Can Europe Make It?

Greek elections - a chance for consensus or further fragmentation?

What are some of the issues at stake for Greece in the upcoming election?

Dimitrios Triantaphyllou
26 August 2015

Panagiotis Lafazanis (centre) announces the formation of a new anti-bailout party, Popular Unity, formed from Syriza rebels. Demotix/Wassilis Aswestopoulos. All rights reserved.

The January 25 elections that brought the Syriza-Independent Greeks coalition government to power seem like a distant memory. In the few months it tried to govern, the Greek political setting changed considerably giving rise to a Syriza 2.0 - that is a rump version of its earlier self with the creation of a parliamentary group on its left claiming to be the true representative of the Syriza’s radical left rhetoric and ideology. The cause for the split? A new bailout deal between Greece and its creditors that Alexis Tsipras negotiated and asked Parliament to ratify in contradiction to the promises and ideological premises of his party while in opposition. Hence, the call for snap elections on 20 September.

Syriza’s rupture is symptomatic of an ongoing realignment of the political system, as the voters have become more disparate in their choices. One could assess that the popular discontent with the political system in Greece has actually brought about more democracy rather than less, as it has challenged the post-1974 consensus of two major ideologically opposed political parties vying for the right to govern to a more muddled, more heteroclite, more representative political system reflective of the broken down post-dictatorship two party consensus. It also has given rise to populism with whose wave Syriza won the elections and the ‘incongruous’ Syriza-Independent Greeks coalition was justified. It has also brought to the fore a new force – the apathetic voter represented by 36% of the electorate in the January elections and who may grow in the forthcoming September elections.

What are the stakes?

As with every election the stakes are many. In the January poll, the Greek electorate voted in seven parties to represent it in Parliament. In the forthcoming September elections, the number of parties could climb to eight or nine with an outright victory by the poll's winner highly unlikely. The issue here will be governance and whether the political forces in Parliament (at least those professing a European vocation) will find a way to move the country’s agenda forward despite their differences.

This will not happen in the context of the pro and anti memorandum divide which will nevertheless be present but will not have the overriding role it had until now as the split within Syriza relegates this debate lower on the pecking order. This, by extension, will also apply to the rise of populism with whose wave Syriza won the January elections as well as the irritating persistence of Golden Dawn to cross the 3% threshold. In other words, should the political governance issue be resolved, the flames of populism may be more easily tamed or harnessed.

Given the consensus for reform or for the need to implement the bailout terms, the stakes will be about what type of state will emerge to meet the needs of a society and ensure growth. Will the state promote social justice and tackle congenital problems of tax evasion and corruption? Will it deliver a tax system that is equitable? Will it provide a workable framework that will allow the private sector to stand on its own two feet and spur growth? Will it provide for a rational plan for job creation that tackles the roots of youth unemployment and long-term unemployment and the brain drain that takes into account the negative demographics and the growing irregular migration issue by developing policies that would allow some of the migrants to settle in Greece? Will a new social contract with societal actors such as unions reflecting the new realities be formulated? Will the state (at national, regional, and municipal level) finally become capable in absorbing EU structural funds and in applying funds it may be eligible for? Will the education system finally be reformed?

The list is by no means exhaustive yet it is representative of the wider issues that need to be addressed and resolved beyond the simple implementation of the terms of the bailout plan. These issues or challenges need to be debated, legislated, and implemented in parallel as they represent at least the kind of Greece that will emerge post-crisis. Whether the evolving post-election consensus for some sort of coalition government will also provide the impetus for the aforementioned issues to be moderated remains to be seen, but here too the dilemmas are high – should the political parties in charge fail to unite society and lay the foundations for transformation, further populism and voter apathy could end up becoming the norm rather than an aberration.

A secondary, yet crucial, issue will be the place of Greece in the European Union in particular and the West in general. In other words, the country is still teetering (though less alarmingly than only a few months ago) between its place as an old EU and member state with a place at its noyau dur – the Eurozone, and its exceptionalism.

Syriza’s rupture helps tilts the balance away from adventurism yet should the bailout fail, the talk of Grexit and other geopolitical and geoeconomic alternatives will quickly come to dominate the headlines. Tsipras’, and hence Syriza’s, commitment to the process of European integration is by no means guaranteed.

While on the very night of the referendum of 5 July, Tsipras seems to have opted to finding a solution within the Eurozone as opposed to leading the country down the risky path of monetary independence, his commitment to a European solution will repeatedly be tested as Syriza will have to rebrand itself as the leading political force of the centre left in Greece rather than that only of the radical left.

Syriza will have to convince itself and the voters that the fight against the shackles of austerity, neoliberal economic policies, and a German-led Europe can best be led and fought by staying in the EU rather than via a proud patriotic rejection of it, that the dangers of imminent economic collapse that come with a Eurozone exit far outweigh the enticing populist sirens of revolutionary change.

A third, related, stake has to do with the growing irregular migration challenge as the inability of the state to address the basic needs of the refugees and migrants that manage to make it to Greek shores. Irrespective of whether their influx will grow or ebb, the inability of the state to provide even for their basic needs, will allow for political forces (in particular of the far right including elements within New Democracy, the main opposition party) to further polarize society as to who is to blame for their coming and the need to create Fortress Greece as opposed to creating a framework for integrating some of them and for regulating their passage to other European countries within the context of the Union’s asylum and other related policies.

Finally, the overarching fourth challenge is jumpstarting the economy which has seen its recovery reversed since the end of 2014, its GDP shrink further, its stock market crash, its banking system shackled by capital controls, and the unemployment rate grow. As long as the economy does not show signs of recovery, the political system will remain unstable; yet as long as the political forces that could potentially commit to overcoming together the current quagmire do not do so, the economy will only sink further.

In other words, these elections have the potential to be about how to fix the country and make it tick again. They are more about realism than competing ideologically tinged dreams and aspirations. Whether this sort of rationalization about the forthcoming election and beyond will become the mainstay of the country’s pro-Europe political forces, and whether politics as usual will dominate the agenda remains to be seen, but with the stakes and challenges for the country so high, the thorny path of political, societal, and economic consensus may finally be making its appearance and becoming the norm at least until the next electoral cycle.

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