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Monday 24 June 2013

Guest post - Greece: the battle for ERT and the difficult but necessary path from protest to political change

By Panagiotis Sotiris [1]

After the June 2012 election in Greece one of the main preoccupations of both the Greek government and the Troika (EU-IMF-ECB) representatives was to present an image of a strong government that would stand firm and would not succumb the pressure coming from a society in despair. For some time this tactic seemed to work, aided by the inability of mass protests to produce concrete positive results and the choice of the SYRIZA leadership to opt for a “ripe fruit” strategy regarding governmental power. However the ongoing struggle over the fate of Greek Public Television and Radio (ERT) has put an end to this fantasy of a strong government in a position to smoothly pass socially devastating legislation.

In the struggle for ERT, for the first time we have had a mass movement that led to a significant political rupture. The combination of  a defiant stance from ERT employees who decided to occupy the premises and continue broadcasting, even in the form of web TV, creating a tangible example of the quality of public service that self-management can bring, with a broader social and political mobilization in support of ERT and in opposition to the authoritarian turn of the Samaras government that led to the mass presence outside ERT headquarters and local stations, intensified a deeper governmental crisis that had its roots in the social and economic crisis and the inability for the Greek government to offer an exit from the vicious circle of recession, austerity and unemployment. Contrary to the prevailing myth, even within the forces of the Left, that people are disappointed and that it would be difficult to urge them to go back in the streets, the struggle over ERT brought forward the potential for solidarity, mass mobilization and support of an important struggle. The struggle over ERT became the metonymy for all forms of aggression against not only social rights, but also against democracy per se. The black screens became the symbol of the aggressive, undemocratic character of both contemporary neoliberalism and Troika supervision that dictate political measures. This can explain the extent and the duration of the protests about ERT.

The acute crisis of the Greek tripartite government, the initial denouncement of the Samaras’ choices by both PASOK and Democratic Left, and the final exit of the latter from the government, despite extreme pressure from the part of the Troika to avoid the fall of the government and a new general election all exemplify the extent of the political crisis. They made evident the inherent weakness of the pro-austerity government, and the inability of Samaras’s combination of extreme neoliberalism and “law and order” neo-conservatism to offer a convincing hegemonic narrative. The new government, despite PASOK’s decision to stand behind Samaras and his project, is, by all measures, a weaker government, even though it will try to proceed with as many reforms as possible. This opens up an important political space for social movements and the Left.

And this brings us to a major political question. Are political change and a potential rupture with catastrophic austerity and neoliberal restructuring only the possible outcome of a normal process of governmental alteration, or should they be the result of a process of political rupture marked by the determining presence of a strong mass movement? The political crisis around the battle of ERT made it obvious that it is possible for the movement and the political Left to mount that kind of political pressure that will lead to the fall of a government under the pressure of a strong movement. The occupation of ERT, with the support it got, the ability to broadcast, its very existence as an alternative public sphere, all these create a political short-circuit for the Greek government, along with the escalation of antigovernment protests. It is legitimate to assume that a continuation of the occupation of ERT – provided that the forces of the Left take up the organizational and practical challenge of safe-guarding the occupations against police intervention - combined with renewed strike action, such as the June 13 general strike, and with mass popular mobilization, can increase the pressure against the government.

And here is the open question: Do the main forces of the Greek Left want to actually intensify the political crisis and open up the rift opened by the battle at ERT and the first phase of the government crisis? Here the answer is not so easy. The SYRIZA leadership seems to prefer waiting for the government to collapse under its own contradictions than actually opt for that kind of mass movement mobilization that could accelerate this process. Moreover, the SYRIZA leadership has used the opportunity of the battle for ERT for a change in political tone, with a “democracy vs. state authoritarianism’ rhetoric that helps it avoid more difficult questions pertaining to its political program (such as Greece's membership of the Eurozone). At the same time they are already treating Democratic Left (which remains a pro-'reforms', almost neoliberal party) as a potential partner for a “democratic government”. At the same time KKE, the Communist Party, despite initial hopeful signs of a return to more unitary tactics in the street (exemplified in its members’ participation in rallies outside ERT), is again returning to more sectarian tactics and explicitly rejects the possibility that we can have major changed before “conditions are ripe”.

The problem with such tactics from the part of the Greek Left is that struggles such as the one at ERT bring forward another important question: How is it possible to make a government fall under the pressure of the movement? In the case of ERT, the combination of a prolonged struggle with strong support, the return of broader masses to the street, the emergence of a symbolic (and material) common point of reference (the broadcast produced by occupied ERT under conditions of self-management as a material manifestation of the possibility of a alternative social configuration), the sense of unity in struggle for a worthy cause, along with more general conditions of economic and social crisis, created a increasingly difficult situation for the Greek government. Under such circumstances, the work of the Left should not be simply to wait for the government to disintegrate (while implementing even more disastrous measures before it does), but to do whatever is necessary to accelerate this process, by supporting the occupations, calling for new strikes, and organizing mass rallies and various forms of continuous protests, instead of thinking only in terms of electoral dynamics

Historical opportunities do not easily repeat themselves. Both the return of people to the streets of Greece and the first such government crisis, show the potential for political change and open up a political window of opportunity, but also of responsibility. It is up to the forces of the Greek Left to stand up to the challenge.

[1] Panagiotis Sotiris teaches social theory and social and political philosophy at the Department of Sociology of the University of the Aegean. He can be reached at

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