Defiance against the parliament’s surrender

July 16, 2015

Lee Sustar reports on the parliamentary vote on Alexis Tsipras' austerity measures--and the impact of the rebellion within his ruling party on the struggles to come.

AMID A public-sector workers' general strike and large demonstrations in Athens and other cities, Greece's parliament voted to accept the European authorities' demands for drastic new austerity measures, with members of traditional parties helping Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to survive a rebellion of left-wing representatives from the radical left party SYRIZA.

The final vote in the Greek parliament was 229 to 64, with six abstentions, on measures that will cut pensions, raise the regressive value-added sales tax, put Greek assets in hock and repeal progressive measures that the SYRIZA government passed since winning election on January 25.

The vote has accelerated an internal struggle within SYRIZA--a party rooted in the social movements and working class struggles of the past 15 years, and especially the recent crisis years. A total of 32 SYRIZA members of parliament voted no and six abstained to show their opposition to what they call a third "Memorandum"--the term used for the agreement to impose harsh austerity in return for a bailout of the Greek financial system by European and international financial institutions.

Greece's parliament listens to a speech by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras
Greece's parliament listens to a speech by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras

Among the prominent "no" votes in the early morning hours of Thursday, July 16, was Energy Minister Panagiotis Lafazanis, the leading voice of SYRIZA's Left Platform; Speaker of Parliament Zoe Konstantopoulou; and even former Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, who himself offered huge concessions to the European authorities when he was in office.

The 13 members of ANEL, the right-wing party that is part of the governing coalition with SYRIZA, voted yes. But Tsipras needed the support from the two main parties of the Greek political system for the past half century, the conservative New Democracy and the center-left PASOK. The prime minister railed against New Democracy and PASOK in the run-up to the January 25 election for having negotiated the previous austerity Memorandums. Now, he needed their support to pass his own Memorandum.

THE PARLIAMENT'S surrender came just 10 days after a referendum in which 61.3 percent of voters rejected a proposal that was basically the same as the deal that Tsipras is now trying to sell.

Tsipras had called for a "no" vote--but only, he insisted, as a way to strengthen Greece's position in negotiations with the Europeans, not because he wanted to prepare for "Grexit"--a Greek exit from the euro common currency shared by 19 countries. In contrast to the determination of the masses of Greek working people expressed in their "no" vote, Tsipras declared his willingness to accept the extreme conditions of the creditors in order to stay in the euro.

That's why the prime minister and his allies in SYRIZA insist that the Greek population must suffer another cut in their standard of living--on top of an economy that has shrunk by more than 25 percent and an unemployment rate that is over 25 percent overall, and over 50 percent for youth.

No wonder the once-dominant mainstream parties New Democracy and PASOK had to deliver the votes for austerity. During the long parliamentary debate that stretched into the early morning hours of Thursday, mainstream politicians took the opportunity to gloat over Tsipras' surrender to the "institutions," as the creditors of the European Union (EU), European Central Bank (ECB) and International Monetary Fund (IMF) are known.

New Democracy representatives in particular made I-told-you-so speeches--heard in a live Internet stream, with English translation, provided by the Press Project--blaming Tsipras for negotiating a less favorable agreement than he could have achieved several months ago. They delighted in pointing out that it is Tsipras, not the right-wing former Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, who agreed to a punishing hike in the value-added tax.

PASOK members of parliament postured as well. "Here, the ideology of opposition to the Memorandum collapses," said former PASOK leader Evangelos Venizelos, a key player in the previous New Democracy-led coalition government that previously implemented austerity. Greece faces a dilemma, Venizelos said--agree to the conditions or face Grexit and "disaster."

But this time, Venizelos' message--that there is no alternative to austerity and anti-worker, pro-business neoliberal "reforms"--was echoed by SYRIZA members of parliament aligned with Tsipras.

SYRIZA member of parliament Dimitris Vitsas captured the mental gymnastics of radical leftists shilling for policies their party came to power to reverse. "I don't want to speak in favor of the bill," Vitsas said, "but about the necessity of passing it."

