Syriza’s first month: reflections

However modest the Syriza government’s ambitions were in matters of political economy, they have been forced back from promises by the financial and political threats of their european “partners”.  The reign of financial and debt capital is so overwhelming that even a modest social-democratic program of reform is no longer acceptable.  But then any such reform in the past was never borne exclusively by state power; it was always far more the consequence of struggles outside the state.  For Syriza to have gone further, pushed harder, in its negotiations with european finance ministers, it would have had to have fallen back on some form of popular power, that neither it nor any other political party desires.  And thus Syriza’s dilemma.

This is by no means to ignore what a Syriza government may still be able to do in alleviating some of the everyday suffering of so many greek people; nor to dismiss the efforts this government makes to restrain the more openly authoritarian and corrupt forms of power that the modern greek state has so often displayed; nor to simply close one’s eyes to the implications of a Syriza government for politics outside of the country, first in europe, and possibly, even beyond.  What cannot be said, however, following Serge Halimi of Le monde diplomatique (March, 2015), is that in the confrontation between Syriza and greece’s creditors, “the destiny of european democracy” is at stake.  What “democracy” is in question here?  Neither a Syriza government, nor a reformed european union, define the limits of democracy.  Indeed, both are obstacles to a generalised and collective self-management of autonomous communities, the only genuinely democratic political form.    

We share below an analysis of the Syriza government in Greece that was published in, in the blog Thrasybulus, to further reflection on the strengths and limits of contemporary “post-austerity” politics.

It’s been just over a month since Syriza won the Greek elections and formed a government. A month can be a long time in the Greek crisis and already the enthusiasm and hope that greeted the Leftist victory seems like something from the distant past. The new government’s first few weeks saw a mix of action, inaction, retreat and surrender as it looked to find its feet both within the Greek state and in Europe.

The news of Syriza’s victory was greeted with joy from the Left across Europe. A Leftist anti-austerity party had actually won an election and was making grand promises of changing Europe. This enthusiasm was tempered somewhat by Syriza’s formation of a coalition with right-wing Independent Greeks(AN.EL). This move was not surprising as the two parties have had an informal alliance for sometime as both are firmly anti-austerity. Whilst AN.EL took the valuable Defence Ministry they have so far kept themselves in the background.

The formation of a coalition with AN.EL indicated that the main goal of the new government was to create an anti-austerity front to carry on negotiations with the Troika(IMF,EU,ECB). Syriza was elected on a promise to end the memorandums, the notorious bailout agreements through which the Greek state has been ruled for the last five years. Syriza’s rhetoric started off by claiming an end to the bailouts and declaring the death of the Troika.

From this rhetorical high ground Syriza gradually climbed down over the next few weeks. The claim that Greek debt would be written off was swiftly dropped. Charismatic Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis stated that 70% of the bailout agreements was actually good and he only wanted to change the other 30%. Though Syriza demonstrated its willingness to quickly back down the talks with EU leaders dragged on. In part this was likely a deliberate move by the EU in order to push Syriza to further concessions and to punish the Leftist government in the manner of a teacher disciplining a back-talking pupil.

In the end a slow bank run in Greece helped bring about a new agreement. The Troika was not dead after all but was just renamed. Syriza agreed to an extension of the previous bailout for four months, at which point a new arrangement will be made. Syriza won a few minor concessions such as a reduction in primary surplus targets and the ability to write some of their own reforms. The wording of the agreements has been changed, for instance no naming of the Troika, but other than that the extension is exactly the same as the previous government was prepared to implement. In just a few weeks Syriza has gone from ending the bailouts to extending them.

The main substantial difference between Syriza and the previous governments in terms of the bailout agreements is that Syriza will be able to implement the deal from a position of popularity. The war of words between the government and EU leaders during the negotiations stoked national pride in a country used to its politicians meekly submitting to Troika demands. Though there are doubts about the extension, Syriza is, for the moment, a popular government and was even able to call pro-government demonstrations-an almost unheard of event in Greece. Unrest is never far away though, there are already signs that the surrender to the Troika is causing disputes within Syriza and at the moment it is not clear if the deal will be put before parliament for a vote.

One reason behind Syriza’s popularity is their adept use of symbolism. The first days of the new government saw a number of symbolic gestures aimed at creating the impression of a new start. For the first time a Prime Minister was sworn in with a civil oath rather than a religious one. The fences which have surrounded the parliament building for the last years were removed. The police were restrained also. When an anti-fascist demonstration took place the riot police were told to sit back and watch while demonstrators were even allowed to paint and graffiti police buses (apparently the police were left ‘confused and uncertain’), at the same event last year the police beat and chased people even onto the metro lines.

The early symbolism was meant to demonstrate a break with the past but later moves pointed to a continuation of previous practices. Syriza proposed and elected Prokopis Pavlopoulos as president of the Republic. Pavlopoulos represents the old order of Greek politics, he was a high ranking member of conservative New Democracy and served as a government minister. Unforgivably he was Interior Minister during December 2008. His election represents a reconciliation rather than a break with the old order.

Away from symbolism and the Troika negotiations another of Syriza’s actions has had a more positive impact. After another suicide in the migrant detention camp of Amygdaleza, a Syriza minister visited the infamously poor camp and ordered the release of those held there. A number of people have already been released from the network of migrant detention camps across the Greek territories and it is hoped more will be freed. Other measures may also remove the worst abuses migrants are often subjected to by the Greek state.

Other pre-election promises have so far been shelved or not acted upon. The fate of the controversial gold mine at Skouries is uncertain with Syriza seeming reluctant to act decisively against one of the only substantial recent foreign investments in the Greek state. As part of the bailout extension deal a number of privatisations are likely to go ahead rather than be frozen. The promised restoration of the minimum wage has to wait to 2016 at the earliest.

Syriza now faces the same challenge as that faced by previous Greek governments, how to implement the unpopular bailouts and the attached austerity. Their current popularity, bolstered by various symbolic gestures, will aid them in the process. But after having spent so long waiting for Syriza to end austerity, the Leftist’s swift climb down will disappoint many. On Thursday night a few hundred protesters marched through Athens and clashed with police in the first small scale riot under Syriza. While insignificant in themselves, the clashes show that not everyone is following Syriza’s path.

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