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TRNN Exclusive from Athens: Lawyer Dimitri Lascaris says the SYRIZA coalition has broad support from European labor and social movements

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. The coalition of the radical left SYRIZA Party is poised to win the parliamentary elections on January 25 in Greece. If SYRIZA win, they could form the next government and confront the catastrophic austerity agenda that has plagued Greece and thrown it into a severe economic crisis. The possibility of SYRIZA-led government is sending chills down the spines of the European power centers in Berlin and in Paris and at the European Union headquarters in Brussels. Now joining us from Athens, exclusively reporting for The Real News, is one of our board members, Dimitri Lascaris. He’s a partner with the Canadian law firm Siskinds, where he heads the firm’s securities class action practice. Dimitri, thank you so much for joining us. DIMITRI LASCARIS, SECURITIES CLASS ACTIONS LAWYER IN CANADA: Always a pleasure, Sharmini. PERIES: So, Dimitri, let’s start by giving us some context of the left coalition and the parties and the forces at play. LASCARIS: Well, I think maybe I should start by giving you a little bit of background at a high level of the political landscape as we approach election day on Sunday. The polls are showing that SYRIZA is in the lead and has a slightly widening margin and is on the cusp of the territory where they might get an absolute majority. And then, in second place by several percentage points off, is the New Democracy Party, which has dominated the austerity-oriented coalition. And then, after that, there’s a new party that styles itself as a centrist party, though people are having some difficulty understanding what it really stands for. It’s called To Potami, which means the river. And then, following that, are the Golden Dawn, the extreme-right party, and the Kappa Kappa Epsilon, KKE, which is the Communist Party, a very old-style communist party that’s survived the demise of the Soviet Union. And I’m staying in Syntagma Square, which is right across from the parliament building. And about a kilometer from here is another major square in Athens called Omonoia Square, which I think tends to be more of the area where the homeless and the more troubled members of Greek society congregate in Athens than Syntagma. For some strange reason, the Communist Party and SYRIZA held their big Athens rallies prior to election day at precisely the same time, about a kilometer away from each other. PERIES: So, Dimitri, you just get back from a SYRIZA rally in Athens. Tell us more. LASCARIS: Well, I left my hotel shortly before the rally was scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. I was about a kilometer away, as I say. And as I approached the square, I saw from quite a distance away a river of humanity sweeping the boulevard towards the square, and people were waving various signs, many of which were quite pro-European and talked about changing not only Greece but changing Europe for the better. And the first impression I had as I came into the square was that the messaging was very sophisticated, it was very tech savvy, it was very young, which, frankly, caused me some concern, because I’ve seen this act before in the 2008 election in the Obama campaign. But then, as the crowd got nearer and that river of humanity swept by me, I noticed something which was really interesting. There was a large group of people carrying a flag over their heads. And as they went by, I heard a lot of Spanish and a lot of Italian and other languages and realized that there were as many Italians and Spaniards and other Europeans underneath that flag as there were Greeks. And quickly what I began to realize as I was watching this is it was really–I don’t want to perhaps put too much of a gloss on what I saw, but it really struck me as being a pan-European event and not being something that was strictly one for the Greek people. And as the event unfolded and Tsipras came out, the leader of the SYRIZA Party, and began to speak, I really got the strong impression that that’s what this was about. And what we’ve been hearing from the Western media about SYRIZA, which is that it’s feigning a devotion to Europe in order to placate the troika and not cause panic in the markets, that struck me as less and less credible as I was listening to the message of Tsipras. Tsipras, I think, quite genuinely believes that SYRIZA is an instance of a larger phenomenon that’s taking place in Southern Europe, and that is the revival of the left and the revival of progressive values. And he genuinely believes, I think, and the party leadership genuinely believes–I don’t think they harbor any illusions about this, but based on what I saw, I think they genuinely believe that they have an opportunity to change Europe for the better and to revive progressive values here. PERIES: And, Dimitri, when you said you were hearing all these other languages, like Spanish, in the rally, who were they representing? LASCARIS: Well, it was interesting. At one point Tsipras pointed out a leader. I believe he was from Germany and I believe he was a labor leader. And he commented at that point–which was quite surprised to me, given the invective you’ve heard from SYRIZA, and understandably so, about the Merkel regime and its fanatical devotion to austerity–he said, you know, we believe that the German people are with us; the leadership of Germany is not with us, but the people of Germany are with us. And then he introduced someone from Spain, I believe, who was also labor leader. At the very end–and this was sort of the climax of his presentation–he seemed to stop his speech, and there was a pause and there was some music, and then he came back to the podium and he said, now I’d like to introduce to you Pablo Iglesias, who is the leader of Podemos. And Podemos, I think, can aptly be described as the Spanish cousin of SYRIZA. It’s a very progressive-oriented, highly anti-austerity party that has grown very rapidly in Spain and is now poised to upset the balance of power in Spain, which has been dominated by the social democrats, or what have historically been described as the social democrats, and the conservative party that’s currently in power. They have the opportunity to do what SYRIZA seems to be on the cusp of doing, and that is to seize power in a major European country, much larger European country, with a much larger economy than Greece. And he came to the podium, and his message was highly supportive of SYRIZA and very similar to that of SYRIZA, which is that this is a pan-European union movement. This is not about patriotism. In fact, we are anti-patriots. We don’t believe that your ethnicity is what governs