On August 21, 2015 Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, after being in power since January 25th, 2015 announced that his Syriza led coalition government was resigning and requesting that new elections be held on September 20, 2015.
Tsipras called for snap elections as Syriza was leading by a comfortable margin and there was even a possibility of a majority government. Moreover, it did not seem that his government was in any threat of being toppled even though members of his own party and government ministers such as Yanis Varoufakis voted against the government on the third bailout agreement. Many of the dissident Syriza MPs (mostly from the Left Platform faction) have since formed a new party, Popular Unity (LAE), and are now running against Syriza.
Recent polls now show a tight race between Syriza and the conservative New Democracy (ND) party, not because ND has gone up in the polls but due to the waning popularity of Syriza since the election was called.
Why did Tsipras resign?
From election to referendum
Let’s backtrack to January 25, 2015.
Syriza won a clear mandate on an anti-austerity program that shocked both the Greek and European establishments which feared contagion in other European capitals. Syriza failed to a get a majority of seats and quickly formed a coalition government with the ANEL (‘Independent Greeks’) party, a traditionalist/conservative yet anti-austerity party. Alexis Tsipras became the first PM of a western European capital, on the left of social democracy, since WWII.
Although Syriza is an acronym for Coalition of the Radical Left, the Syriza program was very mild, it was in essence a moderate Keynesian pledge to renegotiate better bailout terms, in order to end austerity which is only deepening public debt and further impoverishing Greeks.
Yet, there was a deeply radical undertone to Syriza’s program; it sincerely and quite openly challenged an undemocratic, unaccountable European technocratic order that uses austerity as a euphemism for dismantling any type of democratic popular oversight of economic institutions. In fact, during the dead-end ‘negotiations’ of the following months, the constant refusal of viable plan after viable plan presented by the Greek side which contained various reasonable but non-austerity measures, prompted former Greek Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, to ask his German counterpart, Wolfgang Schauble, whether elections should simply be abolished in countries under bailout programs. Schauble’s silent response to this question spoke volumes. And so Syriza continued to negotiate, hoping that cooler heads would prevail and some type of compromise would be reached if the Greek side would continue to give in. Regarding the months following Syriza’s election, the interviews and essays by Varoufakis reveal a surreal world of pretend politics where everything that was said about Greece not bringing serious proposals was newspeak for the Syriza government not simply signing on to what was put in front of it. Instead, it did the unspeakable, it attempted to negotiate, it attempted to demonstrate why the austerity measures imposed on Greece had failed, and why a pan-European New Deal Keynesian strategy would pull Greece and Europe out of the current recession and towards growth and social sustainability.
The EU and Geek establishments wanted a quick end to the Syriza government and began a process of economic asphyxiation and media assassination. Syriza continued to make debt payments but without receiving any bailout money all the while being berated on Greek and European media as unreasonable and incompetent.
Syriza had had enough and after being handed a take-it-or-leave-it proposal by the Troika (EU, ECB, IMF) that ignored concessions on both sides of the last months, announced in the early hours of June 27th, that the Greek government would not cave in to blackmail and ultimatums. The proposal would be put to a referendum. Tsipras called for Greeks to reject the plan.
The Greek and EU establishment were erratic and went into propaganda overdrive claiming that a No vote was equivalent to a Euro exit and a bank collapse. The EU establishment did not stop there, but flexed its muscles and imposed capital controls by cutting off liquidity to the country. The Greek media which had ignored the results of five years of austerity covered small queues at ATMs ad nauseam. The ECB’s move to cut the tap off Greek banks was an extremely aggressive move that Varoufakis claimed was in direct violation of EU rules if not of elementary democratic ethics.
The referendum was held on July 5, 2015 and to the surprise of everyone and not least, the Greek government, Greeks found the courage to stand up to fear and vote No (OXI) to austerity and ultimatums, with the OXI side wining by a margin of 61.3% to 38.7%. The Greek establishment and the pro-austerity parties were humiliated.
The streets of Athens were filled with jubilant OXI supporters, yet to the surprise of Finance Minister Varoufakis, as he walked into the main offices of the Maximus Mansion, the headquarters of the Greek PM, the mood, in contrast to the streets of Athens, was solemn. Tsipras and the Government leadership believed that they were trapped and would now be punished for further embarrassing the EU establishment by allowing Greeks to express their collective will. Varoufakis resigned that night and Tsipras named a new Finance Minister, Euclid Tsakalotos who would now lead the negotiating team.
Tsipras announced to Greeks that the referendum victory was a new lease on the dead end negotiations. In reality, the European response to the referendum was a demonstration of how undemocratic the EU order is. It was a wakeup call to a continent adrift towards neoliberal totalitarianism.
Syriza and the new memorandum
On July 13, Tsipras after being virtually locked in a room for 17 grueling hours signed onto a third memorandum agreement.
This ‘agreement’ was singed under duress; tweeters around the world called it a coup. The third memorandum imposed on Greece is not socially or economically sustainable. It will further impoverish society and further increase an unsustainable debt that the IMF, the ECB, the EU Commission and the German government are fully aware of this fact. This deal had nothing to do with economic sustainability, growth or any such niceties it was a show of political power. Not of states but of a ruling elite. Traditional European democracy has been replaced by a closed door technocracy.
Tsipras brought this new deal to parliament and it passed with the support of the pro-establishment opposition New Democracy (conservative), To Potami (liberal) and Pasok (social democrat) parties. Almost 40 members, the majority belonging to the Left Platform faction of the Syriza caucus either voted against the deal or abstained. The government ministers that did not support the deal (also members of Left Platform), either resigned or were asked to leave their posts to be replaced by those who voted along with the leadership.
Syriza was in political and existential crisis. A political movement which grew out of the anti-austerity, socialist and communist movements and which was committed to a vision of a post-capitalist society had signed on to five more years of austerity and neo-liberal ‘reforms’.
Before one criticizes Tsipras’ handling of the post-referendum memorandum, one needs to look at the various options that were available to the Syriza government and to the differences of opinion between Syriza cadres.
It is this discussion and analysis that will provide lessons for the Left and strategies for the future.