A historic vote in Greece, but challenges ahead

It is the morning after the biggest celebration Greece has seen since the fall of military rule. An emphatic 61 percent of people voted OXI (“no”) in the country’s referendum on whether to accept European-enforced austerity.

People gathered in Syntagma Square in central Athens and in squares around the country. Families celebrated together in their lounge rooms with neighbours. Friends came together in bars.

This was more than a party. It was a social convulsion after five years of bitter austerity.

In calling the referendum, prime minister Alexis Tsipras unleashed a social outpouring. It was a tactic, after five months of negotiations, born in the space between the reactionary right of the Eurogroup and the radical left of his own party, which threatened to vote against any more compromises.

If anyone had doubts about its significance, they only had to see the photos of people celebrating to understand what it meant to have won. There were tears in the eyes of old men as comrades and friends embraced.

I soaked up every glorious minute. Coming out of the cafe where I had been ensconced reading the results, I immediately ran into an impromptu demonstration of a few hundred heading toward Panepistimiou station.

They were mostly young people; quite a few like me had come from across Europe to campaign. Cars tooted and drivers and marchers together whooped with joy. They were chanting about pointing their faces in a new direction of struggle and resistance.

At the gathering point for Syriza members, music was playing. As we neared, they broke into “Bella Ciao”, the song of the Italian anti-fascist resistance. People had been singing it in Syntagma on Friday night at a massive OXI campaign rally. Tonight, people were dancing as well.

All week, there had been rallies in Syntagma. Twenty thousand OXI supporters on Monday night. Similar on Tuesday for the NEI campaign. On Thursday the Communist Party had its smaller outing. Then on Friday a history-making final OXI campaign rally of several hundred thousand, dwarfing the NEI rally on the other side of the parliament in Olympic stadium.

There were probably thousands of meetings and events in other areas of Athens and across the country, but Syntagma had been the focus. Everyone knew that the winner would be here on Sunday.

People stood as victors at the top of the stairs in front of the parliament and watched others stream into the square. The fountain in the centre was illuminated by red lights. Mothers grasped onto their adult sons, swaying together as they sang songs from the civil war era.

The sense that this was their night was profound. Said one man that I interviewed en route to Syntagma: “What has happened here is something unique … one and a half parties – Syriza and [their coalition partner, the Independent Greeks, ANEL] against all the world. Against the media, against the system – the European system and the Greek system. Everybody was against us and we almost died but we say ‘no’”.

The European heads of state and the leaders of European social democracy all said, “Vote yes”. Not only did they say it but they used their control of the media to make every news anchor, journalist and entertainer a mouthpiece for the yes case.

News reports ran exaggerated pieces about shortages in supermarkets. Rumours that bank deposits would be seized on Monday were spread to create panic. They conducted push polls that made the yes camp appear stronger than it was.

The European Central Banks’s decision to end Emergency Liquidity Assistance a week before the referendum transformed them from creditors to blackmailers.

Bosses stood down workers without pay, blaming Syriza for closing the banks. Others threatened that workers would not have a job to come back to on Monday if they voted no. It was nothing short of terrorisation. But as one voter said, “It has not just been chaos this week; it has been chaos for 5 years”. This sentiment underpinned people’s resolve.

“Germany has made three wars against us and this is the worst”, said the taxi driver taking me on election day to a polling station in Nikaia, near the port. He echoed what I had heard all week: people were tired of being dictated to by German chancellor Angela Merkel and her finance minister Wolfgang Schauble; a war had been unleashed against them, robbing them of democracy and dignity.

At the polling station, a voter supporting her elderly mother stood in the blaring sun and told me: “This is Nikaia. We know what it means to stand up to Germany and the Nazis”.

During the Nazi occupation, the men of Nikaia were lined up in the square while collaborators, wearing masks, identified the resistance fighters to be taken and executed. Grandparents still remember the atrocities. They have told their children these stories, who have in turn told their children. This history of refusing to submit in the face of the most horrific brutality is colliding all the time with the present.

The two areas I visited on polling day had no votes of more than 70 percent, much higher than the average of 61 percent. It was breathtaking watching the results roll in. Our side was much stronger than the polls had predicted.

People now are riding high from their triumph over the immense political and economic forces arrayed against them. The masses have asserted themselves and they know it. They know that Merkel had a plan to deliver more economic misery.

They know now that they will be an example to others. They know that their own struggle will be strengthened by its spread. As one man told me, “We can’t do this on our own. I hope all European peoples will rise up”. When my translator friend, George, struck up a conversation with a young Sevillian, he wished them the same success in the elections in September.

This week, the legitimacy of capitalist institutions was undermined. The organisations of civil society that are able to prop up capitalist rule by appearing reasonable and independent all vigorously campaigned for a yes. These are the collaborators, and a people at war will not readily forget their faces.

However, Tsipras’s strategy is not to use the no vote to begin the necessary social reconstruction promised when Syriza won office in January: to raise the minimum wage and social security, restore collective bargaining, reconnect the utilities in homes, spend money on public housing, healthcare and education etc.

