Colin Wilson takes a look at the results of Sunday’s general election in Greece
Greece held a general election on Sunday called by prime minister Alexis Tsipras in the wake of his Syriza government’s capitulation to the European Union’s demands for austerity. Syriza was returned to power with a slightly reduced number of seats on a significantly lower turnout. Tspiras will continue to govern in coalition with the hard right Anel party.
New Democracy, Greece’s main conservative party, did worse than many expected. As late as Friday the right wing newspaper Ekathimerini was telling its readers that polls showed the contest between Syriza and New Democracy would go down to the wire. In the event Syriza gained 35% of the vote against ND’s 28%. This won Syriza an bonus 50 seats in parliament as the largest party, giving them 145 MPs against the ND’s 75.
Here in Britain the Guardian described the election as a “triumph” for the “far-left party Syriza”. But the biggest dividing line in Europe between left and right is over austerity – the right imposes austerity and the left opposes it. Only a month ago, Syriza accepted a package which included privatisation of ports and airports; deregulation of natural gas; cuts in benefits; an end to price controls on medicines and cuts in welfare payments.
This would be a serious attack on workers and the poor in any country, at any time. But it will have appalling effects in a country like Greece where one in four are unemployed and half of young people are without work.
Three quarters of those without jobs have been unemployed for a year or more – in the words of a Telegraph article, based on Greek government figures, “if you’re out of work in Greece, there is a good chance you may never find employment again”. In many households – 52 percent, according to a survey in January – pensions are the main source of income. Hospitals which are short of supplies as basic as cotton wool and paper towels will now have to find more money for medicines.
So it’s clear why many workers would reject a party like New Democracy, which pledged to openly champion austerity and govern in such a way that Europe would see Greece was “putting its house in order”. Compared with this, Tsipras’ claim that he leads a party which represents the Greek people and is fighting for them still retains some appeal.
But as former Syriza finance minister Yanis Varoufakis points out in the Guardian, Tsipras’ plans are based on three assumptions: that he can improve the deal with the troika, win debt relief and tax the rich within Greece. “The trouble is,” Varoufakis points out, “his capacity to do so is severely circumscribed by the agreement he has already signed.”
That’s why the turnout this weekend was so low – 57% as opposed to 64% back in January. This isn’t, as some commentators tell us, because Greek people are tired of voting – as if voting was such a strain that people can only manage it every four years. It reflects disillusionment – a preference for Syriza over New Democracy brings some people to the ballot box, but a sense that neither party offers an alternative to austerity keeps other people at home. In a country with a population of 11 million people, 1.6 million who voted in the July referendum failed to vote this weekend.
Such demoralisation and disorientation are almost inevitable when a party like Syriza, which led the fight against austerity, and won an unexpected and resounding No a referendum less than three months ago, capitulates and imposes austerity. But it’s worth noting that Popular Unity, who broke from Syriza over their acceptance of the deal, were unable to translate the militancy of the No vote into seats for their organisation. They polled 2.9%, narrowly missing the 3% margin needed to win seats. The same is true of other parties on the left: the Communist Party vote was 5.6%, almost exactly the same as in January, while the Antarsya radical left current, stronger outside of parliament, remained at less than 1 percent.
Tsipras is claiming that the election gives him a mandate for the next four years. But those are unlikely to be years of social peace. Tsipras’s claim that “we will make Greece a stronger place for the weak and vulnerable, a fairer place” will come up sooner or later against the financial realities, with even the IMF now describing Greek debt as “highly unsustainable.” We can expect further explosions – and if fewer Greeks are looking to parliament with any enthusiasm, workplaces and social movements now become more important areas of struggle.