The Greek Elections and Political Prospects in Greece

The Greek elections of May 6th have produced a shocking, sensational result which definitely opens a new chapter in the political history of Greece and will have important repercussions on the European situation as well. The result shows a clear polarization between left and right and a breakup of the hitherto ruling political forces PASOK and New Democracy, the so called “two party system” which dominated Greek political life since 1974.

The two traditional parties, pillars of the neoliberal policies, lost more than half of their previous vote. Combined together, they make now just a 32% of the electorate, in comparison to 77% they had scored in the 2009 elections. New Democracy has dropped from 33% in 2009 to 19%, while PASOK has sunk even more dramatically from 44% to 13%, losing more than 2.000.000 votes. This was the punishment for their reactionary “Memorandum” policies, which they followed in cooperation with the European Union and the IMF. These policies led to a vast impoverishment of the majority of the people and a mass unemployment officially already at 23%, resulting even to a plethora of suicides by desperate men and women.

The vote of the broad left rose from a modest 12% in 2009 to an impressive 35.5% (17% for SYRIZA, 8.5% for KKE, 1.2% for the anticapitalist left party ANTARSYA and some 6.1% for the Democratic Left and 2.9% for the Greens). However the prospect of a left government is made problematic since the KKE (Communist Party of Greece) is an ultra-Stalinist party, denying beforehand any cooperation with “opportunists”, which it considers to be all other left parties except from itself. Moreover, the Democratic Left and the Greens are moderate center-left parties, which do not differ radically from PASOK and have supported until lately a rather conservative agenda. Even so, the collective result of the three radical left parties, SYRIZA, KKE and ANTARSYA, an impressive 26.5%, makes it possible to have some real hope for the future.

The other significant feature of the elections is the abrupt rise of the ultra-right, jumping together to an astonishing 20.5%. Formerly represented by just one party, LAOS, which had scored a modest 6% 3 years ago, the ultra-right now was able to present three major parties, Independent Greeks, LAOS, and the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, which took respectively 10.6%, 2.9% and 7%. LAOS paid for its support of the Papadimos government, holding office during the last months in Greece to implement the austerity programs of the Troika, falling just short from the required 3% to enter the parliament.

However, the shocking 7% achieved by Golden Dawn, an openly neo-Nazi and racist anti-immigrant party, marks perhaps more than anything else the result of the Greek elections. It is the first time such a party not only enters the parliament but gains mass support, which the Nazis lacked during the whole political history of Greece, famous for its resistance movement in 1941-45.

This result had been anticipated by left activists and publicists, between others by our group in Marxist Thought, which devoted its whole last issue to the problem of fascism, neo-fascism, and the new ultra-right. There was a mass mobilization by left organizations during the last three weeks calling the attention of the people to the danger of the neo-Nazi gangs. However, all this proved largely ineffective, as they have gained hold during the last years in degraded neighborhoods and within the unemployed youth. The stance of the Stalinist KKE, which not only is doing absolutely nothing to fight the ultra-right but gives shelter to nationalists like the notorious journalist Liana Kanelli, and even went so far as to welcome the Golden Dawn representatives at the Halyvourgiki strike through the local workers’ union it controls, added largely to the problem.

It is true that the ultra-right gathered together “only” 20.5%, in comparison to the radical left’s 26.5%. However, it is also true that it more than tripled its forces, while the radical left “just” doubled them.

The ensuing situation has been utilized by conservative commentators of the media and the Press, to interpret the result as an illogical expression of anger, pushing to extremes, against the demands of logic and caution. According to this reading, people were carried away by the false promises of demagogues, which are impossible to fulfill. The correct way would have been to foster the reactionary “reforms” that would eventually lead to an overcoming of the crisis through development and higher productivity and an improvement of democracy. Dora Bakogianni, the leader of the ultra neo-liberal (and falsely called so) Democratic Alliance, which failed to enter the Parliament by a narrow margin, has many times argued so in the most clear cut way.

