Panayiotis Lafazanis: Farewell to the memorandum
by George Gilson 17 May 2012Athens News
The prospect that Syriza may rise further to become first party in the June 17 repeat elections has heightened the pressure on the leftwing party. Beyond fending off the barrage of attacks on its leader Alexis Tsipras, whose political adversaries blame him for the failure to piece together a ruling coalition, in the coming month Syriza must convince the electorate that it is ready to rule.
Speaking to the Athens News, top Syriza MP Panayiotis Lafazanis attempts to answer some of the crucial questions that have dominated public discourse - and partisan polemics - since the elections.
With which parties might Syriza cooperate if it places first, picking up a 50-seat bonus? Lafazanis insists that his party will never cooperate with socialist Pasok and conservative New Democracy, and that the aim of a leftwing government is feasible. The party is ready to “reach substantial compromises” and expects other leftist parties to do so as well, although there is currently no apparent plan B.
The first priority for a Syriza-led government is to annul the bailout memorandum and repeal all laws passed to implement it, a “non-negotiable” action, Lafazanis says. Yet he insists that his party does not want Greece to exit either the eurozone or the EU, and he stresses that Greece cannot be expelled under current EU treaties and rules.
A second priority is a negotiated, massive writedown of the national debt, which he posits as a necessary condition for the country’s survival, and, thirdly, nationalising strategic companies - energy and telecoms, although he did not offer detailed plans on this.
Member of the left current of Synaspismos, the largest party in the Syriza coalition, and a former member of the central committee of the Communist Party (KKE), Lafazanis is a longtime activist in social movements and has served as his party’s parliamentary representative.
Athens News: What political conclusions did you draw from the minutes of party leaders’ meetings with President Karolos Papoulias regarding the inability to form a coalition government?
Panayiotis Lafazanis: The inability to form a government, on our part, derives from our determination never to cooperate with Pasok or New Democracy. The reason is simple - Pasok and ND are parties that implemented the catastrophic memorandum policies and they insist on these policies. We want a government that will follow an anti-memorandum, progressive path for the country, and we can participate in or support only such government. That government will be a government supported mainly by leftist forces.
Is the mandate of the elections to form a leftist government, even if the electoral results do not allow that numerically?
The popular mandate should not be interpreted rigidly, in a static way, but dynamically. In the May 6 elections, the two-party system collapsed in an unprecedented way and this collapse is even greater after the elections. Pasok and ND are in decline and dissolution. The popular mandate is crystal-clear: to transcend and annul the memorandum and go on a different path, without this social pillage of salaries, pensions and social spending, but with an emphasis on development.
Do you want Greece to unilaterally renounce the bailout memorandum?
The memorandum will be annulled. There is no other alternative solution. We rejected it when parliament voted for it by urgent, coup-like, procedure, in violation of the constitution. It was accompanied by the expulsion of many Pasok and ND MPs. As a sovereign government, if we are elected, the first thing we will do is to say we do not recognise the memorandum. The country will definitely enter a new course. Certainly, we do not want to cut off the dialogue with our [EU] partners. We want dialogue. But the abolition of the memorandum is non-negotiable.
If you cancel the memorandum, what would you discuss with EU partners?
There are a thousand things that a government in the eurozone and EU can discuss. We don’t have to let them impose a monstrous programme that destroys the country. We have a nightmarish 6.2 percent recession in the first quarter this year, whereas the memorandum projected 4.7 percent. What government that respects its country will put a noose around the neck of the country and its people, continually tightening it? Not a Syriza government.
Why doesn’t Alexis Tsipras say outright he will annul the memorandum and accompanying laws?
This is the position of Syriza. We have clearly said that the memorandum will be cancelled. We also call for cancellation of the memorandum in other countries. Ireland and Portugal are going from bad to worse with their memorandums.
But Greece is in a political union, the EU, and a monetary union, the eurozone. Can you participate in these and do whatever you wish, whenever?
The EU and eurozone frameworks are known; Greece participates in those. But the treaties do not say Greece must have a memorandum, the troika, neocolonial policies or perpetual austerity policies. All of that throws us into a vicious circle of recession, which leads to an abyss. This is not the binding framework of the eurozone or the EU.
What should Greece do with the national debt - just forget about it?
We will seek to negotiate the writedown of most of the debt. If we do not succeed, we will proceed with a moratorium, stopping debt repayment. Certainly, the Greek governments and politico-economic elite are to blame for saddling the country with a nearly 400bn euro debt that did not serve the genuine developmental and social needs of the country and the Greek people.
Are the creditors to blame for that?
The creditors have a huge responsibility. They should first look at the ability of the borrower. Would you lend to someone who you know is over-indebted? No. We had a frenzied lending spree by banks that sought and received excessive benefits. The debt cannot be paid off unless the Greek people are annihilated. No government has the right to do that to the Greek people. It must first meet the need of the people to survive. We will fight to renegotiate the debt, to write down most of it, because that is the necessary condition for Greece’s survival.
Former Syriza leader Alekos Alavanos said that annulment of the memorandum means exit from the euro. Did that remark harm Syriza and do you agree?
I don’t agree that renouncing the memorandum automatically leads to an exit from the euro. Syriza is not proposing an exit from the eurozone, especially not from the EU. It believes there is another path for Greece, outside the memorandum; that doesn’t mean leaving the eurozone or the EU. EU treaties don’t stipulate that a member must implement neocolonial policies.
