It is difficult to overemphasize the importance of the Jan. 25 Greek elections. Out of control economic austerity has left three million Greeks without health insurance, soaring infant mortality, and an increase in suicides. No less than the livelihoods of the Greek people are at stake. At the same time the European Commission, International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank — together known as the troika — are forcing debt repayment conditions that include sweeping privatization of the country’s public assets. If Greeks elect the left wing Syriza party to majority power, the result could transform the character of the Hellenic Republic and the European Union itself.
1. The Greek People: Livelihood and Health
Greece has been experiencing a humanitarian crisis for the past five years. According to Costas Isychos, head of Syriza’s Foreign Policy and Defense Sector, economic austerity has condemned Greece to a death sentence for the foreseeable future.
“We want to bring back to the people the needs that they have. Which means electricity and homes. There are 300,000 homes in Greece without electricity because people can’t pay it. We have four-and-a-half million Greeks living under the poverty line. This is a huge humanitarian crisis,” Isychos told teleSUR.
Economic austerity forced upon Greece has led to severe negative consequences for the health and well-being of Greeks. The troika demanded in 2012 that Greece cut spending on hospitals and likewise spending on pharmaceuticals. The former Minister of Health, Andreas Loverdos, explained the orientation towards cutting spending on healthcare: “the Greek public administration…uses butcher’s knives.”
Studies on the negative affects of the cuts have already appeared. In February 2014, The Lancet medical journal published “Greece’s Health Crisis: From Austerity to Denialism.” The study outlined how the economic crisis has deepened since the bailout began in 2010, assessed how austerity measures have affected the health of the Greek population and their access to public health services, and examined the political response to the mounting evidence of the “Greek public health tragedy.”
In the first year of austerity, The Lancet study reported, that the slashing of street work programs coincided with a rise in heroin use. The reduction in services also translated to an increase of new HIV infections. While The Lancet study reported that new instances of HIV infections rose from just 15 in 2009 to 484 in 2012, Greece’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported in November 2014, that the year 2012 spiked with 1,188 new infections and fell in 2013 to 920.
In addition, Greek peoples’ eligibility to receive public health insurance is currently linked to their employment status. As the researchers of The Lancet study point out, “Rapidly increasing unemployment since 2009 is increasing the number of uninsured people.” Austerity has left almost one-third of the workforce unemployed and of those almost 75 percent are considered among the long-term unemployed. Nearly three million Greeks are without health insurance. Free social healthcare clinics have sprung up to help manage the crisis. Greeks are now also accessing the free clinics which formerly serviced mostly undocumented immigrants.
Among other austerity induced negative consequences for the well being of Greeks, mental health services have scaled back operations while coping with a 120 percent increase in use of services over the past three years. The Lancet study reported that the prevalence of major depression has more than doubled over recent years, with economic hardship reported as a major factor. Deaths by suicide have increased by 45 percent between 2007 and 2011.
Finally, by reducing family incomes and increasing the unemployment of parents, Greece’s austerity measures have also severely affected the health of children. In October 2014, UNICEF reported that since 2008 Greek child poverty rates have increased by more than 50 percent. A growing number of these children receive inadequate nutrition. The Lancet study reported that between 2008 and 2011 the number of stillbirths rose 21 percent, “The long-term fall in infant mortality has reversed, rising by 43 percent between 2008 and 2010, with increases in both neonatal and post-neonatal deaths.”
The scope of social problems is overwhelming. In order to deal with some of them, Syriza party leader Alexis Tsipras outlined their plan for an immediate response to the humanitarian crisis at the party’s national gathering earlier this month. The plan included food vouchers for the poorest 300,000 households, free healthcare, a shelter program for the homeless, and much more.
2. Greek Society: Everything for Sale
Greece’s debt is the worst in the eurozone at 319 billion euros (US $368 billion). Echoing many left leaning governments in Latin America who had also faced astronomical debt, the Syriza representative Costas Isychos explained to teleSUR, that in his view Greece’s huge debt was not the debt of the people. It was accumulated by a corrupt political system and “lenders who took the opportunity to lend us these huge amounts of money…” As part of its “bailout” package, the troika imposed sweeping privatization on Greece. “We lost our energy, we lost our communications, we lost our land, our airports. Our islands are on sale,” explained Isychos.