BUT THE opposition of SYRIZA left-wingers overshadowed such triangulating. Among the most prominent was Speaker of Parliament Zoe Konstantopoulou, who began her speech by citing an audit of Greece's international debt led by Belgian activist Eric Toussaint that concluded it was "illegal, illegitimate and odious."

Recalling the years of protests against austerity leading up to SYRIZA's January 25 election victory and then the big "no" vote on the austerity referendum on July 5, Konstantopoulou insisted that the vast majority of the Greek people are opposed to the measures that parliament was considering. "We have an obligation to defend their position," she said, adding, "If we pass legislation with ultimatums, we will do so again."

At the end of the debate, Tsipras, who hadn't intended to speak, took to the floor himself to make his case for the deal. "It is a time of crisis, judgment and responsibility" he said. He portrayed his negotiations with the European powers as the latest step in a struggle against austerity--citing the "blackmail" by leaders of the biggest European governments who he nevertheless described as "partners."

There were three choices, Tsipras said: Stand by and allow the country to go bankrupt, accept an austerity deal to secure immediate support for the economy, or agree to a consensual "Grexit" that would put Greece outside the eurozone with what he portrayed as disastrous consequences.

A "yes" vote on austerity, moreover, was the only way to keep the SYRIZA-led government in office so it could put up resistance later. "We are not going to allow a government of the left to be overthrown," Tsipras said in his concluding remarks.

Thus, SYRIZA, elected by a strong margin in January to resist austerity, is embroiled in a struggle, with the political dividing lines in Greece expressing themselves through the party itself.

A majority of members of the party's Central Committee--which was bypassed by Tsipras when he took the deal with the EU directly to parliament--signed a statement opposing the deal. "This agreement is not compatible with the ideas and the principles of the left," the statement reads. "But most importantly, it is not compatible with the needs of the working class and the popular masses. This proposal cannot be accepted by the members and the cadres of SYRIZA."

SYRIZA's Left Platform called the deal "a humiliation for Greece and the Greek people," adding, "This onerous new bailout and extends the troika's guardianship and enslavement of society and keeps the country in a debt colony under German tutelage."

The Red Network, an alliance of socialist organizations that is a main part of the Left Platform, declared in the text of a leaflet distributed during the strikes and protests on Wednesday:

This new Memorandum essentially and practically overthrows the government led by SYRIZA: programmatically, but also politically, since it transforms SYRIZA into an austerity government with an increasingly pro-austerity composition (more so after the removal of left-wing cabinet ministers and the potential openings to the austerity camp).

THAT TRANSFORMATION could continue as early as Thursday if Tsipras tries, as he is rumored to be planning, to carry out a "cabinet reshuffle" to punish SYRIZA leaders who opposed the Memorandum. Several officials from the government have resigned, but Lafazanis, for his part, has not done so--which puts the responsibility on Tsipras to push him out.

Whether sooner or later, Tsipras will make his move to regain the political ground lost in this battle. But the wide margin of the victory in the parliamentary vote masks how Tsipras has been weakened by the stand taken by members of his own party in defense of the anti-austerity commitment that the prime minister surrendered.

All the pressure that the government could bring to bear didn't stop more than one-quarter of SYRIZA's members of parliament from voting no. The rebellion is even more pronounced on the Central Committee.

The left within SYRIZA will not give up the party they have built without a fight. As Greek socialist and prominent Left Platform figure Antonis Davanellos said in an interview with several months ago, "Everybody knows that if the agreement is an austerity agreement, we will not vote for it. We don't accept that this means we will be expelled from SYRIZA."

What's more, this new stage of the struggle takes place after the massive mobilization to organize a "no" vote against austerity just 10 days before--and then the public-sector strike call on the day of the parliament's vote, the first widespread action since SYRIZA won office. A revival of strikes and demonstrations is welcome not only in standing up for the sentiment that pushed SYRIZA into the political spotlight, but as preparation for the battles to come over the implementation of austerity under the new Memorandum.

The next few days will tell a lot about the shape of this next phase of the struggle. Tsipras has inflicted a defeat on Greek left and the working class in general by inaugurating a new round of austerity in the name of a SYRIZA government. But the defiant voice of the left made itself heard in response, and that will be important in the struggles to come.

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