This type of argument has in fact a double purpose. On the one hand, it attempts to equate in a tricky way the ultra-right menace and the prospect of left change as two complementary facets of the problem facing Greece, thus presenting the left as a danger too and denying beforehand there can be any radical positive solution. And on the other hand it seeks to embellish the corrupted Greek parliamentary system and make the parties of the establishment look like a guarantee for stability and improvement, while they are in fact the cause of the problem and of the ultra-right menace too. In Greece, corruption of leading politicians and public officials has been extremely widespread, taking enormous proportions with practically no one of them being ever punished. This decay has been one of the main causes that facilitated the rise of ultra-right and neo-Nazism. Yet, we are urged now to believe that these very forces that produced this situation have the magic clue to lead the country out of the crisis, and this by following the recipes that made it so deep. In fact, when reactionary politicians like Bakogianni are talking about “improving productivity” they only mean more layoffs and a new lowering of wages in the public and private sectors, thus making the existing bad situation even more desperate.

SYRIZA has countered these stereotypes in a successful way, by proposing the formation of a government of the left, which attracted much support from the people. The charismatic personality of its president, Alexis Tsipras, played a part in this too. Other radical left parties like KKE and ANTARSYA failed to make an equivalent impression. The KKE insisted on an ultra-sectarian policy, calling for the establishment of a front for the direct overthrow of the system by a “popular power”, connecting every fight for a bettering of the sad lot of the people with this prospect and denying harshly that anything could be done before establishing the “popular power.” This in fact meant condemning itself to passivity and a bureaucratic break with reality under the deceptive guise of fighting for the revolution, as has so often been the case with Stalinism. ANTARSYA had a much better approach and has played a vital role in the fight against the Golden Dawn neo-Nazis during the last years. Yet it paid for its lack of strong bonds with the people and its inability to cooperate with other left forces. This it failed to do not only with SYRIZA, with which it has a number of programmatic differences, but even with the FSO (Front of Solidarity and Overthrow), a small radical left formation led by Alekos Alavanos, a former eminent SYRIZA leader who broke with SYRIZA and kept largely aside in these elections.

The KKE has been accusing SYRIZA for being opportunistic and spreading illusions to the people by proposing a government of the left, since such a government would be no better than the existing ones. Aleka Papariga, the dogmatist General Secretary of the KKE, has even gone so far as to suggest that taking part in such a government would mean to betray the people for some ministerial “chairs” and state that the KKE would give no vote of confidence to it, should it appear before the Greek Parliament. Their political estimate after the elections was that the rise of support for SYRIZA signifies an attempt by the system to thwart the radicalization of the people and channel it to roads acceptable to the ruling classes. Moreover, Papariga has plainly refused even to meet A. Tsipras who took yesterday the mandate to form a government, after A. Samaras, the New Democracy leader, failed to do so and resigned his mandate.

All this however and the assertion of the KKE leadership that no change at all can be achieved in a parliamentary way is highly sectarian dogmatism. Of course socialism cannot be finally established in a parliamentary way, to achieve that a revolution by the people is needed. Yet the experience of Chavez in Venezuela shows that with the support of a mass movement big radical changes can be initiated using the parliament as a lever, and there is no real reason that this should be in principle impossible for Greece.

Real problems, however, start from this point on. To enforce such a radical change with the help of a left government based on a parliamentary majority, a mass front is needed, which will lend support to the whole project. This is all the more essential in Greece, to be able to withstand the strong pressure by foreign lenders and the European governments and imperialist institutions. However, neither such a majority, nor a front exists presently. And while numbers might make the government of the left abstractly possible at a later stage, it is not at all certain that it will materialize.

The KKE stance is the main problem to that. This party has the support of a significant part of the industrial working class, the fighting elements of which would strengthen and cement the proposed front. However, the KKE, after a break in 1991, has followed for two decades an increasingly Stalinist course. This has gone to the length of not only rehabilitating recently Nikos Zahariadis, the authoritarian and cynical Stalinist General Secretary of the KKE in 1931-56, but also presenting Stalin as one of the greatest of all Marxists, accepting the validity of the Moscow trials and adopting the accusations that Trotsky, Bukharin, and the other Bolshevik leaders were agents of the Gestapo. A number of hard Stalinist pseudo-theorists like politburo members Makis Mailis and Stefanos Loukas have formed a circle directing the party’s inner political and ideological life, thus lowering the level of its members and making it vulnerable to all kinds of careerists and opportunists.

