It ain’t easy being Greek

michalis_M_thDr Michális S. Michael

Email: m.michael@latrobe.edu.au 

 

This was originally published in The Conversation Monday 18 June, 2012. 

Greece is a land of high drama.

As fires ranged across the south of the country, stretching the emergency services to the limit; in the afterglow of their national soccer team’s astonishing win over Russia in the European Cup and thus advancing to the quarter-finals against (ironically!) Germany; and on the eve of the G-20 summit in Mexico; Greeks went back to the polling booths six weeks after their last election.

In a way, the elections a month before proved to be a precursor reaffirming the most fundamental change of Greece’s political landscape since the beginning of the Metapolitefsi period (Greece’s change of polity to parliamentary democracy following the collapse of the military dictatorship in 1974).

If there was any doubt about the fundamental shift from the ruling centrist parties of PASOK, and to a lesser degree of New Democracy, who between them had governed Greece for the past 38 years, these elections scuppered it.

PASOK continued its downward spiral, registering 12.28% (33 seats) of the popular vote – dropping a further 0.9% and eight seats from the May elections six weeks ago. At 4.5%, the traditional Communist Party of Greece (KKE), the only party that consistently advocated for Greece’s withdrawal from the Eurozone, had its support base halved and with 12 seats trailed behind the fascist Golden Dawn Party, who retained their 7% vote with 18 seats.

However, to get a true appreciation of the change in Greece’s political landscape we need to project and compare the 2012 results (both May and June’s) with those of the 2009 elections.

Back then Syriza, the Coalition of Radical Left, registered only 4.6% of the vote and with 13 seats had even dropped by one parliamentary seat from the 2007 election. As Greece’s sovereign debt crisis morphed into political and social unrest, Syriza’s electoral fortunes catapulted to 16.8% in May’s elections and to 26.9% in yesterday’s electoral contest.

With an overall rise of 25% since 2009, Syriza constitutes the formal opposition party in Greece, less than 3% behind front-runners New Democracy who are poised to form a coalition government.

But listening to Syriza’s leader Alexis Tsipras throughout the campaign, you cannot help but detect echoes of Andreas Papandreou’s radical populism so prevalent during PASOK’s flamboyant ascension to power in the mid-to-late 1970s.

As a matter of fact, the synergy between Syriza and PASOK is not restricted to the hemorrhage of PASOK voters, but was preceded by the defection of apparatchiks, unionists and parliamentarians. In this respect there is some truth to KKE’s General Secretary Aleka Papariga’s condescending remarks that Syriza is the “new PASOK”.

In terms of issues, as with the May elections, yesterday’s contest was conducted along the pro/anti bailout/austerity faultline.

Right-left ideological differences, which have permeated Greek political discourse throughout the post-war period, suddenly gave way to a new dichotomy: one equally marred by polarised sentiments, polemical politics and foreign interference (by European – ostensibly German – politicians and technocrats), amplifying populist rhetoric to create an sense of confusion and abhorrence for all things political.

It was not surprising that at 62%, yesterday’s elections recorded the lowest voter turnout in Greece’s contemporary history – no doubt the majority being disillusioned PASOK voters.

So what’s next for Greece? In the short term the formation of a government with a parliamentary majority.

With 129 seats, the pro-bailout New Democracy conservative party is poised to form a “national salvation government”. Mathematically, this means that its leader Antonis Samaras needs an additional 22 seats to get over the 150+1 majority threshold.

PASOK’s 33 seats would guarantee him the required majority, but PASOK has insisted all along that a true government of national unity means that other parliamentary parties (with the exception of Golden Dawn) should participate.

PASOK, and its leader Evangelos Venizelos, in particular want Syriza to be part of a coalition government in order to make them accountable and take responsibility for the hard political decisions that are destined ahead. Syriza, however, has made it perfectly clear that it will not be part of any such pro-bailout coalition government and would rather lead the opposition.

Despite PASOK’s insistence, pressure from within and without Greece would demand, that they once again forego any “party interest” for the “national good”. But having a veracious anti-bailout opposition could also prove a tactical advantage for a Samaras government in his dealings with The Troika (a nickname for the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund).

This would require political finesse, coalition building with like-minded European sufferers (such as Portugal, Spain and Italy), with socialist-led France at the helm, to loosen the austerity-driven Troika spearheaded by Germany.

While such a campaign is pursued in Europe, a domestic reform agenda needs to be enacted to usher in a raft of structural changes. These pertain to corruption, tax evasion, democratic governance, separation of judiciary from political interference, accountability and scrutiny of public funds and projects, while also trying to stimulate growth and employment.

Quite a Herculean feat for any generation, let alone a coalition government.

Dr Michális S. Michael is Deputy Director, Centre for Dialogue at La Trobe University.

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