Sunday, August 23, 2015

Greece at the Crossroads: Part I

Send to Printer, PDF or Email

A view of the  OXI rally of July 3.

The week of the Referendum

by Alex Steiner

On Friday, August 14, after a marathon session that lasted  more than 24 hours, the Greek Parliament voted to approve the Third Memorandum Agreement, a 400 page document that specifies in excruciating detail the austerity measures to be imposed on the population in exchange for an 86 billion dollar bailout loan from the EU.  It thus marks the final chapter in the ignominious surrender of the Syriza-led government and the betrayal of their election promises.  Tsipras’s governing coalition has collapsed with the vote of 44 Syriza deputies against the agreement. 

Tsipras resigned on August 20th, the day that the terms of the “bailout” kicked in, and new elections are certain to follow in September.  The Left Platform deputies have made their split with Tsipras official by forming a new political party which currently has the 3rd largest representation in Parliament, after Syriza and New Democracy. The previous reluctance of some Left Platform members to break with Tsipras has been overtaken by events. 
And although Tsipras retains wide popularity despite his betrayal of the mandate he was given on July  5 to say NO to austerity, it is by no means certain he will be the winner in the coming election.  The betrayal of the July 5 mandate was a huge shock to the working class who had invested so much hope in Tsipras.  At the moment Tsipras still commands a great deal of support based largely on a wave of sympathy for what is perceived to be his victimization by the EU mafia.  Tsipas and his supporters in Syriza have deliberately nurtured this fairy tale as a way of absolving him of any responsibility for his decision to capitulate to the demands of the EU.  We can confidently predict that this wave of undeserved sympathy will soon wear off as millions of workers and youth are confronted in their daily life with the horrendous consequences of Tsipras’ betrayal.   We can expect a new round of struggles against the austerity regime- whoever may be its spokesman in the future. 

Now that we are at the end of this most dramatic chapter of the struggle of the Greek working class against the barbarous austerity regime that has been imposed on them by the troika with the complicity of both a Center Left Government (Pasok), a Center Right Government (New Democracy), and now a Left Reformist Government (Syriza), we can review the events of the last few weeks with greater clarity.  The beginning of this last phase of the crisis of Greek and European capitalism has a precise date and time – Friday June 26 at midnight, when Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras abruptly left the negotiating table in Brussels and announced that a referendum would be held on the latest proposals from the troika, allowing the citizens of Greece to express their will as to the future of their country and of Europe. 

I had the privilege of being present in Greece for three weeks at the height of these events and participating in a number of political activities during my stay.  I think I can truly say that this period marked the highest point of the class struggle in Greece since the fall of the Dictatorship in 1974 and in many ways went beyond even those heady days.  For then the question was democracy or dictatorship. Today that question is still very much at the forefront for it is now clear that Greece’s continued membership in the European Union is incompatible with any notion of democracy.  But at the same time the issue of capitalism or socialism is also posed directly in a way that was not possible in 1974.

I landed in Greece a day after Tsipras’ announcement of the referendum, on Saturday, June 27.  I arrived in time to see a bit of the debate on the referendum in Parliament on Greek television.  The opposition parties, New Democracy, PASOK and To Potami, were apoplectic over Tsipras call for the referendum,  as was the Communist Party (KKE). Needless to say so were the representatives of the European Union and their associated institutions. Germany’s Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schauble, was particularly vituperative, using language rarely heard in diplomatic circles, accusing the Greek government of destroying the “credibility of the European project”.  Even stronger language was used by Sigmar Gabriel the Social Democratic Deputy Chancellor in Germany’s coalition government, who said that the Syriza government was placing their interests “at the expense of others”.

By Sunday, the campaign for the referendum was in full gear.  While heading into Athens from the working class suburb of Nikaia on the back of a motor bike, I could see signs of the campaign for the referendum everywhere. Prominent at most intersections were posters calling for a NO vote in the referendum, as well as those calling for a YES vote.  There was even some political graffiti calling for a NO vote and denouncing the austerity regime.  Political graffiti is ubiquitous in Athens but I did not expect to see so much of it on this particular issue so soon after the referendum was announced.

