Morning of the century?

It’s 2 am in Athens, and the parties are still going, at the university grounds, in Exarchaia, across the city. They’ll go till dawn, with thousands of activists and supporters, and international visitors here for the triumph, and Left journalists throwing away any pretence of non-partisanship.

The Syriza victory has been won by years of hard campaigning across the country by people who never expected to be close to power, much less take it, and the night is theirs. But, ah, there’s a buzz to a capital city, especially a focused one like Athens, where the world has come to watch, with Podemos members stumbling past on Syntagma square while Channel Four records a newsbite at the bar of the Plaza Hotel and in the cigar bar of the Grande Bretagne a financial trader tells you: ‘Syriza may or may not be good for Greece, but they’ll be great for Europe.’ Wonderful days …

Anyway, I’m back, and, remarkably, sober (some things do not require booze), so here’s some pro tem notes on the victory.

Syriza, a coalition of the radical left, has won around 36% of the vote, up from the mid-20s in 2012, and 3.5% seven years ago. That gives them 98-102 seats of the 250 elected seats in the parliament. As the largest party, they’ll be awarded a fifty seat supplement, putting them close to the 151 needed to govern in their own right. They’ll fall one or two short, most likely.

With or without a bare majority, they will seek partnerships of some type, most likely from two parties: The River, a ‘non-’political grouping started by a reasonably decent TV presenter, which has about 16 seats on 5 percent of the vote; and ‘Independent Greeks’ (ANEL), a right-wing, anti-troika party, who will also get about 16 seats.

Rumours were going round, even an hour ago, that Syriza had already come to an arrangement with Independent Greeks but that’s yet to be confirmed. It would need to be a careful deal, given some of ANEL’s social policies.

New Democracy gained 27%, and will be the opposition. Polls had it at 31%, with Syriza at 35%, suggestive of a late and decisive existential leap by voters. Twelve percent of Syriza’s voters had voted ND in 2012 according to exit polls.

PASOK, which dominated Greek politics from 1981 until 2012, gained 4.5%, just enough to get over the 3% threshold necessary for a party to win seats. It will either dissolve or bide its time, hoping for a Syriza disaster. Democratic Left (DIMAR), a Right-side split from Syriza and onetime kingmakers, went from 6% to below 1%, essentially disappearing.

KKE, the Communist Party, with a strong Third Period policy of describing Syriza as the main enemy of the Greek people, gained 5%, unchanged from 2012 but down from their 8-9% highs a decade ago. They’ll have 15 seats, but there is no chance of an agreement with Syriza.

Golden Dawn, the neo-Nazi party, got around 7%, with its leaders campaigning from prison, where they’re on remand on conspiracy to murder charges. The collapse of PASOK, and the fracturing of small parties, has made Golden Dawn the third party.

Syriza dominates every major urban centre, and has won a whole range of prefectures (regions) in central Greece from ND, whose support is now limited to the socially conservative southern fingers of the mainland and the north-east.

Syriza’s huge expansion over the past five years has been largely a result of the collapse of the legitimacy of PASOK, a party that existed as a genuine transformational socialist outfit, even in the 1980s. The Left and Centre of the party simply decamped, leaving only its technocratic Right.

Syriza has run on a programme of repudiating the debt financing deal imposed by the ‘troika’ – the EU, ECB and IMF committee – that demanded specific austerity programmes to finance debt repayment in exchange for a degree of debt forgiveness. It also repudiates the legitimacy of the troika itself, and will deal directly only with the EU. It wants the EU to cancel 50% of Greece’s debt (50% which the EU ‘bought’ from banks) of around 200 billion euros. Its domestic programme involves restoring pensions and benefits to a level that can sustain life (they stand at around 3-400 euros (AU$5-600) a month), cancelling an impoverishing property tax that falls on average earners and flat dwellers, restoring electricity cut off to around 20% of homes, renationalising some privatised industries and re-extending services, beginning with some demand-stimulating public works. It also wants to build and extend the ‘social’ sector that has developed as public services were wound back, and employment collapsed (unemployment is 25-30%, and around 60-70% for youth), and to develop ‘other forms of value’ within the economy.  It wants to remain in the Eurozone, arguing that there is no provision within the EU for a forced eurozone exit. Socially, it wants to reform the judiciary and police to root out racist subcultures, corrupt networks and remnants of the junta-era deep state. Ambitious and wide-ranging qualitative changes are proposed for education, cultural funding, improved relations with Turkey, recognition of Palestine, reductions in military spending and much else.

