For Greece and Germany a democratic trial loomsBy
In past weeks and months Greek institutions have taken a battering in the eyes of the world. An election produced no firm results; a far-right party gained an unprecedented share of the vote; uncertainty reigns as the last opinion polls before next Sunday’s re-run election suggest a further surge for Syriza – a coalition of Leftist groups that has never governed before.
Talk about Greek democracy, and most people imagine you are referring to ancient Athens. Yet the modern country has respectable democratic credentials, having introduced universal male suffrage decades before Britain, or indeed most European states. Of course, from early on the combination of a strong populace and a weak state had unpredictable and often undesirable consequences. While small bands of armed patriots easily dragged the country into military adventures, civil servants in Athens found it hard to impose direct taxes. They could not even draw up a comprehensive land register.
It is tempting to read back many of Greece’s present problems into this distant past. Yet until recently the general view inside the country was that the bad old days had been left behind. Thanks in no small part to Europe’s support, the wounds of the Nazi occupation and civil war healed. After the collapse of the junta in 1974, integration into the European Community, with its ample subsidies and access to a flourishing continental economy, had knock-on political benefits. A two-party system emerged, loosely revolving around the centre-left Pasok and the centre-right New Democracy. Pasok’s charismatic leader, Andreas Papandreou, buried his pipe-smoking past as head of the Berkeley economics department and remade himself as a fiery leather-jacketed opponent of American imperialism; his long-time rival, the soberly uncharismatic conservative Konstantine Karamanlis, led the country out of the dictatorship and into Europe in a political career that spanned more than 40 years.
To be sure, not everyone believed even then in the idea of democratic transition. The communiques of November 17 – once Europe’s most feared terrorist group – present a revolutionary victimology in which Nazis, Americans and Greek businessmen succeed one another seamlessly as the country’s tyrants, in a perspective that casts the European Union as the latest incarnation of an unending capitalist oppression. On the right, critics castigated both parties for a catalogue of sins ranging from the betrayal of Cyprus to civil marriage and the moral state of the country. Yet none of these grievances translated into political success.
It is one of the achievements of the European Union’s insistence on austerity at any cost that Greece’s democratic stabilisation now seems jeopardised. Once democracy’s guarantor, Europe itself has now become the chief source of pressure upon it. It was doubtless inevitable that New Democracy and, above all, Pasok would pay a heavy price for their support of the austerity programme – the attack on “bipartisanism” has been a constant motif in Syriza’s electioneering. Yet Greeks have not turned against Europe: on the contrary, public opinion remains deeply committed to membership of the union. One of the numerous follies of the current German government was to come out so strongly last autumn against George Papandreou’s idea of holding a referendum, which he would certainly have won. Nor do the Greeks fail to recognise the need for a sweeping reform of the public finances. The reason for the implosion of the two-party system is simply because in the absence of any plausible scenario or package for growth to accompany Europe’s endless cost-cutting demands, the country’s suffering and social disintegration seem futile.
The last election showed the ground shifting fast. The left accumulated more than 50% of the votes in aggregate – except that there is no aggregate: even Syriza, the big winner, is itself a coalition of smaller groupings, and the likely outcome for the left is a further period of factionalism and instability.
On the right, the emergence in parliament of a neo-Nazi movement for the first time is a disturbing new element. No party with a fondness for the junta and an emblem that bears more than a passing resemblance to a swastika is ever likely to do very well in Greece: the country suffered too much at the Nazis’ hands, and at the Colonels’ too. What the rise of Golden Dawn demonstrates is the desperation that is driving voters to look to any quarter, however demagogic, that promises them a more active say in their own future.
It also shows how combustible the combination of austerity and badly managed immigration policies can be. It is testimony to Greek political values that until this point the question of illegal immigration had played such a tiny role in national political life, despite the country becoming what one journalist has called “the migrant world’s gateway to Europe”. Today, with the country’s welfare state in shambles and illegal entry into Greece showing little sign of easing up, the prospects are ominous.
Was the emergence of a stable democratic system after 1974 merely a blip in Greek history, or a genuinely durable achievement? Although it is too early to write this off, the crisis has directly contributed to the weakening of the two parties that have mostly run the country since then.
In the coming weeks and months two things need to happen, neither of which, unfortunately, seems probable. One lies in Greek hands and that is for a workable government to emerge out of the coming elections. But the other does not – and that is for the Germans to throw their weight behind a serious growth package for Europe as a whole, and for the southern periphery in particular.
It now falls to the Greeks in the most testing of circumstances to demonstrate the tenacity of their commitment to Europe. And it falls to the Germans to uphold Europe’s commitment to democracy itself.
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