The KKE has repudiated the revolutions of the Arab Spring and the great movements of the “indignados” in Greece and Europe as being suspect and perhaps even guided by organs of the imperialistic secret services, refusing to take part in them. Instead of that it calls the people to unite in party fabricated “fronts” that are directed from above and have little connection with the people. Recently it has gone so far as to ignore the dramatic suicide of Dimitris Christoulas, a 77 year old man who shot himself at Syntagma and left a moving message to the younger generation, urging it to fight against the corrupt rulers. Christoulas was a member of the “indignados” movement and so “Rizospastis,” the official organ of the KKE, in the few lines it devoted to the incident did not even mention his name (calling him “the 77 year old man”) and shamelessly censored his message, reaching even the point off hurling accusations at him that his action was in the interests of the ruling classes, who want the people to commit suicide. Alekos Halvatzis, the son of Spyros Halvatzis, the KKE spokesman in the parliament, left the KKE one or two years ago, accusing the Papariga leadership of having filled the party with “stowaways.”

The SYRIZA is on the other hand a coalition of various groups including Marxists, Trotskyites, Maoists, left and moderate reformists, greens, and a number of other tendencies. The party has a genuinely democratic character and this variety of views lends it liveliness, as a center of discussion and production of ideas. However, in the grave situation facing Greece it could also prove a problem, by preventing at a critical moment a unified stance on crucial questions on which the various components hold different views. For the moment, of course, the electoral success strengthens the unity of the party, but this cannot be sure to hold indefinitely in the future.

The KKE, with its usual fanaticism, seems likely to “bet” on the possibility that a balancing of views will not be possible in SYRIZA and after a probable failure of the attempt to set up a left government or pursue it properly in case it is established, in the not very remote future the Greek people might turn to them. Such a hope can be sustained by the fact that SYRIZA does not have strong bonds with the masses that came over to it in the present elections, and its foothold is not in the working class but mainly in civil servants and the youth. It is a vain hope though in the sense that if SYRIZA fails to cope with the difficulties, chaos will be made universal, and in such a situation the ultra-right and not the KKE will be the one most likely to benefit.

The SYRIZA victory has coincided with the victory of Francois Hollande in France. Yet, it should be made clear, these are two events of an entirely different character. Hollande’s success, even if he has gained the support of many left voters, signifies just a shift of policy within the ruling classes and its parties. It may lead to some partial changes and adjustments, a somewhat different tone and orientation, but it will leave the general foundations of European policies untouched. The turn to SYRIZA in Greece however has a potential to challenge the very foundations of the austerity policies and the domination of the markets. It may serve as an example, especially if it is successful, for other countries facing similar problems, like Spain, Portugal, Italy and Ireland, and instigate a general and real European movement to the left.

The ruling European elites, as represented by Merkel, Schäuble, Barroso, etc, are fully conscious of this and have reacted nervously, either by intervening shamelessly before the elections to dictate the result, or by simply stating that the country’s obligations, signed by the previous government, must be fulfilled. Their fears are certainly justified, especially in the case that a broader movement to the radical left takes place in Europe. However the really urgent question is: how will SYRIZA cope with their intensified pressure during the following months and what it will strive and be able to achieve at a moment the reactionary forces still remain stronger in Europe as a whole?

SYRIZA’s program aims at a denouncement of the “Memorandum” and a re-negotiation of debt, which will include cancelling a large part of it as odious. It also claims a 3-year period of suspension of debt obligations, which would be an important relief step, if achieved. SYRIZA aims at nationalizing a number of banks, heavier taxation of the rich and improving the situation of the people, to a restoration of their former living standards. After having received the mandate, Tsipras proposed a 5-point program which is a concretization of this.

Other left forces like ANTARSYA argue, however, that this is not enough and that a unilateral repudiation of debt will be needed, which will mean that the country will have to leave the Euro zone and return to its national currency. This position is largely held also by the Left Current, a significant component of SYRIZA headed by its parliamentary spokesman Panagiotis Lafazanis, while a number of influential Greek economists, like Kostas Lapavitsas, have also argued this way. Significantly, the KKE connects the cancelation of debt too with the “popular power” slogan, considering it to be impossible under parliamentary conditions. This, of course, is an absurdity since the repudiation of debt is a reform that concerns the system of distribution leaving untouched the capitalist system of production as such. Thus it is perfectly conceivable under capitalism, as a number of examples show (Ecuador, Russia, etc.).

