June 17 elections mark the beginning of a new round of social struggles in Greece. After the pro-austerity camp’s catastrophic defeat in the May 6 election, when its two main pillars, the Pasok socialist party and the New Democracy conservative party, together received less than a third of the vote, the pro-austerity camp managed a partial recovery by rallying around the conservatives. While the socialists, who first negotiated the austerity program with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, remained a pale shadow of themselves, receiving about 12 percent of the vote, the conservatives were able to boost their support, receiving about 30 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, Syriza, the anti-austerity coalition of the radical left, continued its meteoric rise, receiving 27 percent of the vote.
RISE OF THE RADICAL LEFT
The impressive rise of Syriza, which received 17 percent of the vote in May’s first round of voting, forced both the conservatives and the socialists to distance themselves from their recent support for austerity measures and to promise that they would renegotiate terms of a bailout package with Europe’s leaders. The emergence of a strong left-wing contender for power increases the chance that the Europeans and the IMF will modify the austerity program to make it a little less painful. But the social and economic catastrophe that austerity has wrought will continue apace as the basic direction of a conservative-led government will not change, This means that the elections result will not settle the situation but inaugurate new social struggles against the rising unemployment, hunger, poverty, homelessness and suicide that austerity has produced. The strengthening of the political left is likely to boost popular struggles, just as these struggles are likely to weaken the pro-austerity government and increase the chance that, when the deteriorating situation forces an early election, the left will prevail.
How the situation in Greece will develop in the coming months will depend on various factors. One problem for the new government is that the austerity program it will have to implement is simply not working even from a narrowly fiscal point of view. As the austerity-induced recession is proving deeper and more intractable than the designers of the austerity program had predicted, tax revenues are collapsing, a problem aggravated by the opportunistic decision of the outgoing government to keep extending tax deadlines, so that voters were not hit by an elevated tax bill just before the election. As the new government finds it harder and harder to meet the fiscal targets set by the EU and the IMF, it will have to impose new waves of unbearable measures on a population that has already been squeezed dry as it is called upon to pay higher taxes out of a rapidly shrinking (or even disappearing, in the case of the unemployed) income.
If this growing pressure weakens the support of Greeks for the euro, this would also undermine the fear strategy that the pro-austerity camp used to hold power. Having nothing to show but a record of mismanagement, corruption and a disastrous austerity program, the pro-austerity forces built their campaign around attacks on Syriza's economic program. Their response to Syriza's promise to do away with austerity was that loans from Europe would stop flowing in, making it impossible for the Greek government to keep paying salaries and pensions and financing standard government operations. Faced with this criticism, Syriza, which in a matter of weeks had changed from a minor party of the left to a serious contender for power, was not ready to give a convincing enough account of how it would navigate a very difficult economic situation, should it be called upon to form a government.
The other factor that will affect developments in Greece is the deepening crisis in the eurozone. The tenuous situation that the eurozone finds itself in shows the Greek crisis cannot be reduced to domestic factors. In this respect, it largely confirms Syriza's analysis, which has long countered the attempt to justify the brutal austerity program by suggesting that 'lazy,' 'profligate' Greeks were finally getting what they deserved. The deepening European crisis also provides Greece with leverage that pro-austerity parties have not been able or willing to use. The Greek bailouts have done less to help Greece than to support European banks and to give European governments time to build support mechanisms that may make it easier down the road to force Greece out of the eurozone. Syriza is aware of the need to use this leverage, so one of the challenges it will face in coming months will be to prepare itself for power so that it has a chance to do so.
Costas Panayotakis is Associate professor of sociology at the New York City College of Technology of the City University of New York and author of Remaking Scarcity: From capitalist inefficiency to economic democracy.
PREVIOUS COVERAGE IN THE INDYPENDENT
“Election Preview: Radical Left in Greece Surges As Economy Collapses” by Costas Panayotakis (June 2012)
“The Greek Crisis Intensifies” by Costas Panayotakis (Nov. 2011)
“Youth in Revolt” by Costas Panayotakis (May 2011)
“Meltdown Greek Style” by Costas Panayotakis (Sept. 2010)