Greece: Social Democracy near collapse
by Antonis Davanellos
International Socialist Review, May-June 2002
Workers mobiiizations in the spring of 2001 have proven to
be a point of no return for political developments in Greece.
The enormous general strikes of April 26 and May 17, 2001-with
accompanying demonstrations of more than 800,000 workers-were
organized against the neoliberal policies of the social-democratic
government. Through these mobilizations, the labor movement forced
the government of PASOK (Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement) to withdraw
proposed measures for social welfare reform.
Despite this retreat a critical rift has opened up between
the policies of Prime Minister Costas Simitis (a Tony Blair type
of "modernizer") and social democracy's base in the
labor movement. The past year has been a crucial period full of
political lessons for the left.
In the aftermath of the strikes, it appeared that the Simitis
government had reached the beginnings of collapse. But social-democratic
parties are not easy opponents. In the fall of 2001, Simitis used
the threat of resignation to call for an extraordinary congress
of PASOK. At the congress, he imposed upon all wings of his party-in
particular, the leadership of the trade unions-an obligation to
support his government.
Simitis also made important changes to the composition of
the government, moving hard-line modernizers into all the crucial
ministries and demoting traditional social democrats, who represent
a continuation from the 1970s and especially the 1980s when PASOK
first came to power, to secondary positions.
The new government then declared that it would concentrate
on implementing neoliberal policies of "structural change":
privatizations, flexible labor relations, austerity revenue policies,
and cuts in social spending, especially social welfare.
But the new government cannot simply ignore the balance of
class forces that was revealed in the general strikes of spring
2001. So in April 2002, when the Simitis government introduced
its new plan for implementing the social welfare reforms demanded
by the bosses, it proposed that the changes be accomplished in
Using a strategy of divide and conquer to succeed where it
failed last year, the government plan directly attacks only one
section of the working class-workers in banks and large public
enterprises, which it attempts to portray as privileged. Similar
changes for the rest of the working class are scheduled to occur
successively over the next 10 to 20 years.
The plan has had some success, and having secured the support
of the social-democratic leadership of the unions, the Simitis
government looks to be on the rebound. Thus far, strikes opposing
the reform plan have been limited to the public sector and the
banks, and it doesn't look as if they will be ale overturn the
new government measures in the near future.
The shift in the government's strategy can also be linked
to reorientation inside the ruling class. The Association of ,reek
Industrialists, in a panic following the big strikes of last spring,
initially turned to New Democracy (ND), the conservative party
of the right. But they changed course soon after. The minimal
influence of ND in the trade unions made a government of the right
look like a political adventure and raised the possibility of
an out-of-control wave of strikes. Consequently, the industrialists
and the bankers turned once again to the Simitis government.
The approaching economic recession canceled out hopes of stabilization
for the PASOK government. In these harsh new economic times, bitter
antagonisms have broken out among competing capitalist groups.
Daily revelations of economic scandal inundate the media and put
enormous pressure on the government. In the meantime, the ruling
class as a whole has hardened its stance toward the government.
It has declared that time is up and demands a program of immediate
attacks on essential workers' rights.
So the Simitis government is caught between two large, opposing
forces: on the one hand, the capitalists, who demand the speedup
of the neoliberal agenda; on the other hand, the labor movement,
which hasn't given in yet by anyone's estimation, even when it
remains silent or is represented by only sporadic strikes.
Sinking deeper and deeper into the quagmire of the free market,
the Simitis government seems paralyzed. Polls for the next parliamentary
elections show ND leading by up to seven points. The October municipal
elections, which traditionally provide an opportunity to demonstrate
messages of protest, are likely to be a political disaster for
PASOK, calling into question Simitis' ability to survive.
Simitis is the prime minister who brought Greece into the
European Monetary Union. Like France's outgoing prime minister,
Lionel Jospin, he appeared until recently to have overseen a series
of "economic successes." Also like Jospin, his government
is ready to collapse under the disillusionment of workers caused
by his policies.
In Greece, the majority of the people are on the left, which
consists of the social democrats of PASOK and the Communist left.
But the collapse of social democracy could break up that majority
and open the way to a government of the right. This development
has stoked political discussion and opens up the prospect of great
changes in the left.
Many leading members of PASOK, underlining the threat from
the right, are calling for a "center-left" alliance.
The pressure is directed mainly at the Alliance of the Left party
(formerly the Eurocommunist section of the old Communist Party).
People's disillusionment with PASOK is so great, however, that
any such attempt will be very limited. The few opportunistic left
figures who have dared to enter into a discussion of a "center-left"
agenda have seen their popularity collapse. The search for a third
pole-beyond the crisis of social democracy and the threat of the
right-is therefore oriented mainly toward the left.
Resistance to neoliberalism, in the form of united action
to resist and overturn neoliberal policies, has emerged as a political
basis for the regroupment of the left in Greece. This is reinforced
by the prestige that has been gained by the movement against capitalist
globalization since the big international demonstrations in Genoa,
Italy and Barcelona, Spain. In June 2003, the European Union Summit
will take place in the Greek city of Thessaloniki, which means
that the movement in Greece is called upon to organize its own
Genoa. Preparations are already underway, and it is safe to predict
that "Thessaloniki 2003" will be a nightmare for whatever
government is in power at that time.
A more organized left
The left in Greece is more organized and ideologically entrenched
than in many other European countries. The Communist Party (CP)
survived after 1989 by returning to its old, Stalinist, sectarian
politics. Despite the great opportunities offered by the current
period, the CP retains only 5 percent of the electorate-cause
for incessant internal crisis and questioning of the party's direction
by its members and supporters. The Alliance of the Left, with
about 3 percent of the vote, is being pulled in two directions:
Its right wing attempts to form partnerships with PASOK, while
its left wing opens up to the movement against capitalist globalization
and to alliances with the revolutionary left.
Under these circumstances, the creation of the "Place
of Common Action and Dialogue on the Left" has been an important
initiative. All the major left groups participate-the Alliance
of the Left, the movements originating from the breakup of the
CP, the International Revolutionary Left (DEA, the International
Socialist Organization's sister group in Greece), the Greek section
of the Militant, environmentalist groups, and all of the more
serious movement organizations.
In the movement against globalization, these same political
forces have organized a coalition, Global Action, along the lines
of a united front. Global Action has called a number of mass actions
against the war, in solidarity with the Palestinians, and against
the activity of neo-Nazis and racism. At present, it is organizing
the campaign for Seville, Spain (next stop of the Euro summit),
and Thessaloniki 2003. The ability of the left to organize united
front actions against neoliberalism and the war will be a crucial
factor in future developments.
Social democracy in Greece is heading toward a serious political
defeat that will probably provide the right with an opportunity
to return to power. But the labor movement has not yielded ground
yet. Thousands of workers understand that the crisis of the PASOK
government is the result of adherence to neoliberal policies,
not proof of a dead end for the left. This fact makes possible
a fightback by the labor movement, as well as a regroupment of
the left. It is worth noting, after Genoa and Barcelona and the
results of the recent French elections, that the role of the revolutionary
left has become even more distinct. This has been recognized by
important sections of the left and the labor movement.
Building a revolutionary organization and engaging in the
united front action of the left and the labor-movement fightback
are the fundamental priorities that direct DEA's actions in Greece.
Antonis Davanellos is the editor of Workers Left newspaper