An "official" OXI poster.

Greece is a country where, unlike the U.S., most people take politics seriously and follow the ups and downs of the political scene very carefully.  I was last in Greece previously during the Christmas holiday period just when the New Democracy government fell and new elections were called.  I thus had already witnessed the palpable excitement of many during the election campaign at the prospect of a Syriza victory.  It was a time when few conversations, even of the most casual at restaurants or in taxis, were about anything other than the coming election.   Returning now in late June, some 5 months after the election, I sensed a different kind of engagement with politics on the part of many ordinary people. Nearly everyone I spoke to understood that the referendum would be an opportunity not simply to pick out the players in Parliament until the next election cycle, but now what was at stake was the very future of the country, perhaps for several generations.

During the fateful week of the referendum campaign, virtually everyone I spoke
EEK OXI poster
to said they would vote “NO”. I suspect some of those who said that were actually planning to vote YES, but the fact they did not wish to admit that says something about the mood of the masses during those days. I did run into one person who very loudly proclaimed that she would vote “YES”.  This was on a bus going to Piraeus. An elderly woman boarded the bus at one of the stops and very soon started yelling out that her life is over, she cannot afford to pay her rent or buy food with the reduced Social Security checks she is now getting and she blamed it all on Tsipras.   She was one of the many victims of the horrendous austerity measures that had been imposed on Greece for the past 5 years.  Perhaps she was also suffering from psychological problems, which have escalated dramatically among those sections of the working class hardest hit by the cuts.  Given the depth of the deterioration of social conditions in Greece, it is a wonder that more people are not freaking out.  But the immediate cause of her panic was the right wing media blitz that was then going on in which every television news channel and almost the entire print media painted Tsipras and Finance Minister Varoufakis as mad men who were leading Greece to disaster.

On Monday the banks closed.  They would remain closed for the next 3 weeks.  The banks were forced to close when the European Central Bank (ECB) refused to extend any further credits to insure their liquidity. Having run out of reserves, the government was forced to close the banks to avoid a complete financial meltdown. It was hardly a coincidence that the ECB cut off further liquidity loans to the banks immediately after Tsipras announced the referendum.  This open act of blackmail from the Euro Group failed miserably in achieving its goal, the intimidation of the Greek electorate in the upcoming referendum.  That was not however immediately evident at the time.  People were anxious when the banks closed, especially since no one knew when they would reopen and if depositors would be forced to take a drastic “haircut” as happened in Cyprus.  Only ATM’s were available if you needed any cash but they were restricted to allowing a depositor to withdraw a maximum of 60 Euros a day.  Even that amount was largely fictitious given that many ATM’s ran out of cash quickly and were not functional.  One ATM that was functional that I tried still would not give out the 60 Euros I requested with no explanation.  I later learned that the reason was a shortage of 20 Euro notes.  Had I requested 50 Euros I could have gotten it.  For me as a traveler from abroad, this was just an inconvenience.  But for many people who did not have access to credit cards or to extra cash on hand it was a major personal and family crisis.  Many businesses were hurt, particularly if they needed to order supplies from abroad.  With the banks closed this was impossible.

