The end of two eras
A pension reform bill that was voted yesterday sets new standards both for the social security system, as well as Greece’s politics in general.
By Yannis-Orestis Papadimitriou
ATHENS — “We don’t have a movement anymore”. This is the disheartening conclusion of Yiannis, an activist with the extraparliamentary radical left coalition, ANTARSYA, on why participation in the protest is so low on the day the first radical left government of Greece calls for a parliamentary vote of a vast pension reform, which aims to appease the European Union and International Monetary Fund, in order to finalize an agreement which would extend the country’s bailout plan for the third time.
“Low” participation is of course, relative. The participants in yesterday’s demonstration stand in the low thousands and come from various more or less interested parties: unionized farmers and lawyers, the major labour unions, leftists, anarchists, the Communist Party, occupants and organizers of the refugee solidarity squat “City Plaza”, a Kurdish organization, as well as a block of Russian communists who seized the opportunity to demonstrate, celebrating the anniversary of Germany’s capitulation to the Soviet Union in 1945, which effectively ended the Third Reich and the Second World War. Molotov cocktails and tear gas canisters also made an appearance, but the sparring between police and demonstrators was resolved in under four minutes, albeit not before two members of Laiki Enotita, the party that emerged from the departure of SYRIZA’s left wing last summer, were injured.
The lack of mass participation in yesterday’s demonstration doesn’t necessarily mean that the silent majority’s views differed significantly from the protestors’. As we mentioned in our latest editorial note, recent polls show that Alexis Tsipras’ popularity has collapsed, while the first discussions on the pension and social security reform a few months ago, sparked mass protests which involved the blocking of most of the country’s motorways. Despite that, one cannot help but note the differences between yesterday’s half-empty Syntagma square and the intense, massive demonstrations of the previous years of the Greek Crisis in every instance that involved the voting of a major bill bringing immense cuts to the welfare state.
What’s more interesting though, is that changes in pensions and social security have not only been contested in the context of the austerity measures that came with the bailout agreements, but also as an “untouchable” subject, which has been met with wide resistance even before the crisis broke out. Thus, the connotations behind ex-minister of labour Tassos Giannitsis’ presence on the second day of the discussion of the bill, invited by the liberal party To Potami to advise against it, are powerful.
Fifteen years ago, Tassos Giannitsis was the one who oversaw the introduction of a pension and social security reform largely based on an infamous report penned by a committee under the direction of professor Yiannis Spraos, which marked PASOK’s decisive split from its social-democratic roots, much around the same time when Tony Blair’s New Labour in the UK and Bill Clinton’s Democrats in the US moved towards more free-market principles.
Giannitsis’ reform aimed at building on the foundations laid by Konstantinos Mitsotakis’ right wing government of the early nineties, moving the social security system further into a model based on individual contributions, with a complete restructuring of the various funds and agencies, that would completely disassociate the social security services’ budget from the state. The project was withdrawn after it sparked mass social unrest, making the social security reform perspectives a “holy cow” in Greek politics — a dangerous terrain that compromised the stability and legitimization of any government.
Therefore, Tassos Giannitsis’ critique and dismissal of a social security bill much more intense but within the spirit of his own attempted reform, that would be successfully voted by a radical left government almost two decades later, comes with a slight sense of irony, which — apart from a few minor altercations — seemed fit to the prevailing lighthearted mood in the parliamentary proceedings over the bill during the weekend.
The voting process was part of Alexis Tsipras’ government’s strategy to provide Greece’s Minister of Finance, Euclid Tsakalotos, with a good-will sign to the EU and IMF for today’s Eurogroup meeting, that would assist in finalizing the terms of a new agreement. Being more of a tactical move rather than a well-designed reform, it came as no surprise that it was voted with a narrow margin of 153 out of 300 in total, i.e. only with the votes of the MP’s of the governing coalition. Yesterday’s parliamentary meeting functioned mostly as an opportunity for statements, knowing that the voting process was a trivial affair — which would explain the fact that the bill itself was addressed less so than the ideological contradictions and overall critiques of the government’s state of play.
Even the otherwise strict-looking opposition leader, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, chose a playful way to express his criticism, including satirical cartoons, ironic remarks and jokes in his speech against the Prime Minister and his government, while Vassilis Leventis, the leader of the Centrists’ Union’s speech bordered on stand-up comedy, exciting many laughs from the audience. Only the neonazi party, Golden Dawn, was able to capitalize on the situation by inciting a fuss which led to an interruption of the process for 45 minutes, probably according to plan, as Yannis Lagos, the MP who started it, was discreetly called outside the room earlier. Its leader, Nikos Michaloliakos, tried to tie SYRIZA’s current action to these of its ancestors in the Communist Party of the Interior, who were presented as “agents” of Romania’s Causescu regime in Greece, causing an immediate response from the Parliament’s President, Nikos Voutsis.
The neonazi party’s “strategy of tension” failed to provoke; inside the Parliament on Sunday night, one could clearly tell from the relaxed stance of the MP’s that SYRIZA would come of it without any “mutineers” or inner-party conflicts, as the point of focus has shifted towards the negotiations with Brussels, on which the government’s future rests. The European Commission’s president, Jean-Claude Juncker was in a sense the invisible participant in yesterday’s voting, as his morning statement that Greece has “basically achieved” reform goals and that discussions over debt relief should commence was non-explicitly present all over Alexis Tsipras’ proud claim that never before has the matter come up in a European meeting.
Despite the strategical aim of yesterday’s bill, it constitutes an actual landmark for SYRIZA and the Greek political landscape in general. Alexis Papachelas, editor-in-chief of Kathimerini, Greece’s major conservative newspaper asked today “which Left will dare accuse any future government of privatizations, austerity measures or tear gas? The answer will be simple: ‘but that’s what you did when you were in office’”. The paradigm set by the left government’s success in passing the holy grail of liberal reforms and the centrist and right opposition’s refusal to vote for it, seems to blur the lines between the opposing camps, creating a peculiar precedent.
If the political subtext of the bill’s voting is speculative, its short-term and long-term effect on Greece’s economy is quite real. The bill introduces significant cuts (up to 60%) in pensions, raises contributions and cancels the solidarity grant towards low incomes, deepening the harsh conditions for workers and pensioners across the social strata. SYRIZA’s government will have to deal with the fiscal and political repercussions of the bill, along with whatever is the outcome of the negotiations on the new bailout, thus entering a new, unexplored phase of governance.
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