‘Hope is coming. Greece is advancing. Europe is changing’
Greece elects first radical left wing government in Europe since 1930sby Colin Fox, SSP national co-spokesperson, reporting from Athens “Citizens of Athens, tonight’s success is not only a triumph for Greece it is a victory for all the people of Europe fighting austerity and neoliberalism.” This declaration was made by the new Prime Minister of Greece Alexis Tsipras as part of his acceptance speech to 100,000 of us gathered in Propylaia Square, Central Athens on Sunday to celebrate Syriza’s famous win.
Greece has elected Europe’s first radical left-wing government since the 1930s and again propelled itself to the forefront of the world’s attention.
Syriza will soon appoint Ministers to run the Greek Government on left wing principles and they will have seats on the UN, on the General Secretariat of NATO, on the European Commission and a host of other powerful global agencies.
Their remarkable victory was won for two reasons; first the Greek people are at the end of their tether after eight years of severe economic and social impoverishment and secondly they had already tried every other political alternative since 2008 and watched them fail.
Economically Greece is crippled by €319billion debts to the European Central Bank, the European Union and the International Monetary Fund or ‘Troika’. They cannot pay the money back because they do not have it and their economic condition is worsening all the time.
When Greek Banks failed amid the worldwide financial collapse of 2008 the ‘Troika’ bailed them out to avert a run on the Euro.
But those loans and the terms of subsequent ones agreed by the Greek Government led by PASOK [Labour Party equivalent in Greece] Prime Minister George Papandreou meant brutal cuts in Greek public spending.
These meant one million jobs were lost almost overnight [Greece’s population is about 11million], wages were cut by 40 per cent, state pensions were halved, the national minimum wage was halved and massive cuts were made to health, education and all other state services.
Consequently one of Europe’s poorest countries and weakest economies took a further battering. In Greece today the official unemployment rate is 27 per cent. For young Greeks its 65 per cent. Millions who were in full time work are now employed part time.
One million have emigrated just as hundreds of thousands of desperate immigrants from Syria, Iraq and Africa have arrived fleeing to Europe’s nearest port of call.
My first impressions of Athens arriving in the city centre hub of Syntagma outside the yellow and white painted Greek Parliament was of a city on its knees. If this was the prettified tourist centre next to the world famous Acropolis it did not augur well for what I was likely to find in less ‘manicured’ neighbourhoods.
And my instincts were correct. For next to the headquarters of the Bank of Greece on Stadiou Street and Veneziolus Avenue [our equivalent of the Bank of England on London’s Threadneedle Street] were derelict buildings, boarded up shops covered in graffiti, rough sleepers wrapped in cardboard and beggars imploring passers by for pennies. It was all a far cry from the Athens I remember during the 2004 Olympic games.
With Syriza comrades helping to translate I visited the ‘Solidarity Social and Medical Centre’ in Ikitinou Street behind City Hall. Here volunteer medical staff provide a range of free medical care from dentistry to psychiatry to patients the Greek health service has turned away.
In Greece you pay for healthcare directly via an insurance scheme based upon workplace deductions. Consequently, if you lose your job, you lose access to treatment. Millions of people have lost their jobs or had their hours cut and have therefore lost access to hospital care.
Together with its partners in the burgeoning social movements, Syriza has helped to establish a network of clinics, food banks and advice bureaux across Greece. The one in Ikitinou Street is one of the busiest with hundreds of patients arriving at their door every day often in a distressed condition.
There, health professionals give up their spare time free of charge to provide care. All the medicines and equipment the clinic has have been donated by people and organisations sympathetic to the work being done there.
Syriza won the election because they offered hope and strong leadership. Their election slogan ‘Hope is coming. Greece is advancing. Europe is changing’ could be seen everywhere.
The General Election campaign in Greece is a highly visible and expensive affair. As they have state funding of political parties those organisations already represented in Parliament have a great advantage as far as campaigns are concerned. Everywhere you went you would see commercial billboards and poster sites with Syriza’s logo festooned all over them.
New Democracy, the Tories had plenty too as did the Greek Communist Party, the KKE. In fact my companions Viv and Dick from the Australian Green Left Weekly Viv and I were fascinated to see the huge [100 metre long], red hammer and sickle banners tied up throughout Syntagma Square ahead of the Communist Party’s election rally.
There would have been thousands there I guess and I would liked to have witnessed it but it clashed with the Syriza event along the road in Omonia Square. The KKE is no admirer of Syriza whom they dismiss as ‘left-wing capitalists’.