That evening saw a massive rally for the NO vote at Syntagma Square in which about 200,000 people participated.  Unfortunately I learned about the rally too late to attend. But even hearing about it second hand and looking at photos on the Internet – it had little coverage in the mainstream media - made it clear that what we were witnessing was nothing at all like parliamentary politics as usual but a mobilization of workers and youth with immediately revolutionary implications.  At the same time the right wing opposition was also trying to rally their troops.  They were consciously trying to recreate on Greek soil the kind of middle class revolt that took over the Euromaidan demonstrations with the assistance of the CIA and native fascists and unseated the government of the Ukraine in 2014, replacing it with the extreme right wing regime in Kiev. This was an especially ominous development in Greece given its history of Civil War and military dictatorship and the ever present collusion of right wing politicians with the military.
Monday's OXI rally

The first polls did not give the NO camp reason for optimism.  They predicted a victory for the YES by a comfortable margin.  And in the first two or three days after the referendum was announced, everything seemed to be headed for a repudiation of the campaign for the NO vote.  Suddenly the political establishment, including even some prominent members of Syriza, were warning of the dangers of this “reckless” referendum and tried to create a drumbeat to cancel it.  And if you formed your opinion by watching the television news programs, you would have thought that the defeat of the government by a YES vote in the referendum was all but inevitable.   SKAI tv, ANT and the other channels, all of whom are owned by right wing oligarchs, kept showing the same images of the pensioners unable to get their checks or households running low on food and other essentials.  This was juxtaposed with pictures of Tsipras and Varoufakis being upbraided for their irresponsible behavior by various European leaders.  The message was clear and not very subtle - if you want things to get better the Syriiza government must go.  The only TV stations that tried to report the news with any degree of objectivity were the public stations of ERT.

The effects of the bank closure, essentially a lockout by the capitalists against the working class – was evident when walking through the streets of Piraeus.  The famous port city in the suburbs of Athens is known as the place where one catches a ferry to the Aegean Islands.  It is a hub of the tourist industry in Greece.  What is less well known is that in addition to the foreign tourists who stop at the ferry terminal on their way to Santorini, Piraeus is also a destination for many locals who want to take in its beaches, seaside cafes and restaurants and its chic boutique stores.  But that week the boutique store business was completely dead. No one was buying expensive jewelry or the latest smart watches.  Those type of high end stores were empty.  By way of contrast, a local supermarket I passed was packed.  This was in the middle of the afternoon on a workday, a time when traffic in supermarkets is generally light.  The customers were stocking up on food and other essential items anticipating possible shortages. The press was already reporting shortages of certain medications. Greece imports virtually 100% of its pharmaceuticals and the supply chain was already broken, a direct consequence of the ECB decision to pull the plug on the lifeline that kept the Greek banks afloat. Domestic stocks were running perilously low in certain parts of the country.  All in all the atmosphere in those days was that of preparations for war time conditions.

Tuesday was the day that Greece failed to make its payment of 1.5 billion Euros to the International Monetary Fund, thereby making it the first country in the “developed” world to default on an IMF loan.  Thus a certain barrier had been crossed and there began to be felt a sense of inevitability that regardless of the outcome of the referendum, there was no turning back from a collision.  Also on Tuesday the right wing organized their  own  ‘YES’ rally in Syntagma Square, one day after the massive rally for the NO vote.  All reports show a large turnout for that rally, but not nearly as large as the previous day’s rally.  Savas states, in his diary of the week of the referendum [which we have published at ],  that many of the workers in attendance at the ‘YES’  rally were blackmailed into going by their bosses,  and this was confirmed by other observers.  In any case even with such tactics, the ‘YES’ rally was not impressive compared to yesterday’s ‘NO’ rally.  The television news stations and the press tried to make the best of it, presenting pictures from the rally from different angles to make it look bigger than it was.  They also called attention to the fact that it rained during the rally, providing an excuse for its depressed numbers.

I think that one cab driver I spoke to during that week expressed the mood of the working class nicely.  When I asked him how he intended to vote in the referendum, he unhesitatingly said he would vote ‘NO’.  But when I asked him the further question of what he thought would happen if the ‘NO’ vote won, his answer was very interesting.  He did not express any confidence that a ‘NO’ vote would somehow make possible a compromise in the negotiations with the EU – the position that Tsipras and Syriza was pushing.  Rather he said he did not know what would happen but that it was important to say ‘NO’ because right now there is no future for young people in Greece.  His attitude was that it was necessary to take a stand regardless of the consequences as there was really nothing left to lose.

