The Greek People Rise Up
By Aris Anagnos
The Greek elections in January are nothing less than a peaceful revolution accomplished by free elections. The triumphant winner is SYRIZA, acronym for ìCoalition of the Radical Left. This formerly small leftist party won 36.4% of the popular vote, 8.5% more than the runner up right wing New Democracy Party, which formed the majority of the previous government. SYRIZA is an amalgam of leftists, Socialists, Communists and other radicals. It includes the 92-year-old national hero, Manolis Glezos, who, as a young communist member of the Resistance climbed the rear of the Acropolis in 1941 during the Nazi occupation, and brought down the German swastika flag, replacing it with a Greek flag. I was there the next morning, when we Athenians could watch with elation the Greek flag flying over the Acropolis, until the Nazis took it down. The new Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, 40, a civil engineer and his wife, also an engineer, met when both were members of the Young Communist League.
Under Greek law, the party with the highest vote gets a bonus of 50 votes in the 300 member unicameral Parliament. SYRIZA obtained 149 votes, and in order to secure a majority Tsipras invited a small right wing party, the Independent Greeks, to join the cabinet, securing a parliamentary majority of 162 votes. That party also opposed austerity.
Greece had fallen into serious debt because of heavy defense expenditures. Contributing to the deficit were extensive tax evasion by the rich and corruption by government officials who favored their pals with lucrative contracts. A former minister of Defense is in jail because he enriched himself from illegal commissions he obtained for military contracts he approved.
With Greece on the verge of bankruptcy, the right-wing government asked the European Union and IMF for aid. The Europeans under the leadership of Germany, eager to avoid the disruption which the exit of Greece from the Euro-zone would cause, imposed conditions of austerity which plunged the country into a depression. Greek GDP fell by more than 25%, unemployment reached 27%, wages and pensions were cut and taxes were raised. Misery and hunger were widespread. Homes of those who couldn’t pay taxes were foreclosed, and taxes were added to the electric bill as a means of collection. Those behind in their payments had their electricity cut off. New taxes made heating oil unaffordable and people burned wood instead, leading to catastrophic smog in Athens. In addition, cutting firewood depleted the few forests nearby. Teachers, doctors and other public servants were laid off by the thousands, destroying the educational and medical care systems. The government, a coalition of the conservative New Democracy and PASOK (Socialist) parties, obediently complied with any demands by international lenders to get the next installment of financial aid. Most of that went to service previous debts and never entered the Greek economy. The government privatized publicly owned utilities and other companies at give-away prices to raise revenue. Is it any wonder that SYRIZA rose to an almost revolutionary force?
The day after victory, SYRIZA announced immediate steps to relieve suffering: electricity cut off for non-payment would be immediately restored. Foreclosures of primary residences and further privatization would stop. A program to create 300,000 new jobs (3% of the ten million population of Greece) would be started along with other measures, including free food distribution to the poor. Money for these programs would come from strict tax collection from the tax-evading rich and elimination of corruption. In addition they would reduce the highest salaries of public servants to increase those at the lowest levels. Greece also demanded payment of $1,800,000,000 profit earned by the European Central Bank on Greek bonds.
A reduction of foreign debt was immediately ruled out by the creditors, so the Greeks are currently proposing to foreign lenders drawing out payments and lowering the interest rate, plus a six-month bridge of debt relief in order to start a recovery of the devastated economy. As of February 12, there was no agreement in the negotiations with the European lenders and the IMF. An agreement was hoped for at the meeting scheduled for Feb. 15.
Nevertheless, the energetic policies of the new government have overwhelming support among the Greek people. A poll released on Feb. 13 by the prominent TV station ALPHA shows 83% approval, including a shift of many voters who had voted for other parties. How many governments can boast an 83% approval rating?
Aris Anagnos was born in Athens and came to the US in 1946. He has been active in human and civil rights and progressive politics. He is a past President of the ACLU of So. California, the Americans for Democratic Action, the American Hellenic Council, and the Humanitarian Law Project.