A showdown looms in Greece’s parliament

July 15, 2015

Alan Maass reports on the brewing opposition as SYRIZA's leader demands a vote in parliament on a third Memorandum of savage austerity measures.

GREEK PRIME Minister Alexis Tsipras is demanding a vote in parliament on Wednesday, July 15, on the core components of a new austerity "Memorandum" that leading members of his own party SYRIZA say is worse than the other two Memorandums negotiated by previous governments in return for successive bailouts of the Greek financial system.

But opposition to Tsipras' surrender to the European blackmailers is building throughout Greek society--from a general strike call of public-sector unionists, spearheaded by the radical left, to a spreading revolt among SYRIZA members of parliament (MPs).

Tsipras will almost certainly need the support of the pro-austerity parties SYRIZA ran against last January in order to pass the measures on Wednesday, which include a radical cutback in benefits and restructuring of the state pension system, and an increase in the value-added sales tax that will hit working people and the poor the hardest.

The prime minister already fell short of a working majority in parliament in a vote last Saturday on a proposal to bring to negotiations with European governments for further concessions to their demands. Seventeen SYRIZA MPs either voted against, voted "present" or were recorded as absent, to show their opposition.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras at a summit of European leaders
Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras at a summit of European leaders

Tsipras' proposal passed easily, however, with the support of MPs from pro-austerity parties, including New Democracy and PASOK, which led the previous governments that negotiated the Memorandums with the European Union (EU), European Central Bank and International Monetary fund--commonly referred to these days as the "institutions."

Less than a week before, Tsipras had claimed victory when the Greek people overwhelmingly rejected the latest extortion demands from European leaders in a national referendum, with over 61 percent voting "no." Yet Tsipras turned the people's "no" into a humiliating "yes" by adopting basically the same austerity measures and winning approval for them in parliament last weekend.

And there was worse to come. Within hours after winning the parliamentary vote, Tsipras was in Brussels for a meeting of EU political leaders, who demanded even more drastic measures--including, for example, the creation of a 50 billion euros fund of Greek assets to be effective collateral in order to secure a new bailout.

Even mainstream journalists covering the Brussels meeting described the EU's demands as a "poison pill" designed to force Tsipras to say no--and to push Greece closer to a "Grexit" from the common euro currency shared by 19 EU countries.

But the Greek prime minister found a way to say yes once again, and the EU meeting eventually ended with a celebrated "agreement" that was more accurately described by the hashtag #ThisIsACoup.

Even former Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis--who is responsible for plenty of backsliding himself during his time negotiating with the European authorities--described the deal that Tsipras "won" in Brussels as "a new Versailles Treaty," a reference to the punitive treaty imposed on Germany at the end of the First World War.

ONE OF the main points of the agreement is an ultimatum to the Greek parliament to pass central elements of the new austerity regime within 72 hours--or else.

Tsipras is putting pressure on Greek lawmakers to go along, but he is losing support within his own party. Exactly how many SYRIZA MPs will abandon the party leadership and vote "no" is uncertain, but socialists in Greece are hopeful the number will be much higher this time.

Panagiotis Lafazanis, the best-known leader of the Left Platform and Energy Minister in the SYRIZA-led government, called on Tsipras to withdraw the proposal for a third Memorandum and change course. His statement, published on the Energy Ministry's website on Tuesday, read:

The deal agreed to with the “institutions” is unacceptable, and a radical party such as SYRIZA and a struggling government that promised to abolish the Memorandums and austerity should not be carrying it out.

The so-called partners, primarily the German establishment, have treated our country as their debt colony and have behaved like ruthless blackmailers and financial assassins.

This agreement will practically annul the popular mandate and the proud “Oxi!” (“No!”) of the Greek people in the referendum. This agreement can only be ratified in parliament with the votes of New Democracy, PASOK and Potami. However, the people will not ratify it—they will practically annul it in action with their unity and their struggles.

The government and the prime minister himself, even at the last minute, have the capacity to reconsider their positions and take back the agreement, before final and irreversible decisions are made in parliament. Greece had and has an alternative solution to the agreement. The creditors’ choice of capitulation or disaster is a false and terrorizing one—and one that has been discredited in the popular consciousness.

