Greece’s challenges are in part unique but they also distil problems inherent in the rest of the continent
The world may be watching Sunday’s elections in Greece with fascination and awe, as one would approach the scene of an accident before the rescue workers arrive, understanding that the vote could push Greece out of the euro and trigger a series of unforeseen consequences for the eurozone and the global economy.
For we Greeks, though, this is a purely domestic affair. The pressures of meeting our creditors’ demands for austerity and reform in exchange for life-supporting loans are straining society to breaking point. The vote will stand as a memorial to the breakdown of our political system, so we have too much on our plates to be overly concerned with how others see us.
We are voting because our political parties could not find the courage to work together in the face of a dire national crisis after the inconclusive 6 May election. Then, they could not even agree on the terms of a televised debate. Now, before Sunday’s vote, these masters of diplomacy and compromise who cannot talk to each other all promise to renegotiate successfully the terms of our bailout deal with increasingly frustrated partners in the EU and the IMF.
Meanwhile, the social security system is collapsing, hospitals are suffering dire shortages, one in four workers is unemployed and the rest fear that their turn is coming. A lawyer friend thinks of going into farming – the land will at least provide food. Seven out of 10 people aged between 18 and 24 say they want to emigrate; people are afraid they’ll lose their savings if we leave the euro; migrants are being attacked by right-wing thugs; and the economy – in its fifth year of recession – is dying from lack of liquidity, meaning that many more businesses will close. (On a more personal level, I hold my breath each time I visit the cash machine.) On top of this, relations with our partners and creditors are frozen.
One would think this is the time for political consensus and a national programme for the country’s recovery. Instead, the absence of a viable new political force means that people have to look either to old parties with all their baggage or be drawn to formerly marginal extremists. It is clear that these parties can handle neither the rigours of the eurozone nor the chaos that would follow if Greece left it.
People are voting for parties they never would have considered before, expressing the fear, anger and general sense of uncertainty that has taken root in every heart. Many who were left of centre will vote for the conservative New Democracy party because it says it will not prompt a crisis with our creditors and so the reforms and loans will continue. Others who never considered themselves leftists are flocking to the other pole, the radical left coalition Syriza, which declares that the loan and reform package (known here as the “memorandum”) is already null and void.
More unsettling is the new prominence of a group of violent rightwing extremists, who are drawing support from many who might never have thought of voting for them but, feeling powerless, want proxy hard men strutting about the country.
With our vote, we will show that our parties’ time is up, because none of them seems fit to deal with the challenges that they will face in government. And this, as much as our threat to the euro, is something that should concern the rest of Europe. Many of Greece’s challenges are unique, but our country distils problems inherent in Europe’s unification – and one of them is the inability of political forces to deal with rising popular anger at home while at the same time co-ordinating action at the European level.
The Greeks are split and disorientated, with the two centrist parties (New Democracy and centre-left Pasok) that have dominated politics since 1974 losing most of their support and credibility. There is no centre now, no powerful party synonymous with the state, no one to offer the reassurance of the old political patrons.
Just as the economic crisis was first seen as a purely Greek problem, only to lead to much more fundamental questioning of the EU’s determination to protect its common currency, so too the political crisis could signal what is in store in other countries. When the traditional formula of austerity and reforms brings no swift results other than to push great numbers of people into unemployment, poverty and despair, while undermining the confidence of citizens and businesses, people will turn their backs on reality and seek comfort either in the past, in shared grievances or in populists’ false promises.
While Germany worries about the rampant inflation that helped bring the Nazis to power, in Greece we see that the dogmatic fear of inflation, expressed through unrelenting austerity, can cause the same social distress that brought forth Germany’s monsters.
So where does Greece stand in Europe? Is its place in the euro and in the EU threatened? Many of those voting today do not see the election in the same light as all the officials and economists across the world: a referendum on our euro membership, whose result, if negative, could prompt a wild pack mentality across world markets, further recession and perhaps even cost Barack Obama his re-election.
Those voting for New Democracy do so in a conscious effort to keep Greece in the common currency. But, since consecutive polls have found that some 70% of citizens want Greece to remain in the euro, it seems that those voting for Syriza and other “anti-memorandum” parties really do believe their message that reneging on the bailout agreement will not lead to an end to the euros being pumped in from abroad.
Both New Democracy and Syriza have played the game of polarisation, as if staging the final battle of the civil war that ended in 1949 and resulted in decades of persecution of leftists, which has given them the moral high ground in Greece’s politics since. This, though, is a distraction from the need to agree on reforming the tax system, the judiciary, the public administration and so on. The likelihood is that whoever wins today will be forced to create a coalition, with the result that a weak government will face a strong opposition.
As we saw in the pre-election period that preceded the 6 May vote and today’s ballot, Greece cannot afford to remain without a government. Just as in our handling of the economy – when it had to collapse before we decided to do something about it – Sunday’s results will lead to further stalemate and perhaps prove to us that our political system is in a similar need of reform. While we consider how best to do this, it would be useful for our EU partners to see how best they could avoid the same fate.
Nikos Konstandaras is a columnist at Greek daily Kathimerini.
Penny Stock Picks