By Pete Dolack
Voters in Greece sort of voted as they were ordered to by European financiers and banking officials. Or least enough voters did so for them to declare victory.
The stability that financiers and banking officials cherish, however, appears elusive. Greece will have a new austerity government although anti-austerity parties won a majority of votes. For, to put it in the current Greek terminology, the pro-“memorandum” parties earned only 42 percent of the vote between them. Yet those two parties, New Democracy and Pasok, won a majority of seats in Greece’s parliament.
Those parties, along with coalition partner Democratic Left, will govern for now, but they will not rule.
The 50-seat bonus given to the first-place finisher, a peculiarity of Greek electoral law, did what it is intended to do — make the formation of a government easier. Without the bonus, there would have been too much fragmentation and the likelihood of a third election in as many months. As it is, the June 17 re-vote provided a vivid illustration of a bitterly divided country, although the vote was more consolidated than was the May 6 vote.
New Democracy, Greece’s major party of the Right, won 30 percent of the vote this time as opposed to 19 percent a month ago; Syriza, the Coalition of the Radical Left, won 27 percent of the vote as opposed to 17 percent a month ago. At bottom, such consolidation probably reflects more than any other factor the relentless pressure applied by officials of the European Central Bank, the European Union apparatus, the Bundesbank (Germany’s central bank) and finance capital in general. They quickly served notice that the pressure is not off when they demanded the formation of a government to their liking.
Before the results were official, the finance ministers of the countries using the euro as their common currency (referring to themselves as the “Eurogroup”) issued a statement that declared the election “should allow for the formation of a government that will carry the support of the electorate to bring Greece back on a path of sustainable growth. … The Eurogroup therefore looks forward to the swift formation of a new Greek government that will take ownership of the adjustment programme to which Greece and the Eurogroup earlier this year committed themselves. The Eurogroup expects the [lending] institutions to return to Athens as soon as a new government is in place to exchange views with the new government on the way forward and prepare the first review under the second adjustment programme.”
European Union officials were said to be insisting on the largest possible coalition, although New Democracy and Pasok, Greece’s discredited parties who formerly alternated in government, do have a majority of seats by themselves thanks to New Democracy’s 50-seat first-place bonus. Double-talk promises by the two parties that there is no alternative to continuing with the “memorandum” (as the agreement with the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund is called in Greece) was paired with their insisting they would negotiate new terms.
In essence, New Democracy and Pasok said, “Vote for us and we’ll get more loans and better terms.” But let’s parse the finance ministers’ statement above. The key passage is their “expectation” that the “Greek government that will take ownership of the adjustment programme,” making sure to note that Greece has “committed” itself. Minor tinkering with the details aside, that means stick with the (austerity) plan. Considering the highly politicized state of Greeks these days, the number who voted for one of the two austerity parties out of fear induced by the daily warnings of economic armaggedon must surely be higher than those who believed the unrealistic promises. The statement given by the finance ministers isn’t any different from what they, and the financiers whom they represent, had repeatedly delivered in the five weeks between elections.
Banking officials realize they have to “reward” Greeks for voting as they were told, and will make minor concessions, mostly likely by extending some repayment periods. The basic program, however, is not going to change, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel made clear in a proclamation at the Group of 20 summit a day after the election: “There can be no loosening of the reform steps.”
The translation of Chancellor Merkel’s statement is that the “markets” — financiers in the form of investment bankers, bond traders, hedge-fund managers and other speculators — will be making the decisions. That is consistent with her insistence that further “relief” from mounting debt depends on a willingness to subordinate further to financiers and central banks. Chancellor Merkel is not a stubborn holdout nor obsessed with Weimar-era inflation as she is often portrayed; she is simply reminding other national political leaders that any eurozone harmonization will conform to the tightest policy among them and Germany has that tightest policy. The “markets” insist on it.
The choice facing not only Greeks but all peoples living in eurozone countries is to accept the logic of capitalist development or to mount a coordinated, cross-border fightback. Accepting the logic of E.U. capitalism is to accept that financiers and central bankers will continue to impose austerity and the inevitability of relinquishing the power to make political decisions to them so that decisions are made by unaccountable bureaucrats in a supra-national governing structure rather than by national governments subject to elections.
