“They are trying to bury us. But they forget when you bury a seed it is only going to flourish,” says the former President of the Hellenic Parliament, Zoe Konstantopoulou, who was a central figure in the Syriza party’s fight against austerity that vaulted Greece into global headlines earlier this year.
Syriza won the January elections on a mandate to challenge the country’s debt and austerity measures that are choking its society. As President of the Parliament, Konstantopoulou formed the Truth Committee on Public Debt, and in mid-June the committee found Greece’s debt to be “illegal, illegitimate, and odious,” providing the legal framework for the nation to reject austerity.
But this tool to reject austerity was not used, and in July, Syriza broke its promise to the Greek people. The party accepted a further memorandum that increased the loans from their European creditors and enforced even deeper austerity cuts. After this capitulation, Konstantopoulou along with many others abandoned the party. The new parliamentary president has since stopped the debt committees’ work in Parliament.
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Konstantopoulou spoke recently on a panel discussion in Barcelona, organized by Debt Observatory in Globalization (ODG) and Citizens’ Debt Audit Platform (PACD), which was held during a weeklong convergence of local and international debt campaigners and activists.
During the week, she also spoke to Occupy.com about Syriza’s capitulation, and about how the debt audit committee’s work still provides a key tool to end austerity.
“The Truth Committee created the first official parliamentary report in Europe, unveiling the creditors’ responsibility for the Greek disaster and how they profited. It also showed they knew since the first memorandum [bailout] that the debt was unsustainable,” she told Occupy.com.
The report also revealed that German and French governments made deals with IMF officials to protect the private banks of the two countries, which were holding Greek bonds. The vast majority of the Greek bailout went to private banks.
“The debt repayment system represents a blunt attack on democracy and the most fundamental human rights and freedoms,” said Konstantopoulou, who explained how Syriza’s “government team” used shock to drive austerity measures suddenly forward, rather than backward. (By “government team,” she means Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his senior members who also broke their anti-austerity electoral pledge.)
“Greek people have faced a multi-faceted experiment. The doctrine of shock was implemented in different and unprecedented ways. The last shock was that the government they elected in order to end austerity went on to undersign the worst memorandum ever,” she said.
Konstantopoulou says that since Tsipras signed the third memorandum – which green-lighted further austerity measures despite the Greek public’s resounding rejection of those measures in a nationwide referendum – the mass exodus of members from his party included a third of the MPs, half the central committee and most of the Syriza youth.
I asked Konstantopoulou at what point she realized Tsipras had capitulated.
“Speaking for myself, I firstly thought he would challenge austerity and not go for a new memorandum, even though since the beginning there have been discernible voices within the party talking about a ‘noble deal,'” she says, and “when the referendum [to accept the bailout or not] was announced, I mistakenly thought my predictions were right.”
The referendum was held on July 5, and 61% of Greeks voted “Oxi” – “No” – presenting a clear democratic mandate to reject any further austerity measures.
But later that month, on July 30, Syriza held a central committee meeting where, Konstantopoulou said, Tsipras requested a “blank cheque” to capitulate to creditors. He also started launching personal attacks on those who opposed austerity, which clarified her suspicions further.
“I realized that Tsipras was a complete betrayal on the 30th of July, [when] I got a full idea that he was not bending under pressure, but was trying to make it look like he was making efforts to reject austerity,” said Konstantopoulou, adding that she thought Tsipras probably cut a deal with the creditors to accept a bailout even before becoming Prime Minister.
Less than three weeks later, Tsipras resigned, in effect calling snap elections for September 20. Konstantopoulou and other anti-austerity MPs quickly formed Popular Unity, an anti-austerity party – something that had to be done so quickly, she said, that many Greeks did not even know about it.
People in Konstantopoulou’s constituency told her on election night that they were looking for her name on the Syriza list, and that they did not fully grasp then what Syriza was doing.
When Konstantopoulou handed over her position as Parliamentary president a few weeks after the election, it gave the Debt Truth Commission the opportunity to meet at the end of September, as scheduled.
“The committee examined the third memorandum and it found this new debt to also be illegitimate, illegal, unsustainable and odious,” Konstantopoulou said at a panel discussion at the time. The second report can also be found online.
The overriding message at the Barcelona conference was that debt audits are a powerful tool to challenge debt, to uncover corruption and reclaim democracy from the grip of finance. Debt audits have been successful in challenging odious, illegal or unsustainable debts in the Third World, and similar processes are underway across Spain and throughout Europe from Ukraine to the U.K.
Speaking about the Greek Debt Audit, Konstantopoulou continued: “Our next steps are to give the committee a formal legal status in Greek law, and to explore the ways that can make the committee operative and permit its work. What is extremely positive is that we have a lot of allies within Greek society that are extremely thirsty to learn of the committee’s work.”
Building public awareness and getting social movements behind a debt audit is as crucial as the research, she said. Between February 20 and June 25, Greece’s social movements were confused with the mixed messages coming from Syriza; according to Konstantopoulou, the public had been deactivated by Tspiras and the government team, rather than employed as a crucial tool to challenge austerity.
Looking ahead, she said the country’s social movements are once more escalating as people start to understand the government’s real agenda – not least as it recently launched a raft of extraordinary measures that include cutting pensions, increasing privatization and making it easier for banks to seize homes. Greece recently saw a general strike, on November 12, and other mass protests including student demonstrations on November 17.
“There is mobilization. People are also looking at ways to defend themselves, to ally with social movements and political initiatives,” Konstantopoulou said. “I would say we are in a new era where little by little but in a decisive way the social movements are being reconstructed.”