The institution responsible for carrying out the all-encompassing privatization of Greece’s public assets is the Hellenic Republic’s Privatization Program, (HRADF – TAIPED in Greek). Professor Aliki Yotopoulou, a member of Greece’s Council of State (Supreme Administrative Court) has described the privatization of Greece as unprecedented on an international level and with no other country in the world having created a body like the HRADF. The body — administered by a five member Board of Directors, all businessmen that shareholders appoint — is not subject to democratic oversight.
Rationalizing how it compromises the Hellenic Republic’s national sovereignty to international capital, HRADF views privatization, not merely as a sale of public assets, but a “key element in re-establishing credibility” for the return of Greece as a player in global capital markets. HRADF was created in 2011 with the sole mission of maximize profits from the sale of Greece’s public assets. More than 80,000 properties have been assessed, 3,000 preselected for development and 1,000 already transferred to the body for privatization. The HRADF boasts of having already “raised” 3.1 billion of its 7.7 billion euro (US $8.9 billion) transaction value. It prides itself in that a large number of regulatory, administrative and technical barriers have been slashed to speed up privatizations.
Without any democratic input, HRADF privatizes key assets that the Greek state has owned since its inception. It has raised billions of euros by making or putting into process more than 40 privatizations, including the sale of 14 of Greece’s airports, major radio frequencies and telephony services, island beaches, historic buildings around the Acropolis, the sale and leaseback of government buildings, gas and water systems, ports, and railway systems. Isychos described the privatization process as “a neo-colonial strategy on behalf of the lenders.”
3. The Eurozone: Earthquake
Ever since Syriza stepped into the ring as a serious electoral contender, European and Greek elites have heightened fears about panicky investors and a Greek expulsion from the eurozone, what they call a “Grexit.” A Grexit would set the precedent that other countries could also leave, thus calling into question the EU edifice. Current Prime Minister Antonis Samaras summoned the ghost of a future “Grexit” when he derogatorily referred to the leading opposition party as “drachma speculators,” suggesting that a Syriza victory Jan. 25 would send the country back to the days before it joined the EU in 1981.
While some worry that a “Grexit” could send major tremors though the 19-member single currency zone, shaking its foundations, Germany is more confident, if not posturing, that the eurozone banking system is now prepared for a Grexit, more than at any other time during the euro crisis.
However, aside from a possible investor stampede, the European establishment is also worried that a Syriza victory could initiate a domino effect, spurring voters to elect radical left parties in other periphery countries. Tsipras recently linked the struggles of peoples throughout Europe at his party’s congress. “The necessary change in Europe starts here, in Greece,” he said. He predicted that the victory of Syriza would be the first for many anti-austerity parties in Europe, while specifically naming Podemos in Spain and Sinn Fein in Ireland. Podemos, founded less then a year ago, is leading polls ahead of a general elections later this year.
Discussing how Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland face the same problems, Isychos stressed, “The [European establishment] must come to their senses and remember that this is not a Greek problem in Europe. But this is a European problem. A problem of the European periphery.”
4. Greek Social Movements & Syriza
While forcing austerity on Greece, the eurozone establishment has been applying a strategy of fear in the hope of persuading the Greek electorate to vote against Syriza. While talking about Greece’s debt payment obligations, the EU’s top economic official, Pierre Moscovici, slyly warned that a vote for Syriza would be a vote for suicide, “The idea of contemplating not reimbursing debt is, in my view, suicidal, with a risk of default.” Implicit in the fear of a Greek default is that a Syriza victory would send the eurozone plummeting back into a deep, however now more acute, crisis. By projecting an unbending will to force its debt repayment conditions on Greece — such as the systematic privatization of the country’s assets and the slashing of public services — the eurozone establishment is trying to break Syriza’s back, and with consequences beyond the party, for social movements and the political direction that Greek people face.
