Can Europe Make It?

Carry on Sisyphus: short answers on Greece’s post-electoral politics

Perhaps paradoxically, Greece’s real problem is primarily political, not economic, and its name is “populism.”

Takis S Pappas
26 January 2015
Panos Kammenos, leader of ANEL, December 2014.

Panos Kammenos, leader of ANEL, December 2014.Demotix/ Georgios Zachos. All rights reserved. On January 25, 2015, the Greek voters rejected austerity and brought to power the Coalition of the Radical Left (known by its acronyms as Syriza), a party led by 41-year old Alexis Tsipras, who will now become Greece’s prime minister. However, as Syriza was unable to muster a parliamentary majority on its own, it has opted to form a coalition government with a rightist populist (and nationalist) party, the Independent Greeks (ANEL), led by Panos Kammenos. Greece’s economic woes are well known and, in summary form, have to do with the difficulties of implementing bold reforms to prevent the country from remaining in a state of permanent default and possibly being driven out of the Eurozone. But, Greece’s political troubles are even more important, and, indeed, are the root cause of the inability to implement economic reforms. So, how can we make sense of what is going on in Greece in the aftermath of its last elections?  

Q: What is Greece’s real problem?

A: Everybody agrees that the problem in Greece is its chronic lack of competitiveness. As long as productivity remains low, the country will be in need of infusions of foreign loans. But, perhaps paradoxically, Greece’s real problem is primarily political, not economic, and its name is “populism.” This is to say that during previous decades competitiveness was lost, not because of shortcomings in the market economy, but because the state was used for political purposes against any economic rationality. In practice, the Greek voters and the Greek political class became entangled in a high-level coordination game in which each set of actors exploited the state for its own particular purposes – the voters for extracting state-related benefits and the politician for gaining votes. In such a system, reformism would not pay off. And on occasions when individual politicians were bold – or careless – enough to introduce some reform agenda aimed at promoting the general public welfare rather than particular vested interests, they were punished at the polls.

Q: But, what is populism after all?

A: Populism is other words for “democratic illiberalism.” This is to say that populist parties are by definition democratic and yet they are illiberal. This further means that such parties simply fail to abide by the three most fundamental principles of political liberalism, namely, the acknowledgement of multiple divisions in society; the need to try reconciling such divisions via negotiated agreements and political moderation; and the commitment to the rule of law and the protection of all minority rights. Populist parties, instead accept that societies are divided by one single cleavage, ostensibly dividing the simple people from their elites; pursue adversarial, rather than moderate, politics; and abide by majoritarianism and the idea that the officials should serve the people, rather than that the people should control officials.

Q: Who are the populists in Greece?

A: They are of two types. There are the old populists who, by political expediency and under foreign pressure, turned willy-nilly into reluctant liberals, and there are the new and unrepentant populists. In the first category belong primarily the center-right party of New Democracy and the center-left Pasok. These two parties ruled Greece by rotation during the last three decades, and only abandoned their populism in 2012, when both the seriousness of the situation and Greece’s foreign creditors demanded it. In the second category belong the leftist Syriza and the rightist ANEL. They both see Greek society as split along one single dividing line separating the moral masses from unethical elites, use polarization tactics, and advocate majoritarianism.

Q: In what exactly is Syriza a populist party?

A: In that it fails to meet each and every criterion of political liberalism as stipulated above. First, it conceives, and refers to, Greek society as divided between the “pure,” “ethical” and blameless people, who have been the victims of the native political oligarchy which is subservient to foreign interests. These two groups, second, stand poles apart and there can be no reconciliation between them, or, as an earlier slogan of Syriza snapped, “It is either Us or Them.” Nor is there, third, any need for compromise since the people, as a natural majority, are bound to finally win, and then wipe off anything that comes from the past and impose its own will on politics. In fact, some believe, so strong will be the impact of the Syriza-led popular movement in Greece that it will soon sweep across the rest of Southern Europe and, from there, will spread to the north until the “European people” are finally sovereign.

