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The Greek anti-austerity movement revisited: Outcomes, shortfalls and perspectives

Markos Vogiatzoglou | 12 July 2017

Almost two years after Greece’s anti-austerity movement made a decisive victory with 62% of citizens rejecting the proposed austerity measures, arriving to definite conclusions regarding its success remains a precarious endeavour. A few days after the referendum vote, the elected Syriza government was forced to capitulate on the demands made by the IMF, the EU and the ECB. After this loss of its strongest political ally, the anti-austerity movement did not manage to adjust to the new situation, failing to organize mobilizations as massive as the ones of the recent past. And as of today, the country remains locked in the vicious cycle of austerity, worsening of social conditions, and failure to realize its economic potential.

The emergence of Greek anti-austerity mobilization

The movement that is referred to as the Greek anti-austerity movement was in fact a series of mass mobilizations that extended from 2010 to 2015, occasionally involving hundreds of thousands of participants. The mobilizations adopted different forms and organizational patterns as time went by, depending on the broader social and political developments of the time. The ‘official’ launch date of the movement can be placed on 5 May 2010, when the Greek Parliament, led by a social-democrat majority, agreed to the bail-out agreement (which became later known as the first Memorandum) between the country’s government and the troika of creditors, consisting of the ECB, the EU, and the IMF. On that same day, a general strike proclaimed by trade union confederations paralyzed the country; tens of thousands participated in the demonstration, which soon turned confrontational. After hours of clashes between protesters and the police, and the torching of several buildings in downtown Athens, the dramatic outcome left four people dead, dozens injured and millions of euros in property damage.

General strikes, massive participation and violent confrontations continued to be the main characteristics of the first two years of mobilization.  None of these elements, though, were new to the Greek socio-political scene. To a certain extent, the means employed during the first period of the anti-austerity movement resonated with a well-established tradition of street politics in Greece. A qualitative shift took place during the spring of 2011, when, following the model of the Spanish Indignados, Greek activists occupied the central squares of major cities around the country. This movement was followed by a ‘winter of discontent’ (2011–2012), characterized by widespread contentious actions undertaken by various social groups, mostly through acts of civil disobedience such as refusal to pay newly imposed taxes, verbal and physical attacks against politicians in public spaces and protests taking place in previously non-politicized settings (such as football stadiums, military and school parades).

Social solidarity

This unprecedented increase in social tensions shook the political establishment. In November 2011, the social-democrat government handed power to a technocrat cabinet, led by former banker Mr. Papademos. Failing to appease the situation, Papademos’ government was soon obliged to resign, and snap elections were called for in the summer of 2012. The outcome proved to be a dramatic turning-point for Greece’s political system. Syriza commenced its meteoric rise to power, acquiring 26% of the vote and establishing itself as the major opposition party.

The developments provoked a major shift in movement activity. Whilst at the political level, Syriza was emerging as the main hope for a change, at the social level so-called ‘social solidarity structures’ – which sprang up all over the country from 2012 and onwards – became the driving force. Their purpose was to provide a societal response to the humanitarian impact of the austerity measures. These structures included social hospitals, pharmacies, grocery stores, soup kitchens and crews of electricians that illegally reconnected the electricity to those who could not afford to pay their bills. All these initiatives were operated by volunteers and provided services and goods to the poorest among the population, migrants and locals included. They presented a flexible and direct democratic, assembly-based structure, which aimed to cover the gap left by the disappearing Greek welfare state.

It is interesting to note that social solidarity structures continued operating after the snap elections of January 2015, which brought Syriza to power. This happened because the structures were offering a day-to-day coverage of basic needs, assisting in problems that the newly appointed government was (and to a large extent still is) unable to immediately resolve. Contentious action such as protests and strikes, however, did cease in the aftermath of the Syriza election. Given the loose and informal structure of the movement, this discontinuation of protests cannot be attributed to a conscious, centralized decision. Rather, activists were waiting to see what the new government would accomplish and, as the first months of the Syriza reign were characterized by tensions between the Greek government and the troika, there was hardly any reason for anti-austerity campaigns to be relaunched right away.

Re-awakening or shifting right?

Finally, after a brief but intense mobilization the days before the July referendum, Syriza’s capitulation left the movement disoriented and in an organizational vacuum. Ever since, and despite scarce efforts to relaunch mass mobilization, the Greek anti-austerity movement has been lying dormant. An important characteristic of the current situation is that there seems to be no left-wing alternative on which the country’s citizens can place their hopes and aspirations. Whether this will signify a major push towards the right side of the political spectrum for Greece, or whether new, unexpected societal forces will emerge to drive Greece forward, is perhaps the biggest challenge to which activists shall have to respond.