“We are a product of the crisis and we hope not to become part of the problem, but become part of the solution,” Isychos proposed. “Our strategy is to get out of austerity. … And to renegotiate, and I mean a strong renegotiation, even if it means we will disagree on most of the topics we talk about.” But one risk of an election day victory, is that taking parliamentary power could place Syriza in the line of fire, which could also break the party.
Channel 4’s Economics Editor Paul Mason has pointed out the risks of a Syriza victory. The risks run from prompting capital flight to defaulting on the country’s debt. A third major risk Mason points to is that, “Syriza’s mass base will not accept the slow pace of economic change … and that the party will disintegrate under the pressure of being in power.”
But the scenario of a Syriza disintegration holds additional possible consequences. Greece has many vibrant social movements, including ecological struggles, the student movement and free social spaces, that, long before Syriza became an electoral force, were working to pressure existing institutions and create news ones that sought to empower people and meet needs that the established government and austerity economy could not fulfill. Now many grassroots social movements are either directly supporting Syriza or are grappling with how to critically support, or find common alliances with the party’s program, while also retaining their autonomy. As Greece’s center of political gravity shifts to revolve around Syriza, the possibility if a Syriza disintegration under pressure also runs the risk of breaking some of these social movements, many of which have proven to be the last line of defense in a society that has failed its people. And the opposite, that a Syriza victory could help galvanise social movements, may also be true. The risk of a Syriza victory or failure has important consequences for the movements. But something darker is also at risk.
Should a Syriza government debt default occur, it would happen after five years of mounting economic crisis. The rising tide of poverty and political instability that has caused social turmoil in the country, has also contributed to hostility toward foreigners. The additional risk is that the Greek far-right and neo-nazi movement reemerges. Playing on social anxieties and insecurities, the neo-nazi Golden Dawn party managed, until recently, to carve out a leadership role for itself by terrorizing the country’s weak and vulnerable, and turning them into scapegoats for social and economic woes. In the last elections they amassed 18 MPs to parliament. The party’s top officials are currently in prison having been accused of constituting a criminal organization. Although Golden Dawn might have its hands tied in legal proceeds, the threat of a far-right renaissance in Greece, as in the rest of Europe, seems to be just beneath the surface.
The rise of extremism in Greece is a serious problem. The eurozone establishment has simultaneously legitimized the far-right by adopting anti-immigrant policies and islamophobic rhetoric while attempting to also pigeonhole Syriza and other left forces as an example of the rise of European extremism. Euclid Tsakalotos, Syriza’s shadow Finance Minister recently told the Guardian that modern politics has shifted “so much to the right since the advent of Thatcherism that the party’s proposals now seem radical.” He pointed out that Syriza positions that Euro elites call radical were standard in the 1950s and 60s. “We are only more radical in the sense that we have been influenced by the anti-global movement and believe in concepts of participatory democracy,” he said. Where as Thatcher argued that there was no alternative to neoliberalism and austerity, Syriza has stirred ire for challenging a system that has failed to meet even the basic needs of the masses of people.
Conclusion: Stakes are High
The stakes are high in this Greek election. But at the moment, many Greeks are hopeful about Syriza’s prospective victory and challenge to the system. Winning an absolute majority in Greece’s 300 seat parliament would be a clear victory. It would be the first time that a left party in Greece will have come to majoritarian power in modern Greek history, since the end of the “The Regime of the Colonels” dictatorship in 1974.
But recent polls this week suggest that the party would currently win 147 seats, just shy of a majority. This number includes the extra 50 seats the electoral system awards the winning party to make it easier to form a government. If they do not win an absolute majority, Syriza would have to form a coalition or garner parliamentary support from other parties to form a minority government.
Regardless, all eyes will be on Syriza long after the Jan. 25 elections, win or lose, watching to see how the party navigates the coutry’s debt, the waves of privatization flooding their country, and how the lives of the Greek people will be affected.
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