On Wednesday evening I attended the rally organized by the Workers Revolutionary Party (EEK).  The venue was in front of the Old University building on Panepistimiou  Street,  a short walk from Syntagma. Savas spoke for about an hour.  He has already summarized the substance of his remarks at the rally in his diary so I will not repeat them here.[ ] After the rally a bunch of us walked over to the Locomotiva café for more political discussions.

Savas Michael-Matsas at the EEK rally

Friday was full of anticipation and excitement.   A rally for the NO vote was planned for that evening in Syntagma Square and Tsipras himself would be the main speaker.  On the way to the rally I was witness to a visible lesson in the stupidity of sectarianism.  Outside the subway station that we were entering to go to Syntagma, the Communist Party  (KKE) was holding its own rally.  There was a crowd assembled of perhaps 200 or 300 people, many of them holding up red flags, listening to a KKE spokesperson. Out of curiosity I walked over to get a better view and as I did so a young lady gave me a flyer.  She was accompanied by another young lady giving out flyers to anyone who was exiting the subway station. I assumed these were KKE flyers but when I took a look I realized the flyers were from the Greek followers of the Spartacist League.  It all made sense because the Spartacist League,  one of the worst sectarian outfits on the planet, has a position that in Greece the only genuine working class party is the KKE and have given the KKE its “critical” support in the last election. But the Spartcists were calling for a NO vote in the referendum and were doubtless upset that the KKE was now telling their supporters to boycott the referendum.  But regardless of the immediate reasons for the rift between Spartacist and the KKE, looking at this scene from a larger perspective was telling.  Here we are on the eve of what promises to be the biggest rally of the working class in Greece for years and instead of participating in that rally and trying to win support for their program among the masses, the KKE was content with having its own little rally while the Spartacists were leading a parasitical existence, nourishing themselves on the periphery of the KKE.

When we disembarked at the Syntagma subway stop, the place was so packed that it took us a full 15 minutes to walk up the stairs and exit. In the meantime the crowd was repeatedly chanting «ΟΧΙ, ΟΧΙΟΧΙ». That was impressive enough but when we finally got outside it was just wall to wall people in every direction. I don't think I ever saw a crowd like this, even during the great demonstrations against the Vietnam War in Washington.  My Greek comrades told me that there has been nothing like it since the demonstrations in 1974 when the dictatorship fell.  And the crowd in Syntagma was VERY militant.  

Tsipras's speech, was a strong defense of his decision to call a referendum. The substance of it was that the act of voting in the referendum is an exercise in democracy.  It was the speech of a clever politician for he managed to present himself as a militant voice standing against the EU and the Greek bourgeoisie while committing himself to nothing. He called on Greeks to repudiate the campaign of fear that was being spread by the right wing media as well some voices among the European elite who have told voters that NO vote will result in a catastrophic economic situation for Greece. Tsipras said that by voting Greeks are saying no to blackmail and humiliation and affirming their dignity.  It was an unusual speech for a head of state as one doesn’t usually hear such blunt language when referring to the activities of high officials in neighboring countries.  But at the same time Tsipras kept his cards close to his vest. 

What he did not say is what happens the day after a NO vote wins.  He had suggested that a NO vote would allow him to return to the negotiating table with the very same European institutions who have been working for the past week to bring about regime change in Greece. That was hardly a credible scenario and I have my doubts whether many of the people voting NO really believed it would be possible to get a better bargain from the European institutions.  Rather the real message of most NO voters was simply NO to austerity.  Tsipras speech ended with the thought that no matter how the referendum goes on Sunday, Greece will be a united country on Monday.  That was as likely to happen as the Biblical lion lying down with the lamb. What possibility was there for unity between the oligarchs and politicians who have been working with the bankers of Europe to impose a regime of austerity unprecedented in modern history except during war time, with the people who have suffered as a result? What possibility was there for unity between the pensioners who are forced to somehow eke out an existence on 120 euros a month or even less, with the billionaire oligarchs and their stooges who have dominated Greek politics since the end of World War II until the election of Syriza in January?  Tsipras speech, with its message of conciliation and class compromise was sharply at odds with the mood of the million plus who attended the rally.

