By Panagis Galiatsatos
Leftist opposition leader Alexis Tsipras admits to his party’s lackluster performance in recent opinion polls, but says that it has not cause him particular concern. In a recent interview with Kathimerini, the leader of SYRIZA attributes the party’s drop in popularity to anti-bailout voters so disappointed with developments that they are unwilling to express support for any party at all – a reluctance that has also taken a toll on Greece’s other anti-bailout parties.
Tsipras, however, is confident that SYRIZA will manage to rally its forces whenever general elections are next held, but adds that the party must refine its platform.
You recently admitted that SYRIZA’s popularity in opinion polls is rather stagnant. The party’s left faction appears to consider this a result of your pragmatic shift, as it were, and argue that the best solution is the further radicalization of SYRIZA. What is your opinion?
It is odd that a party which only a few years ago polled at just over 4 percent is now considered stagnant when public surveys put it at above 20 percent. Nevertheless, recent findings are here to remind us that we still have a lot to do in order to dissipate the widespread fear and insecurity, and to beat the scaremongering regarding the consequences of scrapping the memorandum. We need to become more militant, more credible and more effective.
You have said that the alliance between socialists and conservatives – as is the case in the coalition government – is an aberration. Do you aspire to see the emergence of new center-left parties?
In supporting the memorandum and falling under the wing of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, the traditional social democrats and the center-left essentially undid themselves. We aim to create a broad front that will counter the policies of the memorandum in a credible manner. Of course, this front would include all parties of the left but it could also engage voters from the two parties that used to dominate Greek politics. This can already be seen on the level of society. Those looking at SYRIZA for hope and solutions come from across the political spectrum. We would seek to build the broadest possible alliance with the aim of abolishing the memorandum and implementing a plan to regenerate society and production. It will obviously be a leftist plan, but one addressed at the large majority.
You have strongly criticized PASOK and Democratic Left for entering the government coalition. Would you ever cooperate with either of the two?
We rule out any cooperation that lies within the contours of the memorandum policy. This means that, as things stand today, there is no room for convergence with these parties. But we must also keep in mind that we are looking at a radical transformation of the political system.
Is there no chance of a coalition with New Democracy under special circumstances?
I cannot imagine what these “special circumstances” would be. All three pro-bailout parties sought to work with us during the exploratory mandate. They thought that this would be a way of placing on our shoulders a chunk of the huge political cost that came with the dismantling of society, successive cuts and the introduction of the property taxes. Our policy lies in a completely different direction. The memorandum has to be scrapped. And this can only happen under a left-wing government led by SYRIZA.
You have said that you would scrap the memorandum and renegotiate the bailout agreement. This would mean extra money from our European peers and the IMF. Would they be willing to dig deeper into their pockets?
The only alternative is a disorderly default – and this is something that neither we nor our lenders want. We should also note that when the left put forward the idea of a debt write-down it was derided. Now it is on the official agenda regarding the sustainability of Greek debt. Even the issue of a debt moratorium, which we proposed early on, is now being openly discussed by the Eurogroup. Facts indicate that the debt can only become sustainable if we break the vicious cycle of recession, and in order to do this we must first end the policy of austerity. We need to be given an opportunity to return to growth so that we can start repaying our debt. This was deemed reasonable in the past when the issue of German debt was on the table. And it is indeed reasonable. But it requires a government that is determined to negotiate on this basis.
Your economic program is centered around the demand for a further debt haircut. What will happen to it if there is no such agreement? Or do you plan to call a moratorium on payments?
Being granted a further haircut is also the secret hope of this government. But a haircut will achieve nothing if it is accompanied by the sell-off of public property and more painful fiscal measures. The write-down experience shows us that the recession is so deep that it renders haircuts inconsequential. The key objective of our economic program is to end the recession. For this to happen we must end austerity, which is the central theme of the bailout agreements.
Following your meeting with German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, the German government suggested that the abolition of the memorandum would mean a Greek exit from the euro. Did you discuss this with the IMF? Would the IMF back you if you scrapped the memorandum?
I think it makes sense for the German side to back the platform of austerity on which it has insisted until today. It is a public relations concern that connects the implementation of the memorandums to Greece’s membership of the euro. However, Schaeuble himself has said that Europe would not be able to withstand the exit of a single member state from the eurozone, regardless of whether Greek governments have used the bargaining power that comes with this fact. And of course there is no point in replacing the memorandum with an equally harsh program. The only solution can be a regeneration program that will reboot the economy by strengthening the weaker strata of society.
You have accused the German government of prescribing a recipe of austerity that is pushing Europe to disaster, but this does not seem to apply everywhere. Portugal recently borrowed money from the markets and Ireland is about to exit the memorandum. What is your opinion on this?
Portugal is experiencing recession and social turmoil. Meanwhile, the IMF recently indirectly expressed its concern that the memorandum is not working. The Irish government did not cut monthly incomes under 1,500 euros so as not to hit the lower level of the economy. We, on the other hand, went on to accept everything they imposed on us. SYRIZA insists that the memorandums are not a solution; they are the problem. The medicine of austerity is more devastating than the illness – debt – and it is not just SYRIZA saying this. If we don’t change course, Germany will destroy Europe.
You have backed the demands of every union since becoming the main opposition party. Regardless of their merit, how will you meet these demands when and if you are in government?
Let’s first look at what is a fair demand and what is not. The refusal of employees to join the unified pay structure for civil servants and see their salary go down to 500 euros is a fair demand for decent work. We believe that given how [IMF officials] have admitted that the aim of the memorandum is to bring salaries down to Bulgarian levels, the demand for decent jobs must bring everyone together: civil servants, private sector workers, unemployed people and pensioners. The clientelist state was not of our making. Sure we need rules, but rules are drawn through dialogue and with the support of the majority.
You recently told state television that you do not wish to drive away potential investors. However, you have described privatizations as a sell-out and pledged to scrap them if you came to power. Also, your program includes the restoration of privatized corporations.
The government must explain why privatizations seem to entail the sell-off of public wealth and a precipitous decline in wages. The government eyes Greece as a big special economic zone, as an old-style colony where capital is immune and nations have no sovereignty over production. This has nothing to do with growth and competitiveness. All this need to be re-examined in the context of the public interest.
You have said you aspire to a multidimensional foreign policy and alliances with developing nations – this is after all why you travelled to Brazil and Argentina. Meanwhile there is a competition for the privatization of Greek gas supplier DEPA and natural gas transmission network operator DESFA.
We deem that public commodities such as water or energy must remain under state control. The record of privatizations in other countries is quite negative. It encouraged profiteering in pricing and a dramatic decline in the living standards for the weaker members of society. But this undeniable fact tends to be omitted from public debate. What we need is public, economically sound and efficient public utilities. Instead of privatizations, we propose collaborations and synergies with public or private firms from abroad with the aim of upgrading services, meeting social needs and strengthening the country’s geopolitical role.