Strange Times in Greece

What was a movement became a party and got elected to power.

These are indeed strange times in Greece. The land that birthed the word democracy also produced the word tyranny. With the election of Syriza, the Radical Coalition of the Left, the Greek people stand poised to pit those ancient foes against one another, in a battle that will have tremendous consequences for the people of the small republic and others throughout economically-troubled southern Europe.

Five years ago, in May of 2010, a protest movement took Syntagma Square in Athens. In modern Greek, Syntagma is translated as “constitution,” but in Ancient Greek it means “to arrange together.” And so, in this aptly-named place, a constellation of unionists, leftists, communists, anarchists, and students responded to many factors, but most immediately to cuts in social expenditures and tax increases, by taking to the streets. The world took notice.

Protests continued in Athens, Thessaloniki, and other cities. A year later the movement, now referred to as the Indignants at Syntagma, established general assemblies. As Germany’s Angela Merkel called on Greece to tighten the fiscal screws in return for renewed loan terms, the protests grew, as did violent repression. The activists called for corrupt politicians to be charged, refusal of odious debt, and a new constitution. The Indignants’ demands were not met, but they launched inequality, corruption, and anti-austerity into the public discourse. Tremendous marches lent a sense of credibility to the movement; estimates of attendance at these public displays ranged from 100,000 to 500,000.

Despite public pressure to reject austerity and excitement surrounding a scheduled referendum, the Papandreou government of PASOK (socialists in name alone) stood down and the so-called bailouts were accepted. The referendum was cancelled and Greece would be driven into a period of austerity. The neoconservative Samaras government of New Democracy, would continue dosing the Greek nation with the Troika’s prescription of debt payments, increased taxation, and extreme decreases in social spending.

The tyranny of neoliberal capitalism and austerity ravaged the tiny Mediterranean country of Greece against the democratic will of the people. Social and human rights costs have been high, the country’s healthcare system gutted, public lands stripped, and utilities and services privatized. In recent years, youth unemployment soared to 50% and poverty has hit a critical threshold, devastating the lives of much of the populace.

As social safety nets fell, Greeks relied on community and family to keep them from absolute destitution. Many were unfortunate, and suicide rates skyrocketed. None was more traumatic to the national psyche than that of Dimitris Christoulas, a 77-year-old retired pharmacist and fixture at the rallies, who took to Syntagma Square and shot himself in the head. His suicide note lamented, I see no other solution than this dignified end to my life, so I don’t find myself fishing through garbage cans for my sustenance. I believe that young people with no future, will one day take up arms and hang the traitors of this country at Syntagma square, just like the Italians did to Mussolini in 1945.″

Syriza became electable because of circumstances like these. New Democracy may have been in power these last four years, but it was the centrist PASOK government that cancelled a referendum on the bailout, a referendum which polls showed would go decisively in the favor of rejecting the bailout terms.

When the 2015 elections arrived, Syriza, a party born out of the discontent in Syntagma, ascended to the government of Greece with a strong but not dominant mandate. Their victory has been met with extreme optimism in some circles and outright hysteria in others.

When it comes to governance, it would be an understatement to say things are complicated for Syriza. Falling two seats short in the election of a complete majority and spurned by the orthodox and principled communist party, KKE, Syriza had to turn elsewhere to form a coalition government.

To the utter dismay of many in their base, they came to terms with ANEL (Greek Independents), a party of extreme conservativism. Many of its members are originally from the party of the outgoing government. They disagree with Syriza about everything with the exception of the need to do away with Austerity. Kammenos, the party leader, recently named Defence Minister, is known as a hawkish nationalist with strong ties to the Greek oligarchy. His openly racist and homophobic stance are troubling to Syriza’s base and spell a capitulation on their progressive stance on issues like rights for same-sex couples and the demilitarization of the police.

What does this willingness to compromise with ideological opposites tell us about Syriza?

It tells us that Syriza obviously places repudiating austerity as a priority. While formed of composites from other Leftist parties, Syriza is not a homogenous the party of class struggle, it appears to be the party of anti-Austerity. What started as a party of social movement is today a party of government.

