Syriza: An Analysis of the First Two Months of Greece’s Leftist Government
By Harry Konstantinidis
For the first time in modern history, a European country has a government formed around a leftist party. In Greece’s January 25th elections, the Coalition of the Radical Left, known around the world by its initials (SYRIZA), received the most votes (36%), and the mandate to form a government.
SYRIZA was elected promising to simultaneously stop the austerity policies that provoked a humanitarian crisis in Greece, and to keep Greece in the Eurozone. During the first few weeks of the new government’s tenure, the SYRIZA government faced the difficulty of this task. The new government engaged in aggressive diplomacy trying to revoke the austerity program (known in Greece as the “Memorandum”) and the commitments the previous Greek government made to the lenders before leaving office: Herculean primary surpluses of 3% in 2015 and 4.5% in 2016 (that is, surpluses in the balance between government revenues and expenditures, prior to interest payments), more layoffs in the Greek public sector and further deregulation of the labor market, and privatizations.
Furthermore, the SYRIZA government was faced with severe opposition not just from the German government, but also from the right-wing governments of other austerity-stricken countries, like Spain and Portugal. In Northern Europe, right-wing politicians never explained to their electorates that bailing out Greece was a mechanism to protect financial capital from exposure to Greek bonds: German and French banks were able to get rid of Greek bonds off their balance sheets, while their working classes were told that Greek workers were to blame for their stagnant wages.
In Southern Europe, austerity-implementing right-wing governments are aware that SYRIZA embodies hope in the face of their primary rhetorical tool: “There Is No Alternative”. If SYRIZA stops austerity based on a campaign that focuses on need, solidarity and cooperation, workers in Spain and Portugal may also stop the catastrophic right-wing austerity policies that deregulate labor markets in favor of industrial capital and protect the profits of the banking sector.
Faced with a hostile political environment and the threat of the European Central Bank (ECB) cutting liquidity towards Greek banks, the Greek government and its lenders (the European Commission, the ECB, and the IMF) effectively agreed to a four-month truce. Greece gets to run “fiscally appropriate” primary surpluses, and the lenders provide liquidity to Greek banks, but not to the Greek government. In exchange, Greece has to implement reforms in the realm of tax collection and to make sure that its “fight against the humanitarian crisis has no fiscal effect”. During this period of time, SYRIZA abstains from restoring the minimum wage from 586 euros to its pre-Memorandum levels of 751 euros. Furthermore, the Greek government commits to not roll-back completed privatizations, but gets to reexamine “public good provision by privatized firms,” and to review the process for privatizations that have not been launched yet.
There is so much ambiguity in this agreement that it hardly makes it more than a truce. The EC, the ECB and the IMF still get to determine whether Greece is respecting the rules. Simultaneously, while the Greek government committed to respect privatizations, the Ministry of Productive Reconstruction, Environment and Energy has already revoked the permits of one of the most controversial recent gold mining investments in Northern Greece to reexamine whether it complies with environmental regulations and public safety.
The agreement, with all its limitations, allows SYRIZA to avoid the bank failure trap in the first weeks of its tenure, which would have undermined the ability of the Greek government to govern. Instead the Greek government can now make due on its electoral promises and galvanize its support by passing a series of laws that will stop the humanitarian crisis and improve conditions in favor of working-people. If the lenders try to block the democratically expressed will of the Greek people, they should face resistance, not just from Greece but from workers all around the world. The success of the SYRIZA experiment and its potential to provide an alternative to the catastrophic policies of austerity hinges upon our solidarity.