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Greece: a coalition of left and right?

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Greece: a coalition of left and right?

by Stuart King

What are we to make of the new Syriza led government in Greece? Within six hours of becoming the largest party in parliament it announced a government coalition with a right-wing anti-immigrant party – the Independent Greeks (ANEL).

Yet at the same time the first cabinet meeting announced a series of measures the international left could only dream about – suspending privatisation plans, re-instating sacked public sector workers, raising the minimum wage, providing free electricity to the poor, restoring collective trade union rights, extending health insurance to the third of Greeks living without it.

The European left rightly greeted the Syriza electoral victory with jubilation. Everybody who has watched and read about the disastrous impact of the EU imposed austerity measures on the life of ordinary Greeks could only cheer as an avowedly anti-austerity party came to power; one promising to end the misery that since 2008 has seen the economy shrink by 25%, has halved many peoples wages and seen unemployment levels rise to 25%, with youth unemployment anywhere between 50-60%, producing widespread poverty, debt and despair in the country.

It is not just a Greek victory that we are looking for. Greece can be the starting point for the rolling back of austerity measures across Europe, starting with the countries most deeply traumatised by these policies – Spain, Portugal and Ireland – and quickly spreading to the rest of Europe. The stakes could not be higher.

Why the coalition?

ANEL's Kammenos
Panos Kammenos of ANEL

None of this jubilation should make us blind to the problems of the new government or silent about them. Most socialists were shocked when they heard about the alliance with ANEL. And we should not hide it – it has damaged Syriza’s reputation and made winning the solidarity that Syriza needs from the left in Europe more difficult to achieve.

Many of us went to the recent London Greek Solidarity rally at Congress House (reported elsewhere on the LU site) expecting some explanation as to why Syriza had entered this coalition. There was very little said beyond one of the speakers saying we should blame the Greek Communist Party (KKE) not Syriza. Yet this argument does not hold up. Certainly the KKE is well known for its extreme sectarianism towards Syriza and the rest of the Greek left and was never going to join a Syriza led government. However there was nothing to stop Syriza forming a minority government something it was constitutionally allowed to do, and putting its immediate legislative programme to the parliament. Syriza is only two votes short of a majority and all the other parties would have to combine in a vote of no confidence to trigger a new election – a very unlikely prospect.

The coalition with the Independent Greeks is likely to be short lived. ANEL is a deeply unpleasant and racist, right-wing party that split from the conservative New Democracy over the terms of the Eurozone debt bail out. It is anti-German, anti-immigrant and a staunch supporter of the Greek Orthodox Church and its privileged position within the Greek state. Already Syriza has had to abandon its promise to separate church from state, not an unimportant issue in a country where last year a young man was sentenced to ten months in prison for satirising a deceased Greek Orthodox Monk on his Facebook page.

The prime basis of its coalition with Syriza is an agreement to campaign against the debt agreement made by the last government with the “Troika” – the Eurozone, IMF and ECB. It is not clear how far ANEL is willing to go along with all the economic promises made in Syriza’s emergency Thessaloniki Programme (see ) which Syriza has started to implement.

Challenging the EU

Its first week in office has seen Syriza taking immediate measures to alleviate poverty, debt and the tax burden on the working class and small farmers. It has, despite its coalition with ANEL, proposed giving citizenship rights to children of immigrants born in Greece (Obama granted something similar recently in the USA). Promptly fulfilling of its immediate programme is vital to show to its base and electoral supporters that it is capable of delivering on its promises.

Indeed there are some important lessons for Left Unity from Greece on how to organise ourselves. In the past period Syriza has built up an impressive network of support, not just by electioneering, but by its members being involved at every level in helping working class Greeks survive the ravages of austerity. Its involvement in the Solidarity for All movement of food banks, cooperatives and community organisation is just one example. Its national campaign for the laid-off Finance Ministry cleaners, the “revolt of the rubber gloves”, was another. Now it needs deliver to, and mobilise this movement in its struggle with the Troika – bringing the trade unionised workers, the small farmers, the communities, youth and unemployed into an organised mass movement that can defend and push forward a government in struggle with the IMF, the banks and the Eurocrats.

We should be in no doubt that the Syriza government has taken on a huge struggle. Much of its economic programme, including the measures already announced, rely for their financing on debt relief. If Greece wasn’t loaded down with paying off an impossible €320 billion in debt and the interest that goes with it, it would be running a budget surplus – it would therefore not have to make the massive cutbacks, swinging tax increases and sell offs of public property the EU is demanding of it. But the Troika is in no mood to offer debt relief fearing “contagion”, with other countries like Spain and Portugal demanding the same.

Syriza has already signalled that it is ready for compromise in its renegotiation of the debt. During the election campaign there was talk of demanding that 50% of the debt be written off but the new Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, stated in a Radio 4 interview on the day after the election "We will create a rational plan for our debt restructure so that austerity ends; [We are not talking about writing off 50% of the nominal debt] - this [earlier statement] was just a bit of posturing from our side ahead of the negotiation. What really matters is that we now sit down and discuss a way in which the haircut to our debt is minimized. We do not want to pay back less than we can, but what we are saying is, [that] this debt repayment schedule, as we have in the moment, is completely unrealistic and utterly disconnected from Greek growth.”

Who holds the cards?

The question in any negotiation is “who holds the cards?” In this case the Troika has a powerful hand to resist the demands of the Greek people. Already they have put the standard measures into play they use against any debtor nation. There is a run on the banks as rich Greeks and businesses move their euros to safer countries notably Germany, building up euro liabilities for the central bank. The credit agencies are threatening to downgrade Greek debt pushing up interest rates on loans and bonds. The Troika itself is threatening to withhold its next tranche of loans and quantitative easing measures unless Greece sticks to its agreements.

But the Eurozone itself has reasons to compromise. The austerity programme has been shown to be a complete failure not only in Greece but throughout the Eurozone, leading to low growth, stagnation and potential deflation. There are powerful voices advocating a loosening of austerity to try and promote growth. There are political risk factors as well. The Euro leaders know that imposing harsh austerity in Greece has destroyed the parties they relied on for support. While Greece might be small, similar events could take place in Spain and even France with the anti-EU Front National riding high in electoral polls. The combination of far right and left parties coming to power and challenging the euro austerity policies and the union itself is the EU leaders’ worst nightmare and one they want to avoid at all costs.

This is why solidarity movements with the Greek people struggle against austerity are so important. The Greek Solidarity movement in London has done excellent work to bring the importance of Greece before the trade union movement on the basis that their fight is our fight too. A European wide campaign of support, especially in Germany and Spain, is absolutely essential to strengthen the Greek people in their struggle against austerity.

We should support the Syriza led government in every action they take that is in the interest of the Greek workers. At the same time we should reserve the right to criticise and ask questions where we think they are going wrong, as in the case of a coalition with ENAL. But we do it always as unconditional friends and supporters of the Greek struggle against austerity.

Syriza has chosen to try and work within the parliamentary and EU system to end austerity and transform Greece for the better. It is a political project that of necessity will lead to many compromises and retreats on policy. Many of us on the anti-capitalist wing of Left Unity believe that real change in Greece will only come about with a radical break from the system of capitalism. As the struggle unfolds in Greece we hope the masses themselves will take the fight against austerity into their own hands, establishing an anti-capitalist, workers government that can defeat austerity, bringing about fundamental change and providing a beacon for a United Socialist Europe.

This article first appeared on the Left Unity site