Should Syriza fail to make a deal with the EU, then a crisis will come in June, when a series of Greek government bonds become due (that is, the government must pay interest and buy some back from the markets). In the existing plan, this would be paid by the EU as another ‘bailout’ – a transfer of EU money directly to banks, overwhelmingly northern European and US ones. Without this bailout, Greece must default, which would create a precipitous fall in the euro. Hence the strong incentive for a forced exit of the entire economy, a forced exit, involving a non recognition of Greek banks, and its central bank, as financial service agents (among other moves), and a return to the drachma, would see a sharp nosedive of the economy, extreme shortages of basic materials, a seizing up of industry (through lack of supplies) and a resultant hyperinflation. Beyond that, the economy would reboot, with an adjustable exchange rate allowing for cheap exports and a revived tourist economy. With all debts repudiated, the balance sheet would be clear. However, without foreign capital markets to go to, budgets would need to be balanced, which would require … austerity.

An exit would be a social and political emergency of the first order.

It’s possible that Syriza has something up its sleeve. Its new ministry will feature a range of first rate Left economists including John Milios, Yanis Varoufakis and Costas Lapavitsas. The obvious ‘bridge’ would be an investment deal with one or more of the BRIC or MINT countries, with their capital flowing towards Europe, strange though that may sound.

Such a deal would remove the emergency created by a market-based capital drought.

Politically, however, Syriza is walking a razor wire from the start. It is not a party (something that’s often overlooked), but a coalition, with a massive central party, and a dozen or more smaller groups. Synaspismos (the ‘locked-together shields’, an ancient Greek military formation) is a fusion of the two Communist parties (the KKE is actually a party that departed and reconstituted): one eurocommunist, the other hybrid. These persist as two formations (the language here is going to be a little approximate). Until its massive expansion, all 7 of Syriza’s seats were held by Synaspismos. Now, other groups such as the Maoist KOE will have a solid base, as will a far-Left Trotskyist group, and red-green groups. Indeed, KOE itself will have as many seats within the Syriza coalition as PASOK will have in the parliament, a dizzying thought.

The dangers are obvious, even inevitable. Within Syriza small parties – indeed, formations within Synaspismos – will have a crucial veto power, since their departure would take the party below its 150+ majority. No matter how good the deal Tsipras and company might be able to get from a rattled Europe, it will be unacceptable to some of these groups. Furthermore, Syriza, in order to crush PASOK once and for all, has made a series of unfulfillable promises – renationalisations, chiefly – that are not only unaffordable but actually unwise, since they would simply re-establish the toxic clientalism that contributed to the country’s corrupted budget processes. Socialising some of these entities might be prudent, but statist nationalising of them has been offered to attract older PASOK voters who want the socialist nationalist programmes of the 1980s and the more stable world it offered.

Syriza, like all recent governments of Greece, has a legitimacy deficit, bequeathed by the 50-seat bump (designed to exclude the Left!), which gives a party a parliamentary majority on a 35% or so base vote, leaving it exposed to being outnumbered and outflanked in the public sphere by its enemies. The electoral victory has disguised an unpleasant fact: the country was more radical in 2010—2011, with major strikes, demonstrations and rallies demarcating the difference between social and parliamentary power. The wild success of Syriza has reabsorbed much of that energy into the electoral process. It will need to revive, or keep alive, a social manifestation as it goes.

The coalition will also face the question of how to deal with the further Left, especially as groups take it at its word on a new social sector/space, and begin occupying buildings and establishing non-state, non-private areas and networks. Since Syriza needs to reimpose the state – to make the rich and professionals pay their taxes – the contradiction between its post-capitalist social sector policies and its Left Keynesian demand revival policies will come into acute conflict.

The upshot? Barring some massive, and utterly improbable, change of policy by the EU/European north, this victory is simply the prelude to a series of crises. That is not a generic ‘pessimism of the head’ observation, simply a cool assessment of the array of contradictions. It will be the first stage in a positive process only if that near-certain passage of future events is borne in mind. Syriza’s victory may have kickstarted something bigger in Europe, but the victory in Greece itself is weak and provisional, no matter how glorious. Far from Europe having got its head from Greece, it is Greece that will need the solidarity of Europe and the world in the coming months to put relentless pressure on the EU to agree to a deal that the party’s membership and supporters can live with and bring to the Greek people in confidence. This is not going to be a tragedy but it ain’t going to be no comedy either.


Stop press: at three am this morning, Athens time, Syriza and ANEL agreed to a coalition, with details to be finalised and announced tomorrow.

Guy Rundle

Guy Rundle is currently a correspondent-at-large for Crikey online daily, and a former editor of Arena Magazine. His ebook, And the Dream Lives On? Barack Obama, the 2012 Election and the Great Republican Whiteout, is forthcoming.

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