Talk by Natassa Romanou
February 6, 2015 Forum
“After the Greek Elections:
The Future of Austerity in Greece, Europe and Beyond”
January 25th was a great day. A great day for the left in Greece and in Europe, a great day for Greece and Europe itself. Syriza, the party of the radical left, won the elections and took the government. This is the first left government in Greece ever. And the first in Europe after 60 years.
The win was stunning. Syriza got 36% of the vote with a 64% turnout, whereas the second party, New Democracy, got only 28%, and Golden Dawn, the neo-fascist group, only 7%. In total, seven parties entered the Greek parliament, with the pro-austerity forces being a small minority.
Syriza however did not achieve an absolute majority in the Parliament and had to form a coalition government with the Independent Greeks, a newly-formed, center-right party of nationalist background but with a staunch anti-memorandum agenda. To balance the effect, Alexis Tsipras, the prime minister, in a quick preview of what the new government planned to do, identified the priorities: no more Troika, no more memoranda, increases in the basic salaries, wages and pensions, an end to and reversal of the privatizations of major public companies, citizenship to all born in Greece, neutralizing of the riot police. Furthermore, a few symbolic acts, such as Tsipras taking a non-religious oath when he was sworn in as prime minister and his paying of respects at the Communist, anti-Nazi fighters monument at Goudi, tied Syriza to its roots in the radical left, revolutionary, anti-fascist movement in Greece.
Such a victory, and such a government, may have looked implausible just three years ago, but it was unthinkable even five years ago. These last few years have been marked by austerity and the collapse of the centrist-rightist narrative of Greece’s collective guilt and the fear mongering of the consequences of not adhering to austerity. We saw the rise of Syriza erupt in 2012 and gradually reach winning numbers in 2015.
The last turning point in Syriza’s rise to power was the announcement of the party’s programmatic positions for the economy and the crisis at the Thessaloniki International Expo in September 2014. There, Tsipras described the National Reconstruction Plan or the Thessaloniki program, which was the culmination of three years of work from different groups of policy experts and volunteers on several thematic areas of Greece’s economy and government. More importantly, the plan came with a price tag. There was rigorous, full cost accounting and justification of every provision and programmatic pledge and the funds that would cover it. It showed that Syriza was indeed ready to govern. It convinced many who were doubtful of Syriza’s leadership skill or knowledge of the system. After Thessaloniki, Syriza’s electoral appeal rose further and greatly surpassed New Democracy’s, bringing it close to an absolute majority on January 25, 2015.
It is not therefore surprising that many of the new government’s announcements were important excerpts of the Thessaloniki program.
The National Reconstruction plan has four thematic commitments, spanning the short- to mid- and long-term implementation. These commitments address the humanitarian crisis, the ailing economy, the need for new employment, and the transformation of the political system as a whole.
The humanitarian crisis for Greece after five years of austerity is rightly described as worse than the Great Depression. Direct cuts in wages and salaries and pensions, heavy taxation as well as cuts in public spending have been a brutal assault on low and middle income classes. The social cost is huge: 10% of all adults live in extreme poverty, homelessness has risen by 25% and more than 7500 suicides have occurred since 2009. Two thousand kids in Athens alone (about 5% of the population of school children) rely on meals from solidarity networks. Hospitals lack medicines as well as doctors.
To address the humanitarian crisis, Syriza has pledged to provide free electricity and meals, housing guarantees or rent subsidies and free medical care to the 300,000 families presently under the poverty line. For everyone else, lowering the price of heating oil and transportation costs will hopefully reduce the unbearable costs of living.
During the last five years, Greece has undergone an unprecedented -- for a first world country during peacetime -- economic collapse. The economy shrank by one-fourth, incomes dropped by one-third, mostly for urban families. This is the part of the population most vulnerable to poverty since they are support-providers to children and elderly and have no other means to raise their incomes. Unemployment has skyrocketed (one out of three workers of all ages, and one in two for youth) and all this while the cost of living remained the same.
To break this vicious spiral of austerity-recession-poverty and inequality, Syriza will resolve personal debts and foreclosures, protecting primary residences and low incomes. A fair and progressive taxation system will be put in place that is strict with everyone but will tax larger incomes and multi-property owners more. Tax evasion and tax immunity, which greatly benefited the economic elites such as the ship owners or the media moguls, the banks and the mega-construction companies, will be combated. The creation of a public development bank will help finance public works and small businesses, bringing more revenues back to the state, and providing loans to individuals. Privatization of public property will stop, and gradual nationalizations will take place (i.e. the port of Athens, the National Electricity Company, the old airport, etc.). In other words, Syriza will establish public control of the state and deepen democracy.
To help the economy, minimum wages will be restored to 751 Euros a month, while working people will be again protected through collective agreements, restored arbitration and other labor laws. New jobs will be created, mostly in agriculture, light industry and services.
But more importantly, Syriza aims to transform the political system and its institutions. It will go after the cronyism, the entanglement of the economic and business cartels and their patronage of the political leadership, cartels such as those that have dominated media, bank boards, construction and commercial ship companies. All public procurements will be scrutinized, and fairness and transparency will be established for the first time in regulations regarding banks and other financial institutions as well as international companies operating in Greece.
Trust in the legal system and the police has always been low in Greece but after 2009 it dropped by another 20%. Bureaucracy will be reduced and courts will be prompt, effective and fair. Syriza will help democratize the legal system and the police. The first demonstration of about ten thousand people took place just a few days after the new government took office, with no riot police in sight.
For all this to happen however, it is critical to keep the bottom-up mobilizations, the solidarity networks such as social hospitals, closed factory-collectives and other grassroots organizing going.
Syriza’s ties with grassroots organizing are not new. Syriza youth participated in the anti-globalization movements of the early 2000s, the European forum in 2006, the demonstrations after the Grigoropoulos shooting by police, the student and teacher strikes, the movement of the squares (Greece’s occupy movement).
Maintaining and promoting this level of organizing and participation, supporting the unions and the neighborhood assemblies, will help mobilize the masses in the fight against the old institutions. Social majorities need to remain engaged and in control to safeguard the radical changes put in place by the government and to resist the compromises that loom.
Such mobilization will further increase the left’s electoral power, which is needed if Syriza is going to implement the medium and long term vision of social transformation it has planned and win hegemony for the Left.
In the same vein, the international factor is important. The political landscape in Europe is changing: we have Podemos in Spain -- who knew Podemos a year ago? We have left alternatives emerging or strengthening in Portugal, in Slovenia and in Ireland. We saw German and Swiss unions just this week express support for Syriza’s efforts against austerity, rather than their own governments’ positions.
Social forces in Europe are aligned differently now. The divisions now are not in terms of national entities, not in terms of North-South imaginary cultural lines. The divisions are between the haves and the have-nots, between the people who suffer and the political and economic elites who thrive.
Austerity radicalizes, and Syriza inspires and awakens the masses beyond Greece’s borders.
A Left Hegemony is on the make -- Greece and Syriza need all the international support they can get; to push people, movements and governments to reconsider their alliances and bring hope to Greece and Europe. And -- why not? -- beyond.
Natassa Romanou, a Research Professor at Columbia University in Climate Studies, a member of SYRIZA and the ecosocialist group System Change Not Climate Change. She is a founding member, SYRIZA-NY and AKNY and was in Greece for the elections.