We are fighting within the eurozone to radically change the eurozone and the EU and to show there are choices beyond memorandum policies. The way this eurozone and the union have been constructed constantly aggravates imbalances, inequality and centrifugal trends that demolish the old European social state. The EU and eurozone are at risk of becoming - from a social and labour perspective - like Southeast Asia. Europe deserves a better fate.
European officials say that annulling the memorandum spells exit from the euro. Whom does one believe, the EU officials or Syriza?
Syriza speaks based on documents, treaties and the rules in effect in the EU. If some notorious directorate of EU officials has discovered their own rules, claiming that if we leave the memorandum we must leave the eurozone and EU, those rules do not apply.
So they are bluffing?
I’m not saying it’s a bluff. I am saying that their statements are not supported by the institutional framework that currently governs the eurozone and the EU, which does not provide a way to expel a member.
Isn’t that like saying that if a eurozone member accrues a huge debt, then other countries must assume the debt burden?
No. The logical conclusion is that if a country reaches the point that its debt endangers the survival of its people, then the debt problem must be handled - without annihilating the people.
Is it important for Syriza that Greece remains in the EU, and if so, why?
Syriza is not calling for Greece to leave the EU. That doesn’t mean we like the EU or the eurozone as they are. We are fighting to change them radically, to find a new path. The road of the Franco-German - mainly German - monetaristic model is one that we want to change.
If Syriza places first in the upcoming elections, gaining a 50-seat bonus - who is to say it will not face the same impasse in forming a government?
We have long supported proportional representation because it is socially just, but the electoral law cannot change before the elections. I think the Greek people understand the game being played at its expense. The Greek people will give great strength to all forces of the left, and above all to Syriza, due to its policy of left unity. We believe the result will allow all leftist forces jointly to form a government.
But the Communist Party categorically rejects such a coalition.
Many things that are said change when you realise that the popular mandate sends a strong message. I believe that if Syriza’s message of unity is strengthened further, then the terrain on the left can change. That does not mean we want to be a hegemonic force on the left. It means that other leftwing parties will be able to shift in favour of unity and convergence.
There is always the prospect that a solely leftist government will not be feasible without other, pro-memorandum parties. Under what conditions would you enter a coalition with a pro-memorandum government?
I believe the momentum of the May 6 elections will continue and be heightened. That means the left will play the leading role in developments and form a government that will ensure an anti-memorandum, progressive path for Greece. The river has started flowing towards the sea, and it will not go back.
If you are able to form a government in June, what will your agenda be in the first 100 days?
We will say that in due course, during the campaign. What I can say is that a leftwing government will free the country from the memorandum and conduct a radical restructuring of the national debt, with the aim of writing off the greatest part. The road ahead is rough and difficult. We don’t promise a paradise in Greece or a rosy path. That is very clear. But we can fashion a better programme with better terms, with a productive and social restructuring to exit the crisis.
Syriza says it wants to stay in the EU and abolish the memorandum, the Communist Party wants out of the EU, and Democratic Left wants to renegotiate and disengage from the bailout programme. How can you reconcile the stance of the three leftist parties?
We have differences, some of them substantial. But we have quite a lot in common and we can converge through dialogue on critical issues Greece faces today. All parties must somewhat shift positions. Each cannot stick absolutely to its position. Cooperation requires mutual compromises. We will begin a dialogue so as to fashion the guidelines for a common programme. We will make the greatest possible compromises on our side to allow cooperation, but we will not converge on everything. All of us on the left must realise that we have a common fortune and path. For the left to contribute to change, we must all join hands and not clash. The new climate of unity on the left influences us all.
In his letter to EU leaders, Alexis Tsipras did not refer to a renunciation of the memorandum. Why not?
Tsipras said much stronger things than a simple renunciation of the memorandum. He said its legitimacy was refuted by the popular vote, that it has no political or legal foundation. When you say that in a letter, everyone can draw their own conclusions. He said austerity in Greece must end, and he called for a comprehensive refashioning of EU policies.
Your programme seeks nationalisation of enterprises like OTE (telecoms company) as part of a plan for growth. How will that work and how will you come up with the money?
The strategic sectors of the economy will pass over to a new, overhauled public sector, which will play a fundamental role in a new path of growth. Telecoms are a strategic sector that we believe must be under state control.
Will the state buy a majority share in OTE?
I cannot speak in detail about this policy. I am speaking of the general orientation of our policy, which is public control of telecommunications. That is the essence. The manner and timeframe will be examined by a government that will implement this policy. Past governments sold off strategic, profitmaking enterprises like OTE with non-transparent procedures, for the worse.
A leftwing government will not settle for having German state-controlled Deutsche Telecom own the Greek OTE, and then have Germany tell us we cannot nationalise enterprises. Why can they have a state Deutsche Telecom and we cannot have a state telecommunications company? It is like a colonialist telling a banana republic that you cannot do this. We can do it, and it is our policy.
People know we are planning a restructuring of the narrow and broader public sector so that it will operate with conditions of meritocracy and efficiency. The restructured public sector will play a central role in the economic development of the country. Energy is another strategic sector. The Public Power Company (DEI) will be fully state-controlled, putting an end to the policy of privatising it and selling off its assets. We will not commit this political and social crime.
I am not speaking of narrow state control, nor of state-fed enterprises controlled by the government. They will be public enterprises implementing public policies under public and social control. These companies will devise major investment programmes and create jobs.
Where will you get the money for such state investment programmes?
With the revenues that come in from these companies’ profitable operation. They will be able to have their own, autonomous investment plan, to the benefit of the public sector and social whole. Public Power created the whole post-WWII electricity network with public investment. OTE created a great nationwide network. All these speculators and opportunists who descended on our energy sector made no investments in it.
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