Greece votes against austerity – again

For a second time, Greek working people on June 17 voted against the austerity measures imposed on them by the Greek bankers, the International Monetary Fund and the European capitalist establishment. While the corporate media presented the election result as a “victory for the euro”, that is, for the pro-austerity parties, a clear majority of voters, 53%, voted for candidates opposed to the pro-austerity “memorandum”, including 27% for the candidates of the Coalition of the Radical Left, known by its acronym SYRIZA in Greek.

In the May 6 election, the first opportunity that Greek voters were given to vote on the pro-austerity “memorandum”, SYRIZA’s vote surged from 4.6% in 2009 to 16.8%, displacing the centre-left, social democratic PASOK party as the official parliamentary opposition. In the June 17 elections, SYRIZA consolidated this position and took the lead among voters aged 18-34. By tapping into the popular anger against the austerity measures that have led to 17 general strikes and countless other protests, SYRIZA has upended Greek politics.

SYRIZA’s extraordinary surge to prominence in the May 6 election came on the back of its intransigent opposition to austerity and its call for a “government of the left” that would repudiate the pro-austerity “memorandum” with the IMF and the European financial elites, nationalise the Greek banks and implement substantial health and social welfare expenditures.

The centre-right New Democracy and PASOK were the guardians of the anti-working class “memorandum”. For decades, social democratic parties like PASOK have willingly implemented the neoliberal pro-capitalist consensus, cutting government services to working people, privatising government assets and extolling the “virtues” of the “free market”.

PASOK’s vote fell from 43.9% in 2009 to 13% on May 6. ND’s vote fell from 33.5% in 2009 to 18.9% on May 6. Even though Greece’s gerrymandered electoral system gave ND, as the leading party, an extra 50 parliamentary seats, it was unable to put together a pro-“memorandum” coalition government, leading to the June 17 election.

‘Fear and blackmail’

The election was conducted in an atmosphere in which the entire European capitalist establishment waged a hysterical campaign against the prospect of a SYRIZA-led government, threatening Greek voters with economic catastrophe if they voted against the “memorandum”. The Financial Times Deutschland was among the most blatant. Writing in the British Guardian, Costas Douzinas called it an “astounding campaign of fear and blackmail against the democratic right of Greeks to elect a government of their choice”.

“Political terrorism by the masterminds of austerity won the election”, George Efstratiadis, the boss of a family-owned business in Patras, told the Guardian the day after the election. He added: “I do not expect anything other than harder strikes, bigger riots, and an unstable future. All those who voted New Democracy for the sake of stability will soon find out that the worst is yet to come. A coalition is possible, in the name of patriotism, but governing the ship will be very difficult — not only for the captain, but also for the passengers. You can put the cross over the grave now, and pray for the dead.”

In the June 17 election there was polarisation between ND, which won 30% of the popular vote, and SYRIZA. A record 37.5% abstained. On June 21 ND Prime Minister Antonis Samaras put together a pro-“memorandum” coalition government, consisting of ND, PASOK and the nominally leftist Democratic Left party, which won 6% on June 17. This coalition government has promised to negotiate an easing of the austerity measures.

Poverty and austerity

The capitalist media have presented the growing poverty in Greece as a consequence of Greek working people previously having “lived beyond their means”. However, statistics provided by Eurostat, the EU’s statistical agency, paint a different picture. The average hours that Greeks work per week in their main jobs are the highest among all the 27 countries in the EU. Thus, in 2011, Greeks worked on average 42 hours weekly in their main jobs, significantly higher than the corresponding figure for the total EU 27, which is 37 hours.

Despite working more hours, Greeks have one of the highest poverty rates in the EU. Currently, 48% of Greeks live at or below the poverty level (up from 20% in 2009, according to Eurostat), following a 30% cut in wages. Unemployment stands at around 22% — and is far higher among young people. The ND-led coalition government will only worsen those numbers — sparking new protests.

