Monday, January 19, 2015

Greece on the cusp of change? Hold that thought

We live in an interesting world at an interesting time in history where universal access to information makes for complex deciphering of its trends and challenges. We live in a world where a country like Greece which accounts for 0,15% of the world’s population (ranked 78th) and 0,30% of the world’s GDP can still grab the world’s attention because of internal political and economic dynamics. Being part of the European Union, the world’s largest economy, and a member of the Eurozone, with the Euro being the world’s second most powerful currency, explains this discrepancy between the relative power of a Greece on its own and that of Greece as a midsize and longstanding member of the European Union.

As a result, the current electoral campaign which will culminate on Sunday, 25 January has all the makings of making or breaking the country’s global standing with the almost certain victory of SYRIZA, the anti-establishment radical left party. On its own, a victory of the left would raise a few eyebrows and nothing more as it would be considered normal that political change came about through the democratic process. But these are not normal times. These are times of high drama as Greece finds itself heavily in debt and in the midst of a prolonged recession which may or may not be abating and the elections have much to do with it.

The crux has been that the recipes for reform and growth have been slow in having an impact in part because of the establishment’s inability or unwillingness to tackle congenital structural deficiencies which necessitates clashing with vested interests of all types. As a result, an anti-establishment alternative in the form of SYRIZA has emerged. The problem that this raises is that neither SYRIZA seems to offer a credible alternative to reform other than promises to alleviative the pain suffered by a large part of the population due to austerity measures. After all, the crisis has left its indelible mark on Greek society. According the EC’s recently released report on Employment and Social Developments in Europe 2013, 35.7% of all Greeks were on the verge of poverty or social exclusion in 2013 while the unemployment rate of the economically active population (25-64 age groups) stood at 49.3%.

The concern with SYRIZA is that it is untested and that it seems to be having a hard time moving beyond the various strands of Marxist, neo-Marxist, and more mainstream leftist perspectives and their cacophony that the various factions making up the party represent and delivering a coherent message and work plan for the future should it assume the mantle of power. Albeit the efforts of Alexis Tsipras, its leader, to bring about cohesion, in the heat of the electoral campaign, SYRIZA seems to represent a motley crew or firebrand revolutionaries, inconsistent rhetoric and increasing populist promises ---as if these were normal times. As a result doubts persistently arise about its commitment to the European Union and the Euro albeit the efforts of qualified economists such as Yannis Varoufakis and others to defend SYRIZA’s economic vision and agenda.

Its main opponent, New Democracy led by the outgoing Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, has also increasingly taken to populist rhetoric of better days ahead and less talk of reform at it tries to clip SYRIZA’s wings toward an outright, however slim, majority. Consequently, the already frail economy is beginning to become undone with revenues down, and uncertainty as to how the country will finance itself and pay its debts once the electoral saga comes to an end.

The constitutional procedures might also find themselves stretched to their limits once the election results become known as should no party get an outright parliamentary majority of 151 seats, the procedures for forming coalition governments will have to be implemented in parallel with the procedures for the election of a new President of the Republic (the failure to do so in December has led to the holding of these snap elections after all). A nefarious scenario of giving the mandate to the third highest vote getting party which could be the neo Nazi Golden Dawn party is not out of the question should the top two parties fail to form a government. Like most Greeks, I cringe at the thought of having Golden Dawn’s leader, who is behind bars awaiting trial, being sanctioned to become a dealmaker.

While Golden Dawn has been in crisis since September 2013 with the arrest of most of its parliamentarians on charges of belonging to a criminal organization, it shows surprising political perseverance and continues to have a hard core group of supporters in spite its vilification. Another sign that in these abnormal times the enemy within us refuses to give up its arms. As the campaign runs its course, as if it is politics as usual with promises on the right and left of free handouts while the continued presence of the neo-Nazis and the sheer magnitude of the country’s problems mount, it is hard to see how these elections are about serious change or transformation.

In 1981, when Andreas Papandreou with his populist demagoguery and his Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) swept into power, they garnered over 48% of the popular vote and 172 seats in the 300 seat parliamentary chamber; today a possible SYRIZA victory would translate into a 35% of the popular votes (if the polls are to be believed) and anywhere between 140 and 155 seats. In 1981, only three parties met the 3% threshold to be represented in Parliament; today, between 6 to 8 parties are expected to meet it. And as Takis Pappas reminds us, Alexis Tsipras is no Andreas Papandreou, albeit the need for “someone capable of forging a new social majority into a mass political formation under the banner of a sensible program for economic development and national regeneration.”

Thus while these are not normal times, the political forces and their elite vying for the right to govern the country are nowhere near as transformative and forward-looking as they would like us to think. They lack the temerity to devise a new national social contract, to rebuild the country and provide for social justice and equity as well as repair and modernize the structural behemoth that is the state. In their attempt to ensure the right to govern, they seem to have forgotten why they are seeking the vote thereby pushing the country towards further insignificance. And if this is the case, the question then is why are these elections being held in the first place if the country is not on the cusp of change? Maybe because all they are capable is more of the same – their slow demise and with it of the country they purport to defend. 

published in openDemocracy on 19 January 2015 

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