WHY HAS Greece taken the lead? Quite simply because its ordinary people have been subjected to five austerity packages between February 2010 and February 2012. The first three alone amounted to a total cut of €30 billion (12.5 per cent of the 2009 Greek GDP).
There was a further cut of five per cent of GDP in 2010, and then 4 per cent in 2011. Such destruction has not been seen in Western Europe since the 1930s and is similar in its severity to the collapse of the economies in the USSR and Eastern Europe in the decade after the restoration of capitalism.
Greece’s recession, which began in 2008, has continued through the so-called recovery years. Greek GDP fell by 6.9 per cent in 2011 and estimates for 2012 predict a fall of between 5 per cent (Greek Central Bank) and 7.15 per cent. (UK Economist Intelligence Unit). The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate soared from 7.5 per cent, in September 2008, to 21.7 per cent in January 2012. For young people unemployment has risen from 22 per cent to 51.1 per cent.
Public sector workers have seen their pay cut by an average of 40 per cent, and most pensions have been massively reduced. One year ago, retired public sector workers received a pension of around €1200 per month. In the autumn, that was cut to €800 and the Papademos government is planning to cut it to €600. In the private sector, too, pay rates have plummeted, in the building industry pay for casual labourers is half what it was two years ago.
There are soup kitchens on the streets of Athens, with an estimated one in 11 residents, some 400,000 people, visiting at least once daily. There has been a major increase in people sleeping rough: by February 2012, 20,000 Greeks had been made homeless over the previous year. Large numbers of unemployed are returning to their family villages, where relatives can provide a roof and basic foodstuffs.
Yet the country’s workers, young people, and unemployed have not suffered in silence. Horrible as the last years have been they are not just “a Greek tragedy” but rather an inspiration to all those in Europe already suffering austerity or imminently threatened with it.
In a sense, the Greek fight back started as long ago as December 2008 with the three weeks of the youth uprising over the murder by police of 15-year old Alexandros Grigoropoulos. However, it became a continuous movement when the first wave of savage austerity was imposed by the Pasok government of George Papandreou, which had won election in October 2009 on the basis of avoiding cuts and privatisations.
By the spring of the following year he had had caved in to “the markets”, that is, the billionaire speculators in government bonds and the EU and introducing the first of the savage austerity packages.
A mass movement of resistance began with a general strike on 10 February 2010, and continued on 5 May when between 100,00 and 500,000 marched in Athens and laid siege to parliament, where the MPs were voting, chanting: “thieves, thieves!”
The movement intensified hugely the following year when it became clear that austerity was never ending. In March 2011 alone, there were three general strikes.
On 25 May 2011 Syntagma Square, and the central squares of other cities, were occupied by thousands of peaceful protesters, inspired by the actions of the Spanish Indignados movement. On May 15, there was another general strike and 300,000 demonstrators once more˚ surrounded the Greek parliament. The square occupations with their daily assemblies carried on into August.
October-November witnessed a veritable tidal wave of protests, including a 48-hour general strike and a strike of ferry workers, which finally drove out the Pasok government. Angry demonstrators laid siege to parliament, though they were still unable to prevent the hated politicians voting for more austerity.
At the beginning of last November the Papandreou government was replaced by a “national government” headed by an economist, Lucas Papademos, supported by New Democracy and Pasok but forced to pledge a general election in the spring. Meanwhile Papademos, bolstered by the arrival of commissioners from the Troika, tried to force through another austerity package. On February 10-11 there was another general strike and 500,000 marched in Athens.
Although the 17 24-or 48-hour general strikes, the 2011 occupations and the assemblies did not overthrow the government and replace it with one that would carry out the manifest will of the people, they did create such political instability that the parties had no alternative but to face their enraged voters. This election, when it came, on 6 May, was catastrophic for the entire post 1974 clientelist system in which Pasok and New Democracy took turns at milking the Greek state.
After such a catastrophic fall in living standards, it was surely no wonder that the electorate explicitly rejected these parties. An added source of fury was the fact that northern European mega-corporations, like Siemens and Tesco, were asset stripping the country both from privatisation of the public sector and from the wave of bankruptcies in the private sector.
Support for Syriza, the only serious party that unequivocally called for an end to austerity, and whose members had actively participated in all the protests, shot up to 16.8 per cent, pushing Pasok down to 13.8 per cent and third place.