Already many public health services have stopped being provided. Non-governmental organisations are filling in with the kind of aid more associated with the underdeveloped capitalist countries. Diseases such as AIDS and malaria are on the rise. The medical charity Medecins du Monde, known for its work in the Third World, says the number of Greeks coming to its clinics doubled in 2011. “Many patients are retired elderly citizens whose pensions have been substantially reduced because of the austerity measures implemented by the government in recent years”, the charity noted.

Greek government coffers could be empty before the end of July. If this happens, Greece will have no choice but to print its own currency and exit the euro zone In the worst case, Athens might have to temporarily stop paying for salaries and pensions, along with imports of fuel, food and pharmaceuticals. The new government will face a shortfall of €1.7 billion because tax revenue and other sources of potential income are drying up due to the austerity-driven deep recession, now in its fifth year.

Setback for KKE

The vote for the KKE, the Communist Party of Greece, dropped from 8.5% in the May 6 election to 4.5% on June 17. This was the biggest electoral setback for the KKE since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and reflected the refusal of the KKE leadership to orient toward seeking united action with SYRIZA against the pro-austerity memorandum.

The KKE leadership justified not calling for a vote for SYRIZA in the June 17 election because SYRIZA did not commit itself to a government pledged to withdraw immediately from the eurozone and the European Union, even though the entire European capitalist establishment made it clear that any Greek government that refused to implement the “memorandum” in full would be thrown out of the eurozone and the EU.

While a majority are Greek working people are against the EU’s establishment’s austerity measures, they are also in favour of staying within the EU and the eurozone — which are incompatible positions. While SYRIZA has not called for immediate withdrawal, it presented as a central slogan “no sacrifice for the euro” and a platform of radical measures that would be incompatible with membership of the eurozone. The effect of this stance would be to put the ball in the court of the EU capitalist establishment. If it wanted an anti-austerity Greek government to leave the eurozone, it would have to expel it.

The KKE leadership’s stance put the focus on SYRIZA’s position on membership of the EU and the eurozone rather than on the their inevitable anti-working class consequences, i.e., the brutal austerity measures imposed by the European capitalist ruling classes and their Greek political collaborators.

Merkel retreats

After insisting that Greece implement the savage austerity measures demanded under its bailout memorandum, at a Brussels summit on June 29 German Chancellor Angela Merkel capitulated to pressure from Italy and Spain to provide funds from the permanent eurozone bailout fund, the European Stability Mechanism, to recapitalise their banks and to support their government bonds without their having to agree to the harsh additional austerity measures that have been imposed on Greece, Portugal and Ireland.

The German government’s capitulation was due to rising Italian and Spanish government bond rates. According to the June 30 Der Spiegel Online, “Merkel eventually agreed because as Italian prime minister Mario Monti probably put it to Merkel in the small hours [of June 29]: if you don’t agree to provide funding now, Italian and Spanish bond rates will rocket; we won’t be able to fund our debt in financial markets; and at the next meeting, you will be talking again to Silvio Berlusconi and he’ll be saying that either Italy will leave the euro or Germany must!”

Der Spiegel reported: “Officials in Brussels said that the new decision did not change anything about the programs for Greece, Portugal and Ireland. All the agreed goals will continue to apply and be monitored by the troika [the EU, European Central Bank and IMF]. But those countries might also start clamoring for the terms of their deals to be relaxed. The summit’s decision gives the Greek government in particular more ammunition for renegotiating the terms of its bailout, a step that new Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras has already said he wants to take.”

The June 28 Wall Street Journal reported that the ND-led Greek government was “pushing for a two-year extension of the fiscal-adjustment aspect of the program, to 2016” rather than any reduction in the scale of austerity. “The government will work for the implementation of the targets and policies in the Greek support [i.e., austerity] program”, it quoted Greek deputy finance minister Christos Staikouras as saying.

Direct Action — July 2, 2012