Sunday, 6 May 2012

A blow to austerity: radical left makes big gains in Greece

Alexis Tsipras, leader of radical left-wing party Syriza
Today’s general election in Greece has turned out to be a historic turning point in Greek politics, with implications for the whole of Europe.

Combined with the ousting of President Sarkozy in France - and this week's UK local election results and the poor showing for Merkel's conservatives in German regional elections today - it indicates the political crisis generated by austerity.

Since the fall of the military dictatorship in 1974, Greek politics has been dominated by two parties: the centre-left PASOK and the centre-right New Democracy. Since 1981, these two parties have consistently scored at least 77% between them in general elections. Yet they have a combined total of around 35% today - an extraordinary collapse.

This is almost entirely due to their role in imposing severe austerity and their culpability in the crisis. The economy dominated the election. The country has been shaken by mass protests and general strikes against the deep cuts imposed on the people.

Syriza, the anti-capitalist Coalition of the Radical Left, has surpassed PASOK. While New Democracy has the largest proportion of votes (19-21%), forecasts are 15-17% for Syriza and 13-15% for PASOK. The Communists (KKE) appear to be on 7-9%.

Much of the British political commentary during the campaign focused on the far right's Golden Dawn, but the combined support for left-wing anti-cuts parties is far higher. It is mainly the left that has picked up popular support, with Syriza and KKE on a remarkably high combined tally of 22-26% (and a predicted 60-70 seats) while the fascists have 6-8% (and an estimated 20 seats in the parliament).

The establishment parties may form a coalition together - and therefore continue imposing the cuts demanded by the 'troika' of EU, IMF and European Central Bank – even after getting a severe drubbing. There are 300 seats in the Greek parliament and it looks as if New Democracy and PASOK will have 150-155 seats between them. New Democracy benefits from the bizarre rule that the biggest party gets an automatic bonus of 50 seats.

The big two parties will suffer an acute lack of legitimacy with such a low proportion of the popular vote. PASOK has suffered an especially severe collapse, having alienated most of its natural supporters. It is likely that further elections will be required, such is the current impasse.

A bit of background is worth sketching in here. The crisis led to massive disaffection with establishment politics. The result is a number of splits and a dramatic rise in support either for long-established parties outside the mainstream (notably the KKE) or newer coalitions opposed to austerity.

Greek politics is therefore split a number of ways. There's the pro-cuts mainstream of PASOK and New Democracy. There are also parties to the right of New Democracy: populist nationalists LAOS and the fascist Golden Dawn are both capitalising on anti-EU grievances and disaffection with the crisis.

The three major parties to the left of PASOK are the Communists (KKE), Democratic Left and Syriza. Democratic Left is to the left of PASOK, but has an ambivalent attitude to the EU austerity package. In any case it appears - with around 6% of the vote - to have been squeezed by KKE and Syriza, both of which are implacably opposed to cuts.

It is also worth mentioning that the huge economic crisis has generated splits in New Democracy. The Democratic Alliance and the Independent Greeks are both splits from the traditionally dominant right-wing party.

These elections articulate a complex kind of polarisation: a fragmented picture. But, crucially, it is the anti-austerity left - not the fascists or the established mainstream - that is making the biggest and most politically significant gains. Interestingly, reports from Greece suggest it is over-50s who have propped up the mainstream, while younger voters provided the main base of support for Syriza.

Whatever happens next, these results are a massive challenge to the dominant pro-cuts orthodoxy in European politics.


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