But by calling this referendum Tsipras unleashed a tidal wave in spite of himself.  Despite the various maneuvers throughout that fateful week to sabotage the referendum, and despite the fact that the Syriza government had no plans in the event of a NO vote other than to go back to the table and try to get a better bargain with the troika - perhaps with a reshuffling of some government portfolios - and despite the fact that Syriza did little on the ground mobilization for the rally, it was a historic event and perhaps a turning point in European history!  

Scenes of the historic OXI rally on Friday July 3.

Saturday was a kind of recess in the campaign for the referendum.  According to Greek law and custom, all formal campaigning is supposed to end the day before a referendum to give the voters a chance to quietly reflect on the issues without being distracted by campaign rhetoric.  This did not prevent the television stations from a further barrage of right wing propaganda.  The one demonstration I heard about that day was called by some of the far left groups to protest the one sided coverage at the offices of one of the television stations.

Sunday, the day of the referendum finally came.  By then, following the gigantic rally of July 3, most polls were predicting a victory for the NO. But they were still projecting a narrow victory, giving the NO vote a lead of 3% or 4% at most. It was clear that the Right was demoralized by the failure of their campaign of intimidation, but they were still hoping that a close vote would rob the Syriza government of any claim to have a mandate.

That morning I accompanied my companion and her mother to the polling station in a working class suburb of Athens. It was in a school house situated on the top of a steep hill. I saw several KKE posters on the street as we walked up that hill, urging voters to hand in a KKE ballot in place of the official ballot.  The polling place was similar in many ways to what you would find in a small town election in the U.S. There was one police guard and several volunteers who verified your address and instructed you which voting booth to enter. It was not a huge turnout when we arrived, perhaps because it was still early in the day and the steep climb may have discouraged some elderly people.
Voting on Referendum Day

Once the results of the voting started coming in, it quickly became clear that the NO vote was headed for a landslide victory, something none of the official pundits expected. But anyone who witnessed the July 3rd rally should not have been so surprised. It was also clear from the results that this was entirely a class vote. The 62% overall in favor of the NO only tell part of the story.  In working class neighborhoods the margin was more like 75-80% in favor of a NO vote.  In one of Athens wealthy suburbs, Kifisia, where pool parties were held not long ago lamenting the possibility of exiting the Euro, the vote was 87% in favor of ‘YES’.

It was a political thunderstorm and there was that evening a spontaneous gathering in Syntagma to celebrate the victory of the NO.  There was also a much smaller official celebration sponsored by Syriza at another square nearby. Needless to say the gathering at Syntagma was far larger.

I managed to make the celebration at Syntagma, though we arrived quite late, after the bulk of the crowd had left.  There were still two or three thousand people gathered.  And to everyone’s surprise, the Chair of the Parliament, Zoe Konstantopoulou, made an appearance.  She was immediately surrounded by an adoring group of young people.  As one of the most consistent and militant voices against austerity from Syriza, she has gained their trust and veneration.  She was positively beaming with delight in the results of the referendum.  She undoubtedly had no idea that the reaction of the Prime Minister that same evening was one of dread.  By the next morning the political landscape of Greece and of Europe would change decisively.

Zoe Konstantopolou, Chair of the Hellenic Parliament, celebrating the victory of the NO.

1 comment:

Arthur said...

Thank you for an excellent post. Looking forward to part II. The final word has not been said. The recent split has most of the European parlamentary left parties in a dilema. (Including my own here in Sweden). Changing sister parties isn't done over night. Not sure if the Syriza group within the EU parlament is intact either. The first week of September should be interesting!