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 stages.

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 in Greece.

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