield – many of whom grew up being regretfully informed that their values were incompatible with the real world. This was the end of history; there was no alternative. An uninvited neoliberal ascendancy cannibalised mainstream politics and voters drifted away, not apathetic but perceiving – reasonably – that there was no-one to vote for.

Where such hope might flow in Britain is not obvious. The leading contenders are the Greens – enjoying a formidable ‘surge’ in membership. Sadly, progressives are split across different parties: Left Unity, Labour, the Greens and Plaid Cymru, as well as the SNP and Liberal Democrats. In Wales, even the Greens and Plaid Cymru struggle to collaborate. But Greece’s centre-left PASOK party has imploded spectacularly, and the ‘Pasokification‘ of Labour – should it win the election and try to implement austerity – is entirely possible; indeed Scotland’s huge swing to the SNP suggests it has already begun. Britain’s electoral system makes things especially hard for insurgent parties, though; the unions still back Labour; and UKIP might continue to capitalise on anti-elite populism as Labour disintegrated.

To the troika – three-pronged arm of big finance and European elites, comprising the EU, IMF and European Central Bank – these reckless hopes require containment. If Syriza wins debt forgiveness, who might next? There is little sign, then, that they are prepared to curb their demands for further bleeding. The popular excuse is that Greeks are feckless, lazy and over-indulged – a dangerously widespread perception that happens to be pure fantasy: Greeks work the longest hours in Europe. In reality, the financial crisis hit Greece hard, and an untouchable oligarchy has persistently avoided paying its public dues.

Greece’s new government, however, appear deadly serious in their demand that the ‘memorandum of understanding’ underpinning austerity be jettisoned. This was clear from their choice of coalition partner, ANEL, the Independent Greeks – roughly equivalent to Britain’s UKIP. A radical-right breakaway from the centre-right New Democracy, ANEL’s thuggish, bigoted, paranoid politics make them an uncomfortable bedfellow for Syriza, but the decision to join them reflects political expediency. Greek politics is split not only left to right, but also along pro- and anti-austerity lines, as well as on the question of Euro(zone) membership, and on these issues ANEL are probably the best fit for Syriza – even if the two parties’ ideologies differ wildly. Progressives rightly worry this will mean potential concessions on issues like human rights but ANEL currently control only the shipping ministry, and one of the government’s first acts was to grant citizenship to children of immigrants – hardly red meat to the racist right.

Yet the terms ‘left’, ‘right’ and ‘centre’ – always misleading – start to crumble when applied to the Greek situation. ‘Centre’ implies both a political centre of gravity that no longer exists, and a moderation that fails to reflect the extremes of suffering visited on Greece by a radical-right programme. Greece has been called – plausibly – the victim of the most extreme neoliberal shock therapy since Pinochet’s Chile. As Nobel Laureate and former World Bank chief economist Joseph Stiglitz notes, the country’s post-2010 collapse ‘is far worse than that which confronted America during the Great Depression of the 1930s.’ The economy contracted by a quarter, driving the unemployment rate to 25%, and youth unemployment above 50%. A fifth of the population cannot get enough to eat, with ‘doctors and teachers eating out of garbage cans‘.

The effects on public health have been horrendous. As health researchers David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu wrote in May 2013, Greece

‘is in the middle of a public health disaster. The national health budget has been cut by 40 percent since 2008 ... Hospital admissions have soared after Greeks avoided getting routine and preventive treatment because of long wait times and rising drug costs. Infant mortality rose by 40 percent. New H.I.V. infections more than doubled, a result of rising intravenous drug use — as the budget for needle-exchange programs was cut. After mosquito-spraying programs were slashed in southern Greece, malaria cases were reported in significant numbers for the first time since the early 1970s.'

Primary and community healthcare, GP Louise Irvine notes, have ‘collapsed’. In Athens’ biggest hospital, ‘conditions were worse than those I have seen in developing countries.’ Cancer patients cannot afford chemotherapy; mothers are imprisoned or evicted for failing to pay for hospital births. The suicide rate has shot up. As Stuckler and Basu put it, ‘if austerity were tested like a medication in a clinical trial, it would have been stopped long ago, given its deadly side effects.’

In the midst of this social and economic catastrophe, calling Syriza’s programme ‘radical’ and ‘far-left’ is almost laughable. If anti-capitalist ideologically, Syriza will govern as social democrats. They would raise the minimum wage; reverse privatisations; re-hire sacked public employees; and reconnect victims of punitive electricity cut-offs. They also propose ‘non-reformist reforms’ such as restoring collective bargaining rights and curbs on concentrated media power. At the same time, while opposing austerity, they will attempt to bargain for debt write-downs, and a slice of quantitative easing (QE) money from the European Central Bank.

Syriza face numerous obstacles from the forces of reaction within business, finance, the state, media, and Greek society. Neo-Nazi Golden Dawn supporters swell the ranks of the police, for example. But the big showdown will be with the troika. The Euro makes its member-states fiscal masters but monetary slaves. With no way to devalue its currency and pay off creditors, Greece has three options: debt cancellation, austerity or ‘Grexit’ – dumping the Euro. The ECB is unlikely to accept the first, especially now it holds most of Greece’s debt. Syriza will not budge on the second. But all concerned want to avoid the inevitable ructions of the third. Syriza are therefore making ‘reasonable’, reformist noises: calling for a European fiscal union to complement monetary union, and future repayments linked to economic growth. The ECB show no sign of backing down, hitting Greece at its weakest point by cutting funds to its banks – But, judging by recent remarks from Obama and the Bank of England, the tide may be turning against Germany’s hard line on austerity.


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