For Greek mainstream parties, it’s still business as usual

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By Harry van Versendaal

It almost defies reason. Six years into a wrenching recession and amid heavy speculation of a snap election next year, Greece’s mainstream parties are still locked in a self-destructive business-as-usual mode.

The survival of the power-sharing government seems to depend upon support from a critical mass of disaffected – albeit moderate – middle-class voters who are wary of the implications of an anti-bailout SYRIZA administration. And yet New Democracy and PASOK coalition politicians continue to dangerously indulge in the bad old partisan habits that are, at least in part, responsible for the nation’s current woes.

“This is all path dependence. It is not really rational, but this is what they know well, what they have been doing all these years,” says Elias Dinas, a political scientist at the University of Nottingham, ahead of a Greek Public Policy Forum conference later this month on Crete which is set to discuss the impact of the euro debt crisis on national party politics and the European project.

The Greek Cabinet primarily consists of MPs who are picked on the basis of preference votes. “This creates personal obstacles for the implementation of reforms. You need a large stock of support to enter into seemingly painful negotiations with specific professional sectors,” Dinas says.

The abrupt closure of Greece’s public broadcaster ERT earlier this summer, traditionally seen as a political fiefdom of the ruling party, raised some hopes among pro-reform centrists that – notwithstanding the questionable legality of the move – Prime Minister Antonis Samaras was finally prepared to build on a clean sheet and break with a long tradition of corruption and political patronage. Those expectations were soon defeated by a number of less-than-transparent appointments at ERT’s successor, DT, and a very messy launch that has been a cause of constant embarrassment for the government.

“The logic that has prevailed in this administration is a minimum-cost logic. This is clearly a very risk-averse government, primarily aiming at maintain marginal support and sacrificing reforms that might potentially harm this fragile equilibrium,” says Dinas, an expert on the development of partisan preferences.

The government has largely shied away from much-hyped structural reforms aimed at unlocking growth and creating jobs. The most common response to pressure from Greece’s foreign lenders – the European Union and the International Monetary Fund – has been haphazard, horizontal measures designed to meet nominal staff reduction targets in the country’s sizable public sector.

Samaras, who has been premier since June 2012, has heralded Greece as a “success story,” but the numbers tell a very different one. Unemployment is stubbornly stuck above 27 percent. A stunning 58.8 percent of under-25s are out of work. Over 20 percent live beneath the poverty line. The number of live births has declined by 10 percent since 2009, while suicides have soared.

Many analysts say that it is realistic to expect the debt-wracked nation to need further support from the eurozone before it can return to the markets. It is estimated that Greece will need around 10-11 bullion euros for the second half of 2014 to stay afloat next year and in 2015 – a prospect dreaded by euro-area governments faced with an increasingly skeptical public opinion.

The big shake-up

The crisis has radically transformed the two-party political system which was established after the collapse of a seven-year military dictatorship in 1974. A long-lasting tradition of nepotism gives the impression that Greece’s fate is in the hands of the same people who created the mess.

“But we must not forget that after the May 2012 election, PASOK has seen its vote decrease to unprecedented levels while New Democracy is still a key player only because of a record increase in party system fragmentation,” Dinas says. Last year’s vote still has the record of all inter-election volatility indices among established democracies, comparable only to the very first and formative elections of new democratic regimes.

Used to sweeping more than 40 percent of the vote, PASOK is now polling around 7 percent. A Public Issue survey published last week suggested that the conservatives have slipped behind SYRIZA, although a majority of respondents still consider Samaras a more suitable premier than opposition leader Alexis Tsipras.

“I cannot see a clear solution to the crisis in the foreseeable future, which means that a SYRIZA government might at some point become inevitable,” Dinas says.

However, the big shake-up of the Greek political system came with a self-destruct button. Neo-Nazi Golden Dawn is now polling at 13 percent, almost double the figure for PASOK.

The party with the swastika-like emblem already controls 18 seats in the 300-member House after winning nearly 7 percent in the May elections. Its members have been repeatedly connected to violent attacks on immigrants, gays and political opponents. In the latest assault, nine members of the Communist party (KKE) were hospitalized last week after suspected Golden Dawn supporters wielding metal clubs and poles set upon them while they were putting up posters in Perama, near Piraeus.

The response from New Democracy – which only provided a belated and rather vague condemnation of the Perama assault – has been uncomfortably cynical. Party spinmeisters and conservative pundits have tried to play the polarization card by investing heavily in what is known as the theory of the two extremes. The idea is to discredit SYRIZA by playing up abusive language and rowdy behavior on the left and equating it with far-right violence.

At the same time, Samaras’s hard-line approach on illegal immigration combined with a political credo animated by emphasis on devotion to the nation, Orthodoxy and traditional values aspires to hijack Golden Dawn’s strongest catchment area. Studies show that four in 10 Golden Dawn voters in the May ballot came from the New Democracy camp.

Bridge building

All this polarized multipartism is unsustainable in the long run, Dinas says. One way to ease the pressure on the political system would be to reduce the number of parties in Parliament, now seven – an unlikely prospect given that all of the newly formed parties have more or less held their own since the last election. To avoid implosion, Dinas thinks, Greece’s political system must rather aim to build bridges between the pro- and anti-bailout camps, mainly by priming issue dimensions where there is room for consent, or, equivalently, potential for within-group divisions.

“This is the strategy that Abraham Lincoln used to win the 1860 US presidential election, introducing slavery as a new cleavage cross-cutting the existing cleavage structure and dividing the Democrats internally,” he says.

For Greece’s post-1974 system, the predicament is an existential one: Golden Dawn’s threat to democracy must become the glue for political action.

A lot will have to change. Until the May election, the political class was simply too busy with its own survival to grapple with the rise of Golden Dawn, as the grouping made its crucial early steps by operating as the typical local mafia branch, Dinas says, describing a protection industry that used conventional – and often illegal – means to provide services in the state’s stead.

Since then, Dinas says, the picture is similar to the contrast between guerilla and incumbent warfare in civil wars. Golden Dawn employs grassroots practices that are specifically targeted at local communities, such as – Greek-only – food handouts, blood drives and neighborhood patrols. Mainstream political parties, on the other hand, try to challenge the party through their discourse in the media. The problem, as several surveys demonstrate, is that the mainstream media – like most of the country’s other institutions – are heavily discredited in the eyes of angry voters. The elite message easily plays into the hands of the anti-systemic party.

“For Golden Dawn supporters, any criticism coming from the main parties against their own party is not going to change their sentiments; if it does, it will probably be in the opposite direction,” Dinas says.

The political system, he says, needs to adopt a different strategy – one that is built around the idea that representative democracy cannot tolerate its enemies.

“What needs to be done is to challenge Golden Dawn using its own means. You need a strong state that is prepared to take legal action against any deviation from the law in order to confront the problem,” says Dinas while also stressing the need to invest resources in creating strong social disincentives for the party’s supporters, in schools, the working environment and universities.

“One of the reasons Golden Dawn has been successful is that it provides a clear and unambiguous identity; everyone needs to belong somewhere. There is a whole socialization process,” Dinas says. For a state that managed to mobilize support for the criminal regime of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s, a similar anti-fascist mobilization should be a doable task, he says.

“Otherwise, Golden Dawn can only fall if it tries to embrace the political system,” says Dinas, pointing a finger at other radical right parties in Europe – such as the Freedom Party of Austria and Geert Wilder’s Party for Freedom in the Netherlands – that lost most of their appeal once they entered government coalitions.

“To be sure, this is not a prospect that we should be looking forward to.”

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