On the financial side of things, Syriza has been very clear. They’ve backed away from leaving the EU and as now-Prime Minister Tsipras and recently named Finance Minister Varoufakis have explained, they intend to drastically negotiate the terms of the debt, to return the minimum wage to pre-crisis levels, and to stop the privatization of utilities and public land.

Varoufakis, the economics professor turned finance minister, has been an ardent critic of austerity, the European Union and power-wielding, tax-dodging Greek oligarchs for years. He recently referred to the debt peonage and austerity measures as “fiscal waterboarding.”

For those far to the left, this is quite a disappointment as it departs from Syriza’s rhetoric of two years ago, which was a more radical agenda to expunge the debt and leave the EU. Still, facing Greece’s creditors, negotiating the debt and remaining in the EU will be no easy feat.

The Troika, fearing the implications that even partial debt forgiveness would have on other indebted countries, has expressed great disapproval of any renegotiations, even as austerity crushes the Greek people.

In Syriza’s arsenal of economists, Varoufakis may be the most prestigious, but not the most radical. He’s a trained economist, an expert on game-theory, a self-proclaimed Marxist Libertarian and a former advisor-turned-critic of the Papandreou government that led Greece into the so-called bailout. In addition to challenging the Troika, Varoufakis intends to take on the Greek oligarchs, in a television interview he recently said “we are going to destroy the basis upon which they have built for decade after decade a system and network which viciously sucks the energy and economic power from everyone else in society.”

With the government’s economic and financial stance clear, what are we to make of Syriza on the social front? What of the immigrants dying in the streets at the hands of nationalist thugs? What of the gay rights promised by Syriza? What of demilitarization? In keeping with the platform, Tsipras appointed a cabinet of academics and “human rights advocates.” But the coalition with ANEL will put a strain on these commitments. If Syriza cannot deliver on these issues, what is one to make of all the promises jeopardized by the capitulation to conservatives? These too are pressing questions.

Orthodox communists will bemoan Syriza and Tsipras; to many he is already a champagne socialist. Conservatives and reactionaries have already began ridiculing the party’s hopes as Leftist pipe-dreams.

Syriza now has to govern, they are the party of government — not of revolution. The euphoria of the election was quickly tempered by the pragmatism of governance and the task at hand. They have yet to propose anything radical, instead they talk of minimum wage, eased debt payments, and social programs. These are important programs that may improve social conditions for many in Greece. There is no program of mass nationalizations or land appropriations. If one is looking for a party that will sweep away the state into a classless society, he is looking in the wrong place.

In forming a coalition with ANEL, Tsipras is perhaps hearkening the advice of J.K. Galbraith when he told President Kennedy, “(p)olitics is not the art of the possible. It consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable.” Tsipras must determine if governance is more palatable that principle.

To forego the unpalatable, to take any kind of leap to the possible, Syriza needs to display a stronger mandate than it earned in the elections.

Here it’s instructive that the Greeks remember their history. They last faced tyranny during the period of the military junta of 1967-1974. It was the student-led uprising at Athens Polytechnic that notably defied the dictatorship. The uprising was not itself successful at restoring democracy, but many believe it precipitated the falling of the dictatorship nine months later.

We return now to the beginning. What Syriza, and more importantly Greece, needs is the continuation of social movements. What Greece and maybe Europe needs is Syntagma.

Alexandros Orphanides is a New York City-based teacher, writer, and poet of Honduran and Cypriot descent. He holds a Master of Science in Education from Brooklyn College and is completing a Master of Arts in Political Science from the City University of New York Graduate Center. In addition to teaching high school history, he writes about political, cultural and social issues. More of his work can be found on his blog:


Alexandros Orphanides is a New York City-based independent journalist, researcher and teacher of Honduran and Greek-Cypriot descent. He writes on political, social and cultural issues with an emphasis on marginalized communities. Follow him on Twitter: @subsentences.