What is one to make of the fact that SYRIZA, a progressive party with socialist values, formed a government with Independent Greeks (AN.EL), a populist right-wing party that opposed immigration and was accused of racism? Has it gone mad? Betrayed its initial promises?
A short respite had barely passed since the announcement, that an outcry has emerged from the international left, mostly that based in the West. Whereas Venezuela and Cuba congratulated Alexis Tsipras in the friendliest terms, Marxists in Western countries have voiced their alarm at the fact that SYRIZA will not be forming an alliance with the orthodox Communist party KKE and bemoaning the fact that the Left will share a government with a right-wing party. While criticism from Greek voters of SYRIZA who would like to be ruled by a Left-wing government is understandable and justified, international progressives have committed a grave error by intervening in the autonomous decision of the newly elected party without giving it a chance to carry out what appears to be a well-calculated strategy, with a clear purpose and plan.
The most central issue facing the newly elected Syriza party, that received 149 seats in a parliament of 300, is to renegotiate Greece’s immense and insurmountable debt and ensure sustainable growth while securing funds to provide electricity, health, and education to the Greek people. Ever since the neoliberal bailout enacted by the European Central Bank, EU and IMF (Troika) in 2010, real wages declined by 25%, pensions have been cut, suicides have numbered in the hundreds per year, and austerity demanded by the Troika prevailed while the bailout money ended in the pockets of a few.
Greece has no chance of reviving its economy, so long as this unpayable debt remains. One may wonder, however, if Greece as a responsible country must pay back the loan?
The answer is simple: SYRIZA did not say that it will not pay the debt. Rather, it is asking that the debt be postponed by several years, since Greece cannot possibly pay now.
The German government made it clear how Germany views SYRIZA’s plans to step out of Greece’s economic quagmire. The spokesperson stated flatly that Germany’s “position was unchanged by the Greek election.” The BBC reported that “Germany has warned the new Greek government that it must live up to its commitments to its creditors.” The spokesperson said that Greece must “take measures so that the economic recovery continues.” This statement, however, obviously did not take into account the reality on the ground, namely that Greece is mired in a deep austerity and recession that is showing no sign of recovering, precisely due to the terms in which the bailout was laid out. Finance ministers of the EU said that they will not allow for a debt write-off.
While it is safe to assume that SYRIZA will face immense obstacles and pressures when attempting to renegotiate the debt with the Troika, it is equally safe to assume that SYRIZA is likely to come under constant attacks and immense pressure, from the Conservative Right at home. The old guard is hardly likely to take joy in the fact that the Left is now in government for the first time in Greece’s history and is likely to impede its steps in every possible way. Prior to the elections, New Democracy engaged in a campaign of demonization, warning of an immense economic disaster should SYRIZA be elected. Indeed, when Tsipras entered the office of the prime minister, his predecessor Antonis Samaras did not bother to receive him in the office as is the tradition in Greek politics. Furthermore, the computers and various documents were missing. Tsipras said he had to search for one hour to find soap. If this was the first day in office, one can only imagine what the country’s conservative elite plan to do to sabotage his steps in the future.
How does SYRIZA intend to deal with the immense pressure at home and abroad? It cannot pretend that the debt is not there, and it must confront Germany. At the same time, it must unite the country behind it.
Hardly a day passed after the election, and SYRIZA formed a government with the Independent Greeks, a populist right-wing party which ran on an anti-austerity and anti-Germany platform. A majority in parliament is now secured. The haste with which the agreement was signed, strongly suggests that the parties reached an agreement prior to the elections.
Many tend to view AN.EL with much skepticism if not fear. It is a party that has engaged in an anti-immigrant campaign and whose leader made various divisive, inflammatory and hateful statements. At the same time, AN.EL is not mired in corruption and it is strongly anti-austerity.
Why did Alexis Tsipras chose to form an alliance with such a party?
The two other parties that wholly oppose austerity are the Communist KKE and the fascist Golden Dawn. The former did not want to join the SYRIZA government due to its strict orthodox dogma, whereas the latter was out of the question. The River party, however, was also an option. But it did not run on an anti-austerity platform.
On the surface, SYRIZA’s alliance with the Independent Greeks, a party with whom SYRIZA members would hardly feel comfortable, makes little sense. SYRIZA’s traditional followers hardly would feel at ease with AN.EL members in a cocktail party. While Tsipras did not take an oath on the Bible, AN.EL members did. Whereas SYRIZA members support immigrant rights, AN.EL is less sympathetic, to say the least.
The choice of AN.EL as a partner strongly indicates that immigration issues will not be on the government’s agenda. Indeed, the new government announced that it would grant citizenship to children of immigrants, although AN.EL ran on an anti-immigrant platform. But AN.EL is anti-austerity and anti-Germany. Tsipras joined with a party with whom he can face the Troika head-on, demanding an end to austerity while ensuring that there will be no defectors. Furthermore, Tsipras can now claim to enjoy the confidence of people not only from the left, but also from the right. He is better prepared for attacks now from the Conservative Old Guard who will, without a doubt, seek to undermine him in any way it can. He is not going to lead a ‘mad’ Communist government, seeking irresponsible policies and failing alone. He built a solid coalition, which can rightly be defined as a war-time coalition. Tsipras is preparing for war.