At the final Syriza election rally organisers arranged for their international guests to have pride of place at the front. So there I was with my Scottish Socialist Party t-shirt on next to comrades from ‘Die Linke’ in Germany, the Portuguese Left Bloc, the French Partie de Gauche, the Brazilian Left and the Greek Solidarity Campaign from London all being photographed by hundreds of photographers and cheered by 50,000 flag waving Athenians.
Alexis Tsipras is the first Greek Prime Minister to go to state school. Born in Athens in 1974, the year the Military Junta was finally replaced he joined the Greek Communist Party as a teenager and was a spokesperson at 16. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the turmoil that enveloped the Communist International he left and joined the Euro-Communist group Synapsimous, meaning ‘Coalition’.
Synapsimous was the driving political influence behind the creation of Syriza and he was its founding President. Tsipras is a very confident and polished political performer always relaxed and comfortable when glad-handing the enormous throngs of voters who surround him wishing him well.
An engineer to trade—he has been a full time political activist for more than a decade—he lives in modest rented flat in a working class district of Athens with his wife and two children. Like all Syriza MP’s he donates 20 per cent of his salary to the party and a further 20 per cent to social projects like the one I visited in Ikintou Street in Athens.
His finely choreographed entrance to the Syriza election rally in Omonia Square accompanied by the party’s theme tune meant the atmosphere was like a rock concert. And his crafted speech spoke about ‘Hope and confidence’ for the future and urged voters not to be frightened by the constant threats sent to them by the outgoing Prime Minister Antonio Samaras of New Democracy.
This point reminded me of the Scottish Referendum campaign and how ‘Better Together’ played on people’s fears and uncertainties. But Tsipras’s grand finale this fine January evening—like a May event in Scotland—was to bring out from behind the stage curtain Pablo Iglesias the leader of ‘Podemos’ Syriza’s equivalent party in Spain.
The crowd cheered and cheered at the surprise and even more so when Iglesias said [in English] “First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin”—lines from a Leonard Cohen song from the same name.
I met Tsipras and Iglesais later at the social for a photo and a chat and was tickled to learn that the Spaniard stayed in Glasgow for a year while studying geography at University.
We discussed the imminent Syriza victory, its implications for the General Election in Spain in November and the political situation in Scotland after the referendum.
I also attended Syriza public meetings in Monastariki, Thissio, New Fildelphia, Plaka and Metaxourgio when I was there. Local candidates were introduced and questioned by voters and the Chair always took time to introduce me and the other international visitors to the audience. It was a thrill to be cheered so warmly by the Greek audiences.
Syriza’s seven-point programme known as its ‘Thessaloniki Declaration’ commits the new Government to renegotiate Greece’s crippling debts with the ‘Troika’ and get half of them written off.
It further compels Syriza to convene a European Conference of debtor nations like Greece to discuss how they can press for wide scale debt write off to stimulate the continents economy and to lift the intolerable burden of repayment off the shoulders of the poor.
Syriza’s domestic recovery programme was of course just as important in securing victory on Sunday. They promised to double the Greek state pension to €700 per month and the national minimum wage to 751 and to create 300,000 new jobs. This is all part of a plan to reflate and rebuild their shattered economy.
It goes without saying that the Thessaloniki Declaration is an ambitious programme representing a direct challenge to the most powerful neoliberal institutions in the world. And that world is watching to see what concessions, if any, Tsipras can ring out of the Troika.
Ironically the first test may come in February when Greece is due €13billion from the ‘Troika’ as part of the bailout agreement. The attitude both sides take to those discussions will give an early signal to the likely consequences for the Greek economy, for European finances and for world politics.
The victory for Syriza completely changes the political landscape of Europe. And yet winning the election may well be the easy part as the challenges they face are considerable. They need to deliver help quickly as voters are understandably impatient for change and desperate. At the same time Tsipras faces the might of neoliberal finance capital equally determined to prevent reform.
Syriza must also fight the Greek Oligarchs—shipping tycoons, media magnates, etc—who have long believed the country belongs to them. This includes evading taxes, corrupting Government officials, monopolising the media and bypassing the democratic institutions of Greece altogether. Syriza’s leaders are therefore under no illusions about the enormity of the task facing them.
They know they cannot achieve their objectives on their own. They need the mobilised direct involvement of the Greek people beside them and they also require practical international solidarity from the ‘European Left’.
And it was that latter objective which motivated the SSP Executive Committee above all to send me to Athens to do, to strengthen the party’s contacts with Syriza and all the other European partners in our quest for a socialist Scotland and a democratic socialist Europe.
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