Greece day 1: In the eye of the storm

Paul Murphy MEP is in Greece this week, campaigning with Syriza in the run-up to Sunday’s election. He’ll be writing daily reports of his experiences; the first of these is below.

The eyes of Europe’s left and many working class people suffering under austerity are now on Greece. This was brought home to me when I arrived yesterday in Greece and found myself amongst many international visitors who were also present to support Syriza in the final days of the election campaign. Those present included Francisco Louca, the leader of the Left Bloc in Portugal, together with many of his Portugeuese comrades; Willy Meyer; a Spanish MEP of Izquierda Unida; a left MP from Argentina, and people from Occupy Wall Street. Many more are coming, including the Marxist academic, David Harvey, and Gabi Zimmer MEP, the President of the GUE/NGL left group in the European Parliament.

Is this simply ‘revolutionary tourism’ that we are all engaged in? Not at all. A war has been waged across Europe since the economic crisis began. This is not a war between the peoples of Europe, rather it is a war waged by the bankers, bondholders, speculators and rich capitalist elite against working class and poor people. Austerity  has been imposed, not because it ‘works’, from the point of view of working people or the economy as a whole, but because it is a means for those forces to make the rest of us pay for their crisis. Concretely, in Ireland, Greece, Portugal and Spain this takes the form of the repayment of unsustainable and odious debt that is paid by the destruction of people’s living standards and society.

Greece is at the very frontline of this war. The Greek people have suffered the most vicious austerity, with Greece having been turned into a laboratory for extremely harsh neoliberal measures. The human costs are seen in the 22% rise in suicide, meaning Greece has the highest suicide rate in all of Europe; the soup kitchens of the orthodox church which feed over 200,000 people daily, and the mass unemployment, with an official rate of 21% (50% for young people). When we look at Greece, we see the future that menaces working class people in the other countries that have also been the victims of austerity programmes. It is therefore a basic duty of solidarity to support the struggles of workers in Greece against these policies.

However, the working class people of Greece are not simply the victims of this war, they now have a unique opportunity to strike a blow against the austerity agenda and demand alternative socialist policies. If they strike that blow by electing Syiza in first place on Sunday and laying the basis for a left government, it will have enormous ramifications for people all across Europe. It will open up a new chapter of explosive struggle within Europe and potentially expose the mantra of ‘there is no alternative’ for the neoliberal propaganda that it is. It can also turn a new page on the development of left parties elsewhere in Europe.

So I have come to Greece to express the solidarity of the Socialist Party in Ireland and the Committee for a Workers’ International (www.socialistworld.net) with the Greek people suffering under austerity, and also to show our support for Syriza in these vital elections. Together with the sister party of the Socialist Party in Greece, Xekinima, I will do whatever I can to enable Syriza to achieve a victor,y and I am also here to learn from the struggles of the Greek working class.

It is only slightly over a month since the last general election in Greece, and we are now two days away from another one. May’s election produced a resounding defeat for all of the bailout parties and a massive rise of support for Syriza, the ‘Radical Coalition of the Left’, which finished in second place. A government could not be formed and so another election was called. In the opinion polls, the main right-wing party New Democracy and Syriza now vie for first place. Whichever finishes in first place will get a 50 seat bonus in the 300 seat parliament as a result of an undemocratic system constructed to try to ensure stable rule by establishment parties. If Syriza wins, it may be in a position to form a left government.

It is this possibility that has raised the stakes and tensions in this election campaign. The political and economic establishment in Greece and throughout Europe have waged a massive campaign of fear against the Greek people to terrorise them into voting for New Democracy. Like in Ireland, there is a large majority which wishes to stay in the euro, and this group is preyed upon by right-wing forces who declare that if people elect Syriza, Greece will be ejected from euro, will have to return to the drachma, and will see its crisis will deepen dramatically. In contrast, the hopes of many who have suffered terribly under two so-called ‘bailout’ programmes have been raised by the real possibility of a left government committed to ending austerity.

This hope was in clear display at the major outdoor election rally I attended last night, where an estimated 6,000 plus people attended. Flags and banners of Syriza and its component parts flew throughout the crowd as music such as ‘People have the power’ and ‘Bandero Rossa’ blared out of huge speakers. Eventually the first Syriza MP to address the crowd strode onto the stage, a female former PASOK MP who broke early with PASOK to join Syriza. She was warmly welcomed as was her internationalist speech. She emphasised that “it is finally the time of the people” and said that on Sunday, Greek people had the opportunity to “send a message of struggle and solidarity across Europe”. Tackling the scaremongering tactics of the right, she denounced the leaders of Europe who have been terrorising people for years and are now using “the final terror – memorandum [of understanding – what the ‘bailout’ deal is popularly referred to in Greece] or drachma”.

