Greek repeat elections, 17 June 2012: European integration bottom-up?

A few weeks ago, anxiety over the Greek economy gave way to additional distress over a puzzling election result and alarming political instability. On May 6, the Greek Left almost won the elections, neo-Nazis entered parliament and the two main parties lost more than half of their votes.[1] Efforts to form a government coalition failed and a repeat vote was called for the first time since 1989. Ahead of the June 17 vote, Europe must catch the pulse of this post/pre-electoral process and also examine the sustainability of its own political system, writes Anthoula Malkopoulou.

Protest against austerity, but not only

People not very familiar with Greek politics may think that on May 6 Greek voters ‘punished’ the PASOK-New Democracy coalition for their unpopular economic policies. This is of course true, since austerity has been not only tough to bear, but also unsuccessful in halting the recession. Still, what remains often unsaid is that the two parties were not only punished for the country’s 2008-12 economic decline, but also for another very important reason.

Faced with a total collapse of economic and social stability, voters naturally sent home the primary suspects of this breakdown, namely those who governed the country interchangeably since 1974. Indeed, PASOK and ND are held accountable not only for the politics of the past four years, but for the entire post-junta era, when state borrowing and public sector expansion became the main tools for sustaining voter clienteles and filling the cash registers of parties and politicians themselves with imported money.

Their 6-month collaboration in government, since November 2011, nourished public perceptions of the two parties’ chronic ‘complicity’ in the Greek economic failure. Therefore, many commentators, including the current interim Minister of Interior, described the current crisis as the end of the post-junta Republic (Metapolitefsi).

In other words, as Greece is being forced to change its economic habits, it is changing its voting habits too. On May 6, almost one in two voters turned their backs to parties they had been voting for during the past four decades. Because national economy and party politics have been deeply intertwined for so long, changing the very structure of the economy entailed huge losses for the established parties.

This political change marks not only a rejection of austerity, but also a break with the bad habit of voting on the basis of unsustainable pre-electoral promises and clientelist expectations. As such, this development is of course a positive move away from a dirty political past.

Why do Greek voters feel trapped?

Opposition has politicised this long-term responsibility of the governing parties and pointed at their opportunism, as it unfolded over the last few years. PASOK was accused for betraying its core values of social democracy by enforcing a very neo-liberal agenda laid out in the ‘Merkozy’-sponsored Bailout Memorandum. They, in turn, blamed their ‘bad luck’ of being at the helm of the country when the Eurozone was dominated by centre-right governments.

Conversely, New Democracy is accused for reversing its position vis-à-vis the Memorandum: speaking against it as parliamentary opposition and in favour once they joined government, each time ousting several of its MPs who disagreed with the party line. It should not be surprising that voters find it hard now to trust any of these two parties again. Hence, the electoral punishment of PASOK and ND should be celebrated as the emancipation of Greek voters from their past demons and a long-awaited promise of political change. But, it is not.

The problem starts when European leaders refuse to watch in silence their allied parties being humiliated. Traditional centre-right and centre–left political forces across Europe feel that the defeat of their political cousins in Greece could be contagious. Germany’s Merkel and France’s Hollande – the latter even despite being openly supported by SYRIZA – are unwilling to passively look on as Greek voters depart en masse from the old political centre and join the radical Left or the populist Right.

As a result, European leaders have thrown themselves into a race to reverse the downward trend of the Greek economy and thus to save PASOK and New Democracy from further decline. And the name of their plan is: Eurobonds.

Greek-only election or pan-European game?

Indeed, the key to understanding the dynamic of this Greek election is to stop looking at it as a national-only process and to throw an eye instead at its pan-European dimension. The very moment that a European summit agreed on issuing EU project bonds, Greek polls brought New Democracy for the first time back to the lead and SYRIZA second. In this sense, if European leaders continue to produce hope for Greek citizens, their pro-Memorandum political allies will have a chance to return to government. Of course, the opposite is also true: a softening of Europe’s austerity requirements can be seen as a success of SYRIZA’s militant anti-austerity campaign.

Decisions taken in Brussels are not the only external key to the Greek vote; the rhetoric of European leaders is another. The phenomenon of international leaders addressing the Greek public was especially trending during the previous campaign, but is at the moment slowing down. One of the reasons is that these foreign rhetorical interventions were seen as external support of pro-Memorandum parties, which have been met with suspicions of being co-opted by foreign elites.

In general, international calls for Greece to follow the Bailout Memorandum, which anti-Memorandum parties claim delegitimized by the election result, are received with distrust, labelled as ‘threats’ and considered malicious interventions in domestic politics. Public anger and nationalist feelings are growing common among a population that feels its socio-economic sovereignty and the right to substantially govern itself was lost when the Memorandum was signed two years ago.

SYRIZA’s European campaign

Since decisions for the economic wellbeing of Greece are taken in Berlin rather than Athens, SYRIZA turned its election critique against Merkel, as much as against PASOK and ND. The party even chose as election mascot a renowned veteran of the Greek Resistance against the German Occupation in WWII, Manolis Glezos. After new elections were called, its leader Alexis Tsipras first talked to international media and toured European capitals and then Greek constituencies.

SYRIZA’s anti-Merkel campaign was easy to build on the growing distrust against German companies involved in bribing Greek politicians (SiemensHDW/Ferrostaal) and rumours about Germany’s benefits from the Greek economic meltdown (e.g. Greek savings being transferred to German banks). And since the Greek wrath has been growing out of hand, German voters are now themselves turning against Merkel, whose popularity is decreasing day by day.

Despite SYRIZA’s risky tactics, their radical proposals, negative rhetoric and dramatic tone, it should be credited for being the first political party that deliberately Europeanised its national election campaign. For, Greek voters are at the moment suffering not only from their own mistakes, but also from being members of a monetary union that does not have harmonised representative procedures in place.

Democratising the Eurozone

If the union’s voters would have been given the chance not only to use the same currency, but also to vote directly for a common body, which would supervise economic policy-making for the entire Eurozone as one unified economy, a lot of trouble would have been avoided. The discrepancy between EU’s conservative economic programme enforced by a centre-left Greek party-in-government and even opposed by the Greek conservatives would have not occurred, saving the two main Greek parties from a major loss of credibility. Deeper political unification would have also prevented asymmetrical benefits and cross-border distrust, most notably between Greece and Germany, which led to an increase of nationalist feelings across the Greek political spectrum.

In other words, the union’s current political structure is failing not only to generate good decision-making, but also to secure a relationship of trust between its member-states, as well as between citizens and decision-makers. While Greeks try to rid themselves from the plague of corruption and administrative dysfunction, the Eurozone should draw its own lesson and address its notorious democratic deficit without further delay.

Therefore, rather than simply designing joint instruments of financial support, the Eurozone leaders should dare an institutional breakthrough and start redesigning the monetary union as a political union. For example, they can start by setting a unique election date for all member-states or by establishing the post of Eurozone president directly elected by the grassroots. Without deeper integration, the union’s democratic foundations will continue to crack and feed directly into European populism.


[1] SYRIZA quadrupled its force and three new parties -Independent Greeks, Golden Dawn and Democratic Left- entered parliament. For a description of the political profile and rhetoric of the elected Greek parties, see my previous article here In addition, 19 percent of the vote went to parties below the required three-percent threshold and abstention also increased by 4.5 percent.

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