The difficulty with the unilateral repudiation of debt is that, although being in the long run most beneficial to the people, it will cause in its initial stages significant problems and disorganization. To minimize this and avoid an experience like that of Argentina in 2001, it is essential that the majority of the people are convinced for its necessity and it is pursued in an ordered way by a left government that is determined and conscious of its aims. This means that while the European left is still on the defensive, the attempt to implement the “compromising” program of SYRIZA and reach an agreement with the EU should be made. If, as it is quite possible, the neoliberal EU elites refuse to make any real and significant concessions, then this could convince the Greek people for the necessity of more radical steps. Prospectively, it will be ideal if this course coincides will a general revival of mass movements in Europe, especially in Europe’s south, leading to a “European Spring,” like the Arab one.

This prospect is not so remote as it may seem. The ruling classes in Greece and Europe are taking it seriously and making preparations to face the challenge it will pose to their system. The recent rise of the ultra-right in Greece, openly supported by a part of the media, capitalist circles, and the state security machine, is a part of this.

The breakup of the Greek political system has been compared in this respect with the downfall of the Weimar Republic and it is true that there is a number of striking analogies. Under a similar situation of deep economic crisis, mass unemployment, and poverty, we attend the bankruptcy not only of the formerly leading political parties but of the parliamentary system as well. The Papadimos government was important in this regard, as it signified a first step away from normal democratic government, towards technocratic-bureaucratic administration, reminiscent in many ways of the Brüning government in Weimar. The program of the newly created Independent Greeks party, headed by Panos Kammenos (a former New Democracy minister), contains a number of even more dangerous reactionary points, combining an ultra-privatization plan with proposals of appointing the chiefs of police and the army ministers of security and national defense respectively. This is clearly a Bonapartist plan, which would open up a threat to the very foundations of bourgeois democracy and of the labor movement. For the time being, such measures are supported only by the Kammenos party and those even more to the right (LAOS, Golden Dawn). It is not to be excluded that as the crisis intensifies, the more traditional parties, PASOK and New Democracy, or at least certain groups within them, might turn to similar directions.

The May 6th elections had the important consequence of producing a stalemate, not allowing the formation of any viable government. PASOK and New Democracy together have 149 seats, which do not give the needed parliamentary majority of 151. But even if they possessed this, forming a government would be out of question since it would be weak and without authority. This excludes also the possibility of a government being formed by these two parties together the Democratic Left, which would indeed possess a majority of 168 seats. Democratic Left has wisely excluded this possibility, as it would mean to identify itself with the two formerly big parties which were condemned by the people. The broad left on the other hand cannot form a majority, even if we count together all its disunited components. The possibility of forming a “national government” supported by a broad spectrum of forces except the ultra right, as proposed by PASOK and New Democracy leaders, is also excluded since it would simply mean to involve the left in the memorandum policies.

Greece is heading therefore almost inevitably to new elections, which will take place somewhere in the middle of June. These new elections have the potential to provoke a further impressive restructuring of the political scene.

SYRIZA’s tactics will be to unite around it the other left forces, which failed to enter the parliament (KKE of course has declared it is against unity under all conditions). That includes not only the Greens and ANTARSYA, but possibly some other groups that broke from PASOK like the small (and farily conservative) “Social Agreement” party. SYRIZA may also draw votes from KKE and improve its performance in the agrarian areas, which voted more conservative than the big cities (SYRIZA got more than 20% of the vote in Athens but much less in the countryside). If all this materializes, SYRIZA will almost certainly come first and take advantage of the 50 seats bonus the illogical electoral law grants the first party. This could augment its parliamentary force from 52 seats now to some 120, facilitating greatly the formation of a left government.