After a relatively short speech, the leader of Syriza, Alexis Tsipras walked onto stage to loud and sustained applause. His speech was one of hope, tapping into the expectations of change after this election. He repeatedly declared that Monday would see a new era open up, one of “sustainable and just development.” In detailing the “historic opportunity” that people face on Sunday, he rejected the scare tactics and declared that the vote is “a referendum on memorandum or hope”. Despite the length of his speech, around 45 minutes, neither he nor the crowd flagged at the end of what must be an extremely gruelling campaign. The message was one of confidence of victory on Sunday and that real change would flow from that.

Within Tsipras’s speech however, the pressures of the struggle to finish first in the elections were also clear. In the course of the election campaign, the demands of Syriza have somewhat moderated – moving from outright rejection of the memorandum of understanding to a demand for its renegotiation – for example. In the speech, there were also concessions to nationalism, portraying Syriza as the true upholders of the ‘Greek flag’ in contrast to those who support the Troika, while the word socialism was notably absent (although not from the crowd, who interrupted Tsipras at one stage with a chant demanding the end of capitalism and socialist change!)

The danger with these concessions is that Syriza seems to me not to be preparing people fully for  the scale of the struggle that will be unleashed on a European scale if a left government is formed in Greece. Ending austerity in today’s Europe means a revolutionary break with the logic of capitalism and the implementation of socialist polcies. On a European scale, it also means not just a national battle, but a Europe-wide war.

In particular, this danger finds its highest expression in Tsipras’s promise last night that Greece will not be kicked out of the euro if Syriza is elected. This may well prove to be a hostage to fortune.

The dynamic of the Eurozone crisis, with or without Syriza being elected, points to Greece being kicked out of the Eurozone. If Syriza comes to power and keeps to its promise not to implement austerity, a major clash with Angela Merkel and the leaders Europe’s governments together with the European Commission and Central Bank will ensue. While no country can be legally expelled from the Eurozone, the political leaders of Europe could achieve expulsion by cutting off funding to the state and Greek banks and provoking a major crisis.

Regardless of the possibility of being forced out of the euro, Greek people are still correct to vote against austerity and for a change of policy. The savage austerity in Europe is deepening the Eurozone crisis and creating massive instability. Continuing with that policy will not secure Greece’s place in the Eurozone or guarantee any stability. So people should not vote on Sunday on the basis of false promises that Greece will stay in the euro if austerity is implemented, but rather take the opportunity to vote for radical anti-austerity and socialist policies.

In Syriza’s five point programme at the the time of the first election, and in many of their statements since, they have opened the discussion on many of the key questions to be tackled by a left government. Like in Ireland, the first issue has to be a refusal to pay the debt, because the effort to repay it is destroying the economy and society. Syriza has also rightly highlighted the importance of taking the banking system into public control – this can only be done through nationalisation and democratic control and management. With such a banking system, capital controls could be imposed to stop the flood of rich people’s money out of the country and to provide credit for small businesses and farmers.

Regenerating economic growth will require a break from the past policy of relying on the rich to invest their wealth, which they have proved unwilling to do. Instead, the key sections of the economy need to be taken into democratic public ownership and a plan developed to redevelop the economy, including a strong and sustainable manufacturing and industrial base.

If Syriza is elected on Sunday, it will be a big step forward towards this fundamental and necessary change. But it would be mistaken to think that it will represent the final chapter of the struggle against capitalist austerity. The people of Greece should prepare for the continuation and intensification of the attack of European leaders against them. However, they should also know, as demonstrated by the many international visitors here, that they will not be alone. Tens of millions of people across Europe will welcome a clear rejection of austerity and the election of a left government. It would assist massively in developing the Europe-wide struggle necessary to defeat the capitalist establishments and their austerity.

There is the distinct feeling amongst all of the international guests of being privileged to be in the eye of the storm here on the eve of the what may be an extremely important development for working people across Europe. I intend to take full advantage by learning lessons from the Greek struggle that can be applied in Ireland and across Europe.