Q: What happened in Greece since the 2012 elections?

A: By and large, the country became even more than in the past, and very deeply, divided between two camps. On the one side, stood the old mainstream parties which, now in coalition, became committed to avoiding a Greek debt default, or a banking crisis, by sticking to austerity measures and economic overhauls, but with little political capacity – let alone the courage – to implement them. On the other side, stood forceful Syriza, which, in tune with the ANEL, rejected austerity measures, promised to tear up Greece’s bailout agreement, pledged society’s return to pre-crisis social and economic standards, and adamantly refused any collaboration with the government parties, whether in the present or in the future.

Q: What prompted the new general election?

A: In December 2014, the Greek parliamentarians were asked to vote on appointing the next President of the Republic. Despite three attempts (the first two of them requiring 200 votes in the 300-seated Parliament, while the third requires just 180 votes), no opposition party offered its support to the only (government-sponsored) candidate, and so the parties failed to elect a new president. This necessitated the holding of new general elections.

Q: Who are Alexis Tsipras and his party top brass?

A: He is Greece’s youngest prime minister ever, Europe’s currently youngest, and the only one to lead a leftist government in the western world. Before assuming the leadership of Syriza in 2008, he was a party apparatchik with no other professional experience or international exposure. He is proving himself a good tactician, but the real control he exercises over his party comes with a big question mark. Although many people think that Tsipras is charismatic (like, say, the late Andreas Papandreou, founder of Pasok), nothing could be further from reality. Political charisma is best understood as a distinct type of leadership in which some ruler is able to exercise immense personal authority over a party, or movement, simultaneously undertaking the radical transformation of an established institutional order. At the moment, Tsipras lacks both characteristics. Similarly to him, many of his chief party lieutenants come from the party cadres, but are also from academia (mostly economists), and a few of the professions (mostly lawyers). When available online, their CVs are not particularly promising.

Q: Who are Syriza’s new government partners?

A: ANEL, the main expression in Greece of nationalist, anti-European, right-wing populism. During the past years, they have often tacitly supported Syriza. Panos Kammenos, the party leader, has publicly supported the idea that the EU has sprayed chemicals over Greece in order to make Greeks less resistant to submission. Apparently, many Greeks were convinced.

Q: What are the strengths and weaknesses of the new government?

A: The main strength of the Syriza government is its social oomph and hopeful message that now everything will change for the better. But this is also its greatest weakness, for a number of more specific reasons. First, the inexperience of its leader and chief party members; second, the rather limited social legitimacy it received from the voters (36.3%, or a bit over one-third of the actual voters); third, the still unknown degree of the leader’s control over his rainbow party; and fourth, and obviously most important, the absence of a clear, coherent, and pragmatic program of political action for leading the country safely between the Scylla of meeting the requirements of foreign creditors and the Charybdis of satisfying the promises made to Greek society, and towards safer havens.

Q: Will the Greeks be patient with the new government?

A: No. The Greek people are a tired, and very angry, lot. Since the crisis began in 2009 and up till today, they have participated in four elections, tried six different prime ministers, and brought into office parties of all political hues – from the ultra conservative Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) to center-right New Democracy and center-left Pasok, to the moderate leftist Democratic Left and now, to the radical leftist Syriza. Put it differently, the only parties that have not been given a chance to govern in crisis-ridden Greece are the Communist Party and the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn. This naturally raises the question of what may be the outcome if even Syriza does not succeed in its newly assigned task to end the crisis.

Q: Will the new government succeed?

A: This will be a tall order. Unlike what many Greeks seem to believe, the success of the government will not depend on the other European governments (which are certain to try finding a compromise with Athens) but on the capacity of the new government and its young leader to perform political miracles: first, to keep their party united; second, to agree with their foreign creditors on the compromises proposed; third, to produce growth; and, fourth, to keep society content with realistic prospects rather than unrealistic promises. This is, indeed, a tall order.

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