The post-referendum political turmoil has reset the political situation in Greece.
On one hand, the betrayal of the 61 percent who voted against the 26 June draft agreement has undone the pre-referendum momentum. The working class again has been demobilised.
On the other, the beleaguered Tsipras now faces a revolt inside Syriza – precisely the situation he called the referendum to avoid. The mutiny began last weekend, when two MPs, Ioanna Gaitani and Elena Psarea from the Red Network in the Left Platform of Syriza, voted against giving the prime minister the authority to broker a capitulation to the country’s creditors. More than half a dozen others abstained, including parliamentary speaker Zoe Konstantopoulou. By doing so, they laid down the gauntlet; from there, opposition hardened among Left Platform MPs.
When it came to the decisive vote on Wednesday night, the question was not whether more of the 25 Left Platform MPs would vote against the memorandum, but how many Tsipras would lose from the Party Majority. The Left Platformers were joined by Yanis Varoufakis, who denounced the agreement as akin to the Treaty of Versailles, and Konstantopoulou, whose strident speech will have shaken the party core and was heard in lounge rooms across the country. Varoufakis and Konstantopoulou are the most well-known party MPs other than Tsipras, and popular in their own right.
Gaitani, a member of revolutionary group the Internationalist Workers Left, spoke to Red Flag at a rally in Syntagma Square before the vote on Wednesday. “No from the left means that there is a left, and that there will be a left tomorrow that will reject the Memorandum of austerity”, she said. “There are many within the left that are hard for this position. They give the hope that there is still a significant part of the left that does not support austerity …
“We need to gather as many forces as possible around an alternative political platform so we [can] go on to fight against austerity in Greece.”
A statement of opposition signed by 109 of the 201 members of the Central Committee was published hours before the parliamentary vote. It illustrates the depth of opposition at every level of the party:
“The agreement with the ‘institutions’ was the result of the blackmailing of the country through economic strangulation. It is a new memorandum, with onerous and humiliating terms of supervision, disastrous for the country and our people.
“We realise that suffocating pressure was put on the Greek side in the negotiations, but nevertheless, we believe that the people’s proud no vote in the referendum must forbid the government from succumbing to the extortionate ultimatums of the creditors.
“This agreement is not compatible with the ideas and the principles of the left. But most importantly, it is not compatible with the needs of the working class and the popular masses. This proposal cannot be accepted by the members and the cadres of Syriza.”
Similar statements were passed unanimously or by large majorities of the district coordinating committees, which were convened to register members’ opposition to the memorandum. The revolt is strongest in these levels of the party.
In the parliament, Tsipras made a final pitch for the agreement. He acknowledged that more austerity will be recessionary. Konstantopoulou declared that it will cause “social genocide”.
Tsipras appealed to Syriza MPs not to let the creditors and the political right in Greece bring down the government. This argument is a real pressure on MPs who do not want to see the right get back into office. Yet the logic of that argument now seems flawed. As a Red Network statement said: “This new memorandum essentially and practically overthrows the government led by Syriza: programmatically, but also politically, since it transforms Syriza into an austerity government with an increasingly pro-austerity composition”.
In the parliamentary debate, even the pro-austerity forces goaded Tsipras. New Democracy leader Evangelos Meimarakis rhetorically asked why Syriza had for so long attacked his party for implementing previous memoranda, when Tsipras now was asking the parliament to support the worst deal ever. There was no doubt that the agreement would pass, but it is politically damaging for Tsipras to rely on the neoliberal New Democracy and Pasok for votes.
The political establishment has been shaken by the fact that Syriza is not the sort of reformist party we are all used to. Social democracy today champions neoliberalism with hardly a whimper of opposition from any of its sections. By contrast, Syriza is rooted in the struggles against austerity and has drawn in people with a track record of standing up for their principles. One example is deputy finance minister Nadia Valavani. She was jailed under the military regime that ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974, and spent five months in solitary confinement for her activities in the Communist Youth Organisation. She voted no to Tsipras’s betrayal and has resigned her post.
German chancellor Angela Merkel is unlikely to trust that the government will implement the agreement until it has been cleansed of its left wing. But Syriza does not have an apparatus with a proven record of disciplining the left and clamping down on opposition. There is a hard right section that called for the left to be expelled, and there will almost certainly be a cabinet reshuffle to remove Left Platform dissidents. However, it’s unclear at this stage how far Tsipras can go without further inflaming the opposition.
Strategies: dead ends and new roads
Syriza’s failure stems from its flawed strategy of negotiation; of believing that the eurozone leaders could be reasoned with; of being unwilling to mobilise the power of the class; of left illusions in the European project. This is a failure of reformist politics – the politics that has dominated the party since its inception. But it still needs to be distinguished from old social democracy in order to grasp the scale of the opposition now brewing.
Revolutionaries within Syriza are not surprised by what has transpired. For years they have been pursuing arguments about how the party should position itself to fight austerity. For example, the Red Network opposed the coalition with right wing nationalists, the Independent Greeks, who all voted for the latest agreement.
It was incredibly important that the revolutionaries maintained a hard line and didn’t water down their politics or get caught up in the Tsipras cheerleading that took hold as the party gained strength and took office.
Thousands of party activists who previously supported Tsipras’s strategy are now grappling with why it failed; they want to resist the party leadership. More people now are open to the arguments about what to do next. The Red Network has pledged to fight for the party’s soul. A section of the Left Platform is cohering the opposition and in the process is drawing lessons. That can be the basis for a regroupment of all those within and outside of Syriza who will fight the implementation of the new measures.
The federation of public sector unions called a strike on Wednesday to coincide with the vote. It is unclear how widely the strike was observed, but militants I spoke to in the teachers’ union and municipality workers’ union estimate that it was a relatively low turnout on this occasion. That was not surprising.
Among the mass of workers there can be a feeling of resignation. Tsipras has undermined the confidence that people gained from the referendum victory. Nonetheless, there recently have been strikes around specific issues, including the dock workers of Piraeus, who shut down the port in protest at the plan to privatise it.
As MPs were debating the memorandum inside parliament, the riot police – present in great numbers – fired tear gas at thousands of protesters gathered outside. The cops chased people for kilometres. They were like vicious dogs unchained after being kept for too long on a short leash. The radical left, present in large numbers and making up the core of the demonstration, pulled out their masks or handkerchiefs. For many, it was a routine that they had become accustomed to under the previous governments. This was the first time the government of the left had unleashed the state on them.
Both inside and outside the parliament, new lines have being drawn.
However, history does not follow the same laws as a wristwatch. The defiance of the working class, demonstrated in the referendum, and the lessons drawn from this defeat will be the basis of reconfiguring a left that is stronger for having given battle.