Following the Greek elections, James Meadway argues that a mass movement needs to be built against austerity as the European crisis worsens

The dust is settling on the Greek parliamentary elections. Official politics has expressed its relief: the Greeks, all the papers proclaim, have voted for “sanity” and austerity, with a pro-bailout government being formed by right-wing New Democracy and their former opponents, centre-left Pasok. Crisis, it seems, has been abated.

The real picture is quite different. The peculiarities of the Greek electoral system – which rewards the top-placed party with a 50-seat bonus – have allowed the continuation of a pro-austerity government. But no-one should be fooled into thinking that this is therefore a popular or even particularly legitimate administration.

The ND-Pasok government is a lash-up of the failed and the corrupt who have misruled Greece for decades. It attracted its support from the old and the frightened: while Syriza won amongst those below the age of 45, ND won 38% of the vote amongst the 55 and over. The bullying and hectoring from all official quarters, right across Europe, and the dire threats of impending doom conspired to terrify barely enough of the Greek electorate to cast their votes for failure. Pasok’s vote has collapsed from 44% in 2009, to 12.5% today, a spectacular record; ND, the party which oversaw the skulduggery and corruption that first breached the debt crisis in Greece, has seen its vote drop from 33.48% then to 29.66% today. It recovered only through the terror campaign mounted against the Greek population. It will be a directionless government with little to offer beyond its superior abilities in licking the boots that have been kicking Greece for the last three years.

But this was, in truth, Syriza’s night: if they did not quite carry enough momentum to clamber over ND, the increase in their votes is still extraordinary: from 4.4% in 2009, to 16.8% in May this year, to finally 27.5% yesterday. Syriza’s vote is, in modern European history, unprecedented for a party of the hard left. It is more than 10% above their previous record showing, back in the May 6 poll, of 16.5%. They have won support across Greece, but most spectacularly amongst the urban working class and the young, with 33% of under 35s voting for them. In a polarised election it has successfully hegemonised the left, filling the gap left by the near-disintegration of Pasok. Both the KKE and the far smaller “anticapitalist” Antarsya coalition have been squeezed, the KKE vote roughly halving (from 8.5 to 4.8%) from the May election. Syriza is the child of the movement against austerity in Greece that has, over two years, seen 17 separate general strikes and protests on a huge scale. As the political expression of that movement, it will live or die with it.

The economic crisis will worsen

There are no plausible grounds to think that essentially the same failed coalition that his misruled Greece since the collapse of Papandreou’s government seven months ago will suddenly turn the economy around. The principle on which it is founded – support for the bailouts, support for austerity – is precisely what is tearing the Greek economy (and society) apart. It will fail; it cannot do anything else, and it will depend on the Troika’s drip-feed for its survival. The Greek economy is forecast to have declined by 20%, over the last three years, and the Greek banking system is insolvent, reliant on Emergency Liquidity Assistance handouts from the European Central Bank to continue functioning at all.

It is highly likely, faced with a disintegrating economic situation, and with a slow-motion collapse across the rest of Europe – most obviously in Spain – that Greece will, whatever anyone may wish, exit the euro in relatively short order. Euro membership means endless austerity, a defunct banking system, and an economy at the mercy of an overvalued currency, permanently in deficit to the rest of the world. It is not sustainable and it will not hold. No official notice need be given, and no arrangements made: an economy can simply cease to use one kind of currency, and if the flood of euros out of circulation in Greece continues or accelerates, that is certainly a possibility here.

Whatever relief was felt in Frankfurt and London at the formation of a pro-austerity Greek government lasted barely an hour on Monday morning. After a fall in the Spanish government’s borrowing costs when markets opened, traders and speculators in its bonds have again pushed the interest rate they demand back up above 7%. This is direct reflection of the deep fear and uncertainty that now surrounds the future of the euro, and its member governments. A 7% borrowing rate is unsustainable over any period of time and, with the Spanish government deficit ballooning, a crunch point is approaching.

Europe’s financial system remains much as dysfunctional as it was three years ago. It is stuffed full of bad debt, with French and German banks still sitting on piles of high-risk loans from across the continent. Until those are seriously written off, it will remain in a deeply precarious state, increasingly dependent on public largesse (in the form of ECB assistance) to function at all. But as has become clear over the last two and a half years, there is absolutely no political will to do so: neither the ECB, nor the EU, nor Europe’s major powers appear willing or able to force losses on the banks, preferring instead to drift through round after round of failed bailouts, all the while enforcing deeper austerity on Europe’s population. Every day that passes brings a further financial collapse, twin of 2008, a little closer.

Back to the streets

Nor is the austerity that ND-Pasok will try an inflict in any sense popular or accepted by ordinary Greeks. The plurality of those voting chose anti-austerity parties: 42% voted pro-austerity, 46% against, with indecisive Dimar on 6.2%. A weak, unpopular government will face a population that has not in any sense been won to its programme. ND-Pasok is, as Alexis Tsipras put it ‘an unholy alliance of yesterday’s powers’.

The biggest single danger, then, is that where opposition to austerity produced a spectacular mass movement and a political upheaval, it could now easily turn to sullen despair. Whatever differences may have existed on the left during the election need now to be put aside. The focus, for the time being, has shifted away from direct electoral competition and back to the workplaces, the squares, and the streets. This government of the failed can be driven from office, and it should be.

It is vital that the left retake the initiative, since others are waiting to do so. Golden Dawn, Greece’s biggest fascist party, campaigning under the slogan to “Rid this land of filth”, held onto its vote, despite – or possibly because of – its violence and thuggery, including the televised assault of two female MPs. In a climate of great fear and uncertainty, deep prejudices – encouraged, as ever, by official politics – can blossom, and attacks on migrants have been rising. For now, the left is in the ascendant. But there should be no doubt that, if it does not rise to the challenge of the next few months, others will seize the initiative.

We may find that the question of government is once again pushed onto the left, in short order. Syriza rose to the challenge last time round, pulling in the different strands of the anti-austerity left and winning major sections of Greek society over to its programme. It is the most profound break with the existing parties of the traditional, social democratic tendency that currently exists in Europe, and it is vital that those who wish to see a break with capitalism continue to work within it.

The European crisis continues, and deepens. As it draws on, the questions posed for the left have grown increasingly serious. It is no longer enough to cheerlead events, or to wait for a spontaneous upsurge to solve those questions for us: Greece, and the rise of Syriza, have directly raised the question of political power. Millions of people there, and across the continent, are starting – hesitantly at first – to look towards the left for answers. A mass movement against austerity must be built.

James Meadway

Radical economist James Meadway has been an important critic of austerity economics and at the forefront of efforts to promulgate an alternative. James is co-author of Crisis in the Eurozone (2012) and Marx for Today (2014).