Lafazanis has plainly put himself at odds with a government in which he is a senior minister. But according to reports, he and the other opponents of Tsipras' austerity Memorandum in the cabinet will refuse to resign--they plan to force Tsipras to fire them if he wants to get rid of dissent.

A so-called "cabinet reshuffle" could come by Thursday, according to reports in the media. But that next move by Tsipras will be shaped by what happens in parliament--above all, how many SYRIZA MPs register their opposition in the vote.

In the party beyond the parliamentary representatives, there is even wider dissention. Tsipras broke another promise by refusing to bring the "agreement" negotiated in Brussels to a SYRIZA Central Committee meeting before the parliamentary vote.

Some have argued that Tsipras and the circle around him intended, from the beginning, to betray the movement. The reality is more complex. Tsipras and his current within SYRIZA shackled themselves, ideologically and politically, to the idea of a "social" Europe that would come to the fore in the wake of SYRIZA's unprecedented election victory. In this view, conservatives like German Chancellor Angela Merkel could be pressured to accept the mandate of Greek voters and pull back from austerity measures.

Instead, of course, Merkel and her gang--including German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble, Eurogroup chair Jeroen Dijsselbloem, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, European Central Bank boss Mario Draghi and International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde--steadily ratcheted up pressure on the Greek economy.

Since Tsipras' entire political project hinges on Greece remaining part of the eurozone, Merkel and company knew they could continue to demand concessions, even after the overwhelming "no" vote on the July 5 referendum.

THE PRIME minister's about-face in proposing almost the same austerity agenda that Greek voters had rejected on July 5 at first stunned SYRIZA members. But shock is giving way to anger--and the first signs of action.

In her report from Athens last weekend for the Australian socialist newspaper Red Flag, Colleen Bolger documented the bitterness of SYRIZA members like Stavroulla, who lives in Keratsini:

She is "shocked" and "very bitter" about the proposal. "I think this is a big mistake. There are other ways and Syriza cannot agree that there's only one alternative." With tears in her eyes she says, "This goes against the people's vote."

Those were the ingredients that gave rise to the call from the public-sector union federation ADEDY for a 24-hour strike as parliament meets to vote on the proposal for a third Memorandum. The strike call includes plans for a mass demonstration in front of the parliament building.

Colleen Bolger's report for Red Flag on Tuesday described the efforts of left-wingers in the unions, both members of SYRIZA and not, to pressure the confederation leadership to make the call:

The political earthquake that annihilated New Democracy and Pasok in January is taking its time to be felt at the top of the sclerotic trade union bureaucracy. META--Syriza's trade union fraction--and the radical left have grown in influence in the unions. But the old leaderships remain.

In a meeting on Monday, raging argument from speakers of the radical left from the floor butted up against a line of cantankerous old-man bureaucrats who would occasionally lose their temper. When it became clear that the left was going to win the vote--with the begrudging support of the Communist Party and PASOK--the activists started filing out, back to work to organize or to union meetings across the city.

Activists I speak to--some in Syriza, some in other groups, and some not in any group--are concerned that they do not have long enough to turn the sense of disbelief into anger. They have a matter of hours. These are the times when activists rue the gulf between what urgently needs to be done and the number of people who can do it. The Greek far left is the largest in Europe. It is impressive and committed, yet still it is an enormous task.

No one knows how many SYRIZA MPs will stick to their principles and oppose the government's austerity plan, nor what will happen after that--though it seems likely, as Lafazanis says, that Tsipras will be able to rely on support from pro-austerity parties to drive through his measures. Nevertheless, the headline of Bolger's article summed up a critical development on the eve of the vote: "The Greek left responds."

A leaflet to be distributed by the Red Network during the strikes and demonstrations on Wednesday calls for the left, inside and outside SYRIZA, to raise its banner, not only to demand a "no" to a new Memorandum, but to prepare for the struggles of the future:

Together, the people of "Oxi!" and the party of "Oxi!" which is SYRIZA--the forces of SYRIZA, but also the forces of the rest of the left, for whom "no" means no and cannot become maybe or, even worse, "yes"--can enter this battle, and win as well!

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