However, the ruling class parties have some prospects of countering this. The New Democracy party might be able to unite with the two small ultra-neoliberal parties, Bakogianni’s Democratic Alliance and Action of Stefanos Manos (a Greek big capitalist), which gathered together a respectable 5% of the electorate. Should such a regrouping be achieved, then first place in the coming elections will be a very open issue. However, A. Samaras, the New Democracy leader, is not in good terms with the leaders of the other two parties, so it will be rather difficult to happen (although the New Democracy leader has already made the proposal). Alternatively, it is quite possible that the two ultra-neoliberal parties will make a joint appearance, but this, while ensuring their representation in the new parliament, would not stop SYRIZA from coming first.

There is also a possibility of mass desertions of New Democracy and PASOK voters towards the “Independent Greeks” party, which poses as a patriotic and popular right, defending the interests of the people. This might take big proportions if certain sections of the ruling classes and media, who still supported the traditional parties, decide to move towards Kammenos as their only viable representative. However, there is a 7% difference in favor of SYRIZA now, so this movement would have to be very pronounced to enable the Independent Greeks to take the lead. A convergence between the Independent Greeks and Golden Dawn is not very likely since the Independent Greeks leadership takes pains to dissociate itself from Nazism. It will be very interesting though to see what will be the result of Golden Dawn in these new elections.

One thing is certain. After the next elections, the hour of truth will come for Greece. It will also be the hour of truth for the Greek radical left. Developments will show if it is able to unite, withstand the enormous pressures the EU authorities will apply and open up a new progressive way for Greece and a window of hope for the rest of Europe.

Update

Developments are running fast here in Greece, so that the situation changes abruptly and forecasts may prove wrong or inexact in just a few hours.

After E. Venizelos, the PASOK leader, took the mandate from President Papoulias this day, he had a meeting with Fotis Kouvelis, the leader of the Democratic Left. In it, there was a proposal by Kouvelis of forming an “Ecumenical government” of so-called limited purpose, which will supposedly renegotiate the Memorandum and hold office until the 2014 European parliament elections. Venizelos reacted positively to that, saying that it practically coincides with PASOK’s proposal for a government of “National salvation.”
So it seems that for the first time there is a real prospect of a government being formed after the stalemate of the last days.

This government will in fact be the New Democracy-PASOK-Democratic Left government, which Kouvelis himself had excluded just a few days ago. SYRIZA almost certainly will not take part in it, as will also be the case with the other parties represented in the Greek parliament. However, for obvious reasons of legitimization, the three parties will try to make it appear as something different, perhaps by appointing Kouvelis as Prime Minister and limiting or even wholly avoiding the participation of PASOK and New Democracy.
If this prospect materializes, it will be a flagrant violation of the will of the people, as expressed in the elections. Its real aim will be to continue the Memorandum policies, albeit in a slightly different manner, by extracting a few rather insignificant concessions from the European Union and make it appear as a great achievement. It will also signify a further step towards political anomaly, as it will be based mainly in the two formerly ruling parties condemned for their policies and will represent just 37% of the total vote.

Alexis Tsipras has justly called this plan an attempt by PASOK and New Democracy to find a “left Karatzaferis” – comparing thus Kouvelis with Giorgos Karatzaferis, the leader of the ultra-right LAOS, who had supported, with PASOK and New Democracy, the former Papadimos government, his party failing to enter the new parliament for that reason. The plan to establish such a government shows how horrified the ruling circles are from the prospect of a new election which might give a clear victory to SYRIZA and the left (some polls having already shown an increase of the support for SYRIZA after the election to the level of 25%). It is also a sign of how much the European Union governments and institutions are worried from the prospect of a left government in Greece and strongly press behind the scene for this kind of solution.

It remains to be seen if during the meeting of the Political Leaders with President Papoulias, which the constitution provides for as an attempt to form a government when the circle of mandates ends, it will become possible to reach this solution. The meeting will take place at most after 3 days, if Venizelos exhausts the duration of his mandate. Even if it is established, however, such a government will be patently weak and will not have any real prospect of solving the grave problems of Greece. It is doubtful therefore – although not impossible – if the three parties will take the risk of appointing it and coming to a total failure which will be blamed upon them after a few months.

Christos Kefalis is a chemist, editor of the Greek journal Marxist Thought. He can be reached at: chrkefal@otenet.gr. Read other articles by Christos.