In his victory speech, much to the disappointment of some on the Left, Tsipras did not speak about the victory of the Left, in what was without a doubt, an historical moment in Greek history. Instead, Tsipras framed his argument in national terms. Tsipras said that “today the Greek people have made history.” He emphasized that “Greece leaves behinds catastrophic austerity, it leaves behind fear and authoritarianism, it leaves behind five years of humiliation and anguish“. Tsipras left no room for doubts or second guessing. “The verdict of our people means the Troika is finished.”
In his pre-elections speech on Thursday, January 23, Tsipras also did not speak about the Left or about socialism. Tsipras said that “on Monday, national humiliation will be over.” “We will finish with orders from abroad. We are asking for a first chance for SYRIZA. It might be the last chance for Greece.” During the same speech, Tsipras also said that Greece will demand money back from Germany for what it owes Greece during its brutal occupation during World War II in which 300,000 Greeks were starved to death.
Tsipras was referring to the loan of 476 million reichsmarks that the Germans forced the Greek National Bank to give to Nazi Germany interest-free during the occupation of Greece, which was never repaid. The amount would be much higher today even if no interest is calculated. Furthermore, the business magazine Forbes had revealed that Germany’s calculation of Greek debt which did not rely on International Public Sector Accounting Standards, means that not only was Greece’s net debt 18% of its GDP, rather than 175%, but that under these same standards, Germany’s net debt (not to Greece but in general) stands at 46% of its GDP. However, there is a reason behind Germany’s decision not to follow internationally accepted guidelines when estimating Greece’s debt. “Overestimating sovereign debt for Southern European countries stirs anxiety in foreign currency markets, depressing the Euro, and firing up Germany’s export engine.”
Without a doubt, Tsipras knows he is up for a tough battle with Germany over the debt restructuring. He also knows that unless Greece restructures its debt, its economy is doomed. He has to unite the Greek people behind him in preparation for not only the challenge of facing Berlin and Brussels, but also for the possibility that Berlin will retribute through various means. Very difficult times may lie ahead for Greece. On the other hand, if he fails to break the Troika, he will face a revolt at home by people frustrated by their economic misery. Tsipras, therefore, formed a government with a right-wing populist party and is preparing for war.
It is not a coincidence that Tsipras chose immediately after being sworn in to visit the memorial for the Greek partisans massacred by the Nazis in Kalimera and to lay roses there. He is seeking to gather the people behind him, to remember the fallen heroes and gather strength for the tough battle ahead. He is transforming social justice into a national issue that is to serve the Greek people rather than a partisan issue practiced by an extreme left-wing party.
Many people on the international left who opposed the new coalition, have entirely missed n what Tsipras is trying to achieve. They would have liked to see him practice sectorial politics, place his people in power and rule forcefully and without apology. They are not happy with the fact that he joined forces with a populist right-wing party. However, for socialists in the UK or France, it is easy to miss what Tsipras is trying to achieve. Unlike these countries with their colonialist history, Greece did not colonize other countries and Greeks are not as fearful of being accused of being a racist by siding with a party that is anti-immigration. Tsipras has one goal in mind: ending austerity. This is the main battle. As long as there is austerity, the economy cannot recover and he cannot provide social policies to a third of the population that is deeply impoverished. For this reason, he formed a government with the only anti-austerity party with whom he can truly collaborate.
Those on the left who self-righteously condemn Tsipras for his move, fail to understand that he is following the footsteps of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Chavez did not speak in complex Marxist terms which only the leftist intellectuals in London or Paris can understand. Chavez spoke to the people, appealing to their collective identity. He made it clear that Venezuelans are the “sons of Bolivar” and that the Yankees must go home. Chavez said, “Let the dogs of the empire bark, that’s their job. Ours is to battle to achieve the true liberation of our people.” Like Chavez, Tsipras spoke about the people as a nation. Tsipras said that ”national humiliation will be over” and that “the verdict of our people means the Troika is finished.”
Tsipras’ approach is not without its dangers. There is the danger that a just struggle will turn into an anti-Germans sentiment. There is the possibility that members of the Independent Greeks, especially their leader, Panos Kammenos, who is now the minister of defense, may take on irresponsible initiatives. However, Kammenos has behaved responsibly and maturely since his appointment. He did not oppose the immigration amnesty and will probably focus his energies on seeing how to deal with NATO and preparing alternative defense allies. Tsipras was given a rare chance to lead and he must use it. He cannot waste this opportunity. He, therefore, is uniting the people behind him, building a national coalition and preparing for a prolonged war.
Does anyone really question the fact that a government that includes the right can make a stronger case in uniting the people in the struggles that will undoubtedly come their way? Western socialists may not like what he is doing, but like Chavez at his time, Tspiras has to answer to his people, not to self-righteous socialists in Paris or London.
Let the socialists in Paris and London complain, that’s their job. Tsipras’ job is to battle to achieve the true liberation of his people.