Not that elections are currently decisive. The new Greek government will govern, but it will not rule. That was made clear last year, when former Prime Minister Georgios Papandreou dared to suggest a popular referendum on austerity plans. The Guardian reported at the time that Chancellor Merkel and then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy “summoned” the Greek prime minster to a meeting to inform him there would no referendum. There wasn’t. What did happen was a dictated revision to the Greek constitution mandating that repayment of debt would supersede any other government spending.
Markets aren’t voted upon. But, again, markets are the amalgamation and distillation of the most powerful big capitalists, and it is those interests that will not be put to a referendum. New Democracy and Pasok had already submitted to this power and, having made their commitment, can do nothing other than go on submitting to it.
There are far from the first. Here are two quick examples. When the Sandinistas stood for re-election in 1989, Nicaragua had endured several years of debilitating terrorism and economic sabotage from the Contras and their U.S. organizers. There was no ambiguity here: the United States told Nicaraguans to vote out the Sandinistas or the war will continue. Weary Nicaraguans voted to end the war and for a coalition that dangled promises of U.S. aid in exchange for voting as they were told. The war did end, but no more than a tiny fraction of the promised aid was delivered. Nonetheless, the anti-Sandinista coalition, having made its commitment, carried out the dictated privatization that was a windfall to foreign capitalists because the state properties were sold well below market value — the price for what aid did arrive.
A second example is South Korea. Austerity was imposed on that country as the dissident leader against military dictatorship, Kim Dae-jung, became South Korea’s first opposition president at the end of 1997. Speculators had fueled construction booms and stock-market bubbles across Southeast Asia in the mid-1990s, causing an inflation in the local currencies until it was no longer profitable to speculate on the exchange rates. At that point, speculators pulled their money out, causing the value of those currencies to plunge and triggering the region’s 1997 economic collapse. Countries such as Thailand had to impose harsh austerity, including widespread layoffs, in exchange for loans needed after the collapse. President Kim took office two weeks after South Korea accepted loans with similar conditions, and although the United States had failed in its effort to defeat him, “market discipline” did more to neutralize him and demoralize his supporters than direct U.S. political pressure could have done.
No single country can stand outside the forces of capitalism. Syriza, had it finished first and been able to form a government, could not simply delink Greece. Syriza’s voters unambiguously sought an end to austerity, an end to immiserating an entire country to maintain financiers’ profits and the renouncement of the memorandum including a halt to debt payments. A Syriza-led government could do those things, but would still be forced to maneuver within the parameters of the world capitalist system.
It is estimated that the Greek government is owed 45 billion euros in unpaid taxes. On top of that total, many wealthy Greeks and some middle class Greeks who work in the private sector pay little or no taxes. Greece’s most powerful industrial sector, the shipping industry, pays no taxes and has its tax-free status enshrined in the constitution. New Democracy’s base is the wealthy and others who don’t pay taxes. The party’s backers would not tolerate a change and have a network of links with international capitalists intertwining their interests.
Syriza and the other Left parties in Greece could require them to pay taxes, but the ease with which the wealthy can move their assets and bank accounts to other countries would greatly diminish the effect. Inevitably, nationalization of key industries would move on to the agenda, and that would bring to the fore a serious questioning of the capitalist system.
That system can’t be challenged by any one country, certainly not one as small as Greece. A credible challenge can only be a multi-national challenge. And a challenge to austerity, or the larger system that imposes it, will not take place in the ballot booth.
For the past several weeks, Greece had been on a knife edge, a political Schrödinger’s cat. Accepting the memorandum, rejecting the memorandum. The latest election gives the appearance of acceptance at the same time more voted to reject. A stalemate. But that is not any more stable. Greece can not accept and reject simultaneously. If the choice, finally, is to reject, then the rejection can only be an international rejection. The world’s financiers and industrialists are united across borders; the rest of us must be as well.
We may be Greek working people, British working people, U.S. working people, Argentine working people, and so forth, but we share a common humanity — the basis on which to join together. It is Greece today but it will be you tomorrow.