your rights. We believe that we are all equally entitled to certain basic benefits and protections from the state, and we’ve been deprived those, and we’re going to work together to achieve them again. And so that I thought was very refreshing and very different and uniquely European compared to what I had experienced when I myself got sort of swept up in the Obama campaign back in 2008. That was a very nationalistic campaign, despite its progressive or superficially progressive credentials. This is not nationalistic at all. This is really a pan-European movement, as far as I can tell. PERIES: And quite contrary to how SYRIZA has been painted in the mainstream mainstream press, as somebody who’s willing and wanting to exit the euro and be more nationalistic and less European. LASCARIS: Absolutely. And, in fact, one of the interesting things that isn’t being told about SYRIZA–you hear that it’s radical left, you hear that it’s viscerally opposed the austerity program, which it certainly is. You don’t hear about the other aspects of its program. And one of the things that’s really irked the right wing in this country–and this was something that came out in Tsipras’s speech tonight, is that they really have a lot of sympathy for the immigrant community in Greece, a large immigrant population that has been persecuted by the right, often viciously over the last several years. They want to legalize these people. They want to give them protection. They don’t want to–and another thing they don’t want to do is that for a number of years there was a rather silly dispute about the name of the Republic of Macedonia, which the right in this country shamelessly exploited. This is something that doesn’t get SYRIZA worked up at all. They don’t see those people, the people who occupy or who reside in the Macedonian Republic, as being less entitled to their own cultural identity than the Greeks are. And so, again, this is something that’s got the right quite worked up. But the message that’s being missed, the reality that’s being missed is that this is a very anti-nationalistic party and that’s something that Europe desperately needs of the moment, and throughout the continent, not only in Greece. PERIES: So, Dimitri, at the SYRIZA rally, what is it that Alexis Tsipras emphasized? LASCARIS: Well, he said some things which, as a Westerner, I found rather surprising, and reflection refreshingly so. For example, he said that the moment he takes office, they will enact a law which precludes banks from owning the houses of Greeks and the people who live here. So I’m not sure exactly what he has in mind. It sounds as though if somebody falls under this plan, if somebody falls into arrears on their mortgage payments, an option that would not be available to the bank is to seize the home–not something you’ve ever heard come out of the mouth of a mainstream Western politician. He talked about eliminating homelessness altogether, not simply reducing, but actually eliminating it–again, not something you hear from the mouths of Western mainstream politicians nowadays. He talked about taking the guns away from the police force, which have been roundly condemned for their impunity and their extremist attitude towards the immigrant population, in particular by Amnesty International. Again, you don’t get that much of the West at all. People would be horrified in the West, mainstream politicians, that officers shouldn’t carry firearms. He talked about making education available, affordable to everyone. And the phrase that he used was that no young Greek, no child should be without a book that he or she needs. So I think it’s fair to say that, I mean, it’s all about anti-austerity in the press, but really what’s going on is if this party takes power and if it does achieve a large part of its agenda, which undoubtedly will be very difficult, it will be, bar none, the most progressive government in Europe and in North America. And I think that that’s what has the North and the troika particularly worked up is they think that what they may be seeing, they’re concerned, is something similar to what happened in Latin America after the excesses of the Reagan years, where there was a number of progressive movements rose to power throughout South America and Central America. They’re very concerned about that, and I think rightly so. If your perspective is that the world should be shamelessly neoliberal, then you are not going to want to see a party like SYRIZA come to power in a European state. PERIES: And, Dimitri, what are you hearing from the government and the incumbent candidate for the government? LASCARIS: Well, Samaras, I think a sense of desperation has set into his government. He was engaging in what I think was widely regarded by the Greek people as naked fear mongering right up until about a week ago. And then, as the polls–as we neared election day and the polls were showing, if anything, that SYRIZA’s lead was widening and not narrowing, he realized that that strategy was no longer going to work. And so he began to reframe his strategy as one about the future and how New Democracy presented a better alternative to SYRIZA for the future. And he tried to make it a positive message. But so far there’s no indication that that’s working. The Pasok Party is trapped in the middle, and what they’re saying is–and, in fact, I had the opportunity to interview today a young candidate for the Pasok Party, and his message was, look, don’t believe what SYRIZA is telling you; all they want is to take power, and they don’t think realistically that they can achieve their objectives; and at the end of the day, all they’re going to do is dole out jobs to their friends, just like prior regimes used to do. It’s a very cynical view that he expressed. And at the same time, he criticized New Democracy for engaging up until now in naked fear mongering. But that I asked him, well, what is your proposal for solving the crisis? And his proposal for solving the crisis was we need to make Europe a more humane place, which is essentially the message of SYRIZA, but he really didn’t have any prescription for doing that. And I think basically he was hoping or expressing the hope of the party that one day the European Union may become a place where progressive values have primacy in the policies of the continent again. PERIES: Dimitri, exciting times for Greeks, and I look forward to your future reports. LASCARIS: Thanks, Sharmini. I look forward to giving them. Thanks. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Dimitri Lascaris is a lawyer that focuses on human rights and environmental law. He is the former justice critic of the Green Party of Canada and is a former board member of the Real News Network. You can follow him @dimitrilascaris and find more of his work at