Instead, he has said the no vote will enable him to go back to Brussels to negotiate a new agreement. Many of the Eurogroup finance ministers, however, appear firm that there should not be much, if any, compromise on their part.

Granting debt forgiveness or easing austerity, some of them reason, would send a message to the workers in Portugal, Spain and beyond that if you elect a left government, you can at the very least renegotiate with the European institutions. They fear a contagion of democracy that could mean many billions of euros sacrificed to the popular will.

It may be that the position of Schauble and his lieutenant, the leader of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, Sigmar Gabriel, wins out. They say that the EU should cut its losses, stop putting up with the impertinent Greeks and their crazy ideas of democracy, boot them out and hope they go hungry.

That is the counter example they hope to set. It is not a new thought. Timothy Geithner, former US treasury secretary, in his 2014 book Stress test: reflections on financial crises, recalled the attitude of the European finance ministers during a 2010 G7 meeting in Canada: “We’re going to teach the Greeks a lesson … we’re going to crush them”.

However, Sunday’s result adds risk to this position. It will further expose that they do not give a damn about the wishes of the majority. That could confirm what many workers across Europe already feel: there is no real democracy. The European ruling classes can ill-afford cynicism among people becoming open defiance.

Furthermore, a Grexit, whatever the trigger, will deepen the economic crisis in the country. That will require immediate and decisive actions by the Greek government, which also could serve as a counter-example to neoliberal normalcy – one that inspires hope, rather than fear, in workers across the continent. A statement by the Internationalist Workers Left, a leading force in the Left Platform inside Syriza, spells some of this out:

“We understand the pressures and dilemmas faced by the government; and in particular the extortion tactics of the creditors with their threats to the banking system. Those threats can only be answered by the nationalisation of banks and the establishment of public control, under the direction of the workers in this sector. This is decisive for the functioning of the whole economy.

“The ‘no’ vote was an unwavering demand for the reversal of austerity. It is a call for Syriza to decisively implement the program of the radical left, taking all economic, political and financial measures necessary.”

There are many potential scenarios, and as we watch how it unfolds, we will do well to remember that the decisions that will be made in the coming days and weeks are being made by people who are still scrambling to understand the real meaning of Sunday’s result.

The main weakness on our side is that Tsipras showed, in the middle of the referendum campaign, that almost everything was on the table in the negotiations with the country’s creditors.

If Tsipras comes home to Athens from Brussels with an agreement in his briefcase, we will soon learn the answers to the major questions of the day: to what extent are the European ruling classes willing to compromise to keep Greece in the euro area, and what sort of compromise will the left within Syriza accept and vote for in parliament.

The debate will be most intense within the party. However, it will be carried out in the context of a mass politicisation brought on by the crisis, heightened through many confrontations, intensified this week and mediated by some assessment on the left of what people “on the street” will accept.

I am tempered by the taxi driver who said to me on Sunday that people had elected Syriza to do 10 things but expect them to do two. He was critical of that, but it was also a measure of what for him would suffice for now, given the circumstances. Despite compromises, Tsipras is more popular than ever because he is perceived to have stood up to the creditors’ demands.

Even if a compromise is reached, there are still possibilities. If workers can stand up to an historic campaign of fear waged by the European establishment, they might begin to stand up to the daily tyrannies of their petty managers.

In a hospital this morning, people were talking about the referendum. Someone came up with the idea that they could surround the mayoral building in the city until the mayor, who had spoken at yes rallies, resigns. The idea had spread around the traps by 9am. It is a sign of the way people are now thinking.

On Sunday night, Panayiotis, a journalist in his mid-30s who had previously been a member of Antarsya, an anti-capitalist coalition outside of Syriza, turned to me in a crowded bar and said, “Tonight we are free”. It is freedom from being dictated to by capital for a week – but there is also a resolute sense that the crisis will not end tomorrow.

As one man told an ABC radio journalist, “We are hungry today, we will be hungry tomorrow but today we stood up and said no” He was expressing pride in resistance, but also pragmatism about what can be achieved without a much greater level of struggle.

Some among the Left Platform within Syriza are not necessarily opposed to a deal per se. They share Tsipras’s framework that the struggle unleashed during the referendum is a means to a better deal.

Tsipras was emphasising at the huge OXI rally on Friday, even before the referendum had been won, that from Monday Greece must rebuild national unity. He then called a meeting of the leaders of the discredited pro-austerity parties this morning to build consensus for reaching a deal.

The radical left will likely find itself in a smaller minority than before the referendum, when there was little that could be salvaged from the worse and worse offers the Troika put on the table. How much of a minority will probably depend on the shape of the agreement – if one can be reached, that is.

If there’s no agreement in a few days and the strangulation continues, the questions of how to organise society to meet people’s immediate needs will be pressing.

The class schism that was torn open last week is one of the best legacies of the ongoing process. The sense of “us versus them” is palpable and clarifying.

In a very short week, there has been a reckoning. Over the coming months we will learn the full measure of Sunday’s victory in the preparedness of workers, students and the unemployed within Greece and across Europe to continue the fight against every manifestation of austerity.

Photo credit: Tia Kass. First published at Red Flag, newspaper of Socialist Alternative, Australia