SYRIZA’s left pushes back

June 11, 2015

Lee Sustar looks at the response to the latest squeeze on Greece by Europe's rulers.

GREECE'S LEFT-wing government rattled financial markets and European politics on June 4 when it delayed a $1.7 billion debt repayment to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) until the end of the month.

But Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President François Hollande and other top EU leaders, is still looking for a way to satisfy the harsh demands of the country's creditors and keep Greece in the eurozone--the group of 19 nations that share a common currency.

Appeasing Merkel and Hollande means abandoning the program laid out by the radical SYRIZA in its campaign for the national elections it won last January. Thus the party's left wing is arguing for a new course that rejects further retreats--and for devoting all available resources to easing the desperate conditions that Greek workers and the poor have faced as a result of the economic crisis inflicted on them.

Greece, already reeling from an economy that has shrunk 25 percent over five years due to austerity programs imposed as a conditions for loans, is being squeezed to make still more cutbacks. In a 48-page proposal sent to creditors late last month, the Greek government went a long way toward meeting demands for more austerity measures as a condition for Europe to release the $7.8 billion allocated for Greece under terms of a financial bailout in 2012, which the government is seeking to extend.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras addresses the Greek parliament
Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras addresses the Greek parliament

In the proposal, Tsipras' government offered to maintain nearly intact the high sales-based Value Added Tax (VAT) negotiated by previous government. The Tsipras proposal also includes the "consolidation" of three social security funds--a euphemism for cuts in the state pension system.

It lays out a sharp limitation on early retirement, continuation of the privatization of government assets and a labor relations framework based on International Labor Organization standards, rather than the strong system of collective bargaining that SYRIZA had promised to reinstate after it was undone by a previous government.

THAT WAS the offer on the table when Greece announced that it would delay any payment to the IMF. While seen in some quarters as a defiant move by Tsipras, the decision not to pay was dictated by necessity. Having steadily paid billions in debt and interest since taking office in February, the Greek government has nothing left to make payments to the IMF or the other creditors represented by the European Union (EU) and European Central Bank. (ECB). Even as Tsipras penned an op-ed article in Le Monde to criticize the EU for being inflexible, the list of the government's concessions grew even longer.

As Stathis Kouvelakis, a member of SYRIZA's Central Committee and a supporter of the party's Left Platform, wrote in a sharply critical response:

These concessions, which Alexis Tsipras has recognized here for the first time, have never been publicly discussed at any level, neither in the party nor in parliament, nor even within the government, in the sense of a collective debate communicated to the citizenry. They are simply announced, after having been concocted during the entirely opaque negotiations with the EU.

But even that isn't good enough for the EU and the International Monetary Fund. In its response to Tsipras' offers of concessions, the European authorities have made some of their harshest demands yet, including direct cuts in retirement pay, a steep increase in the VAT on food and electricity, a further weakening of collective bargaining rights and even wage cuts. On the eve of the IMF payment deadline, Tsipras denounced the creditors demands as "absurd."

The lenders--formerly known as the "Troika" and now as the "institutions"--have used negotiations to bleed the Greek treasury dry while European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi constricts credit to Greek banks, leading Greek depositors to pull out their money and putting the country's financial system at risk.

IN RESPONSE to the aggressive demands of creditors and Tsipras' retreats, the left wing of SYRIZA began to speak out more loudly in May.

SYRIZA's Red Network, which groups several organizations and individuals on the left of the party, published a critique of the government and a series of proposals to advance the struggle. "The expectations that there will be an 'honest compromise' with the imperialist eurozone and generally with the lenders has collapsed," the document stated. "To continue to invest our expectations, resources and political energy toward that perspective any more is a huge waste that leads with certainty toward to disaster."

The Red Network held a public meeting in Athens May 19 that featured John Milios, a left-wing economist who wrote SYRIZA's original economic program before being pushed aside when the January elections put the party into office.

Some 600 people--more than three times the capacity of the meeting hall--tried to attend the speech, said Sotiris Martalis, a member of Internationalist Workers Left (DEA, according to its initials in Greek), a part of the Red Network. "People were in the room above and below, in the stairways and on the street," said Martalis.

Three other SYRIZA figures spoke at the meeting, including DEA's Antonis Davanellos, a well-known journalist. "The meeting was repeated with Milios and different speakers in Thessaloniki, and it is taking place in other cities, like Kalamata and Crete, even places where we don't have any connection."

The Red Network document and meeting set the stage for the SYRIZA Central Committee meeting on May 23 and 24, in which Red Network members supported the Left Platform proposal to end concessions to creditors. The measure was rejected by a vote of 95 to 75. But with 44 percent of the vote, the left showed that it has major--and growing--influence in the party.

NEVERTHELESS, TSIPRAS continues to search for a way to balance between the EU/IMF pressure and the raised expectations of Greek working people. SYRIZA remains popular for taking a number of popular measures, including the rehiring of Finance Ministry cleaners and school guards fired by the previous government and reversing the privatization of the public TV and radio broadcaster.

The Greek capitalist class, for its part, remains frustrated that the traditional mainstream parties--the center-left PASOK and the conservative New Democracy--are still deeply unpopular. Business interests have been forced to work their agenda indirectly, pressuring SYRIZA through the mass media. The newspaper To Vima, one the most important media outlets in Greece, recently published a full-page article arguing that Tsipras should expel Davanellos, DEA supporters and others on the left within the party.

If SYRIZA's Left Platform members in parliament refuse to vote for concessions, the Greek corporate media argues, then Tsipras should break with them and instead form a government of "national unity" with the Potami Party, a recently formed party that nevertheless shares the center-left, pro-austerity politics of PASOK.

Germany, the dominant player in the EU, appears to want to keep Greece in the eurozone to avoid any financial disruption and forestall similar crises involving other countries.

But it is willing to demand more austerity even if it means going to the brink of "Grexit"--a Greek departure from the eurozone--in order to achieve their goals of maintaining an EU hierarchy that bolsters Germany imperial power. "The EU and the Greek capitalists want to show that there is no alternative to austerity--not SYRIZA, not Podemos in Spain, not Sinn Fein in Ireland," said DEA's Martalis.

For their part, SYRIZA's members of parliament in the Left Platform may soon have to choose between voting for an agreement they oppose, or rejecting it and causing the government to fall, which could trigger new elections or lead to the formation of a coalition government between Tsipras and pro-austerity parties.

In an article published June 10 by DEA, Davanellos challenged the "national unity" strategy and argued that the class struggle, not maneuvers in parliament or deals with creditors, is the only alternative for SYRIZA.

"The reinforcement of a social alliance 'from below' against the bloc of the Greek capitalists and their international allies are the terms of survival for a government of the left," Davanellos wrote.

What happens next depends on the ability of SYRIZA's left wing to organize the base of the party and in the labor and social movements to build that resistance.

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