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The Greek Election as Battleground of European Solidarity

Sunday, June 17, 2012  | 

HALC is pleased to feature a guest post by Alex G. Papadopoulos, PhD, of DePaul University and Academic Advisor to HALC

A few hours separate us from the announcement of the first results of the second Parliamentary elections in Greece. Every effort possible is made by the governments and the international organizations involved in the crisis to blunt the edge of the political discourse in Greece and throughout the European Union, and allow the Greek electorate to have its day, albeit for the second time in six weeks.

Briefly, there are two likely outcomes: Either the center-right party, New Democracy (ND), will come first, or the putatively Europeanist left party SYRIZA will. As in the 06 May election, it is unlikely that either party will garner sufficient votes to form a majority government. Competition for first place however is fierce, since the leading party benefits from a Constitution-dictated premium of 50 Parliament seats—a major advantage in a 300-seat unicameral legislative.  Regardless, then, of which party comes first, it will seek to create a grand coalition that will grant it a super-majority in Parliament. ND is a long-standing, reliably pro-capital, pro-EU establishment party that has governed Greece for stretches of time between 1974 and 2009 with mixed results. Since the election of 06 May, ND has pulled together fragments of the right into its ranks, except for a small coalition of neoliberal parties (DRASI, Dimiourgia Xana, and Fileleutheri Symahia) , which have opted to take their chances at the ballot box outside the ND electoral tent . Understandably, the neo-Nazi party, Chryssi Augi (Golden Dawn), is not courted by anybody. Since polling is not allowed a fortnight before an election, it is difficult to know whether Mr. Samaras was able to sufficiently terrorize the Greek electorate about a likely exit of Greece from the Eurozone under a SYRIZA government. If ND is elected as first party, it is likely that it will be able to form a coalition government with PASOK and the Democratic Left. If the small coalition of neoliberal parties clears the 3% threshold and enters the Parliament, it has indicated that it will also collaborate will all EU-minded parties to form a government.

By contrast to ND, SYRIZA is a mosaic of at least twelve ‘tendencies’ of the left, some of which are closer to Western European notions of social democracy than others. Some among these others are profoundly anti-establishment and anti-neoliberalism, and advertize their intent to denounce the troika’s Memorandum of Agreement on the first day they come to power, and also take Greece out of NATO down the road. Polyphony and fragmentation, then, are fundamental characteristics of SYRIZA. Its leader, Alexis Tsipras, deploys his charisma to create some coherence among these ideological vectors. His success on that count has been limited.

So, the first key point I want to make here is that Tsipras’ leadership discourse (for example, “yes” to the EU and the European currency, but “no” to the EU’s and IMF’s blueprint for an exit from the crisis; “yes” to European solidarity, but “no” to EU competition, as these have been formulated since 1992 in the Single European Act and subsequent treaties) is a composite of SYRIZA’s subsidiary discourses rather than a policy architect’s single, strong, fully articulated vision. The outcome is a broad-range of sometimes conflicting positions vocalized by its leading members, some of who are long-standing SYRIZA ‘captains’ with influence at near parity to Tsipras’—for those who follow Greek politics closely, Messrs. Papadimoulis and Lafazanis come to mind.

What this means in practical terms is that SYRIZA’s internal structure and leadership model—its political and organizational DNA, if you will—are not easily translated into conventional governance practice. In other words, SYRIZA flourished historically as a ruckus opposition party, capitalizing on its exclusion from Government by the dominant parties—ND and the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK)—and nurturing a classic anti-capitalist, social justice-oriented persona. Unsullied by the most overt kinds of statist corruption, it built much of its power in higher education and public sector employee syndicates and unions. When on 06 May it displaced the other partisan mainstay of Greek politics— (PASOK)—and became a likely leading party in tomorrow’s election, it confronted a challenge—governing Greece—for which it is ideologically and organizationally largely unsuited and unprepared.  I will limit myself to a single example of SYRIZA’s detachment from the conventional conduct of politics: It unilaterally does away with the basic tenet of international relations that agreements are entered into by states, not governments, and therefore international legal obligations carry across elections. In fairness, abnegations of treaties have taken place before by other states, including the United States. When that occurs, the state sustains a diplomatic cost and damage to its credibility. Under the circumstances, Greece can ill-afford such a strategy.

There is nothing unexpected in SYRIZA’s program. Its platform includes many of the classic policy projects and goals of social democracy: a well-funded and expansive social state (free health and education, generous pensions, privileged treatment of a large spectrum of constituencies ‘in need’); a conviction that the state is the best protector and purveyor of public interest; mistrust of the motives of capital and capitalists; a commitment to social justice that is, in part, expressed by wealth transfers from the ‘rich’ to the ‘poor’ (though even SYRIZA members cannot agree on who qualifies as rich) via a reformed fiscal system; a further commitment to internationalism that translates into decidedly non-nationalist immigration, foreign, and security policies; an acceptance of European integration ideals of cohesion and solidarity, and incidentally the euro currency, paired with a rejection of the EU’s neoliberal character. Much of all that exists on the ground in both Havana and Stockholm. Although committed to a representative democratic system, SYRIZA personifies both interpretations of this classic socialist platform, hence its de facto fragmentation.

My second point is that neither Mr. Tsipras nor the majority of SYRIZA party leaders are naïve to the structural challenges to their assuming power on 18 June. When we compare the policy discourse of SYRIZA right after the 06 May election to the discourse in the party’s last rally, held in Thessaloniki on Friday, 15 June, we observe a substantial shift toward the pragmatist pole of SYRIZA’s ideological spectrum. The original position was absolute in its rejection of the ‘troika’ memorandum. The current position envisages a longer process of re-negotiation of the whole memorandum, with one of its short-term goals the elimination of its ‘anti-worker’ provisions. A major disappointment to Mr. Tsipras and SYRIZA is French President Holland’s position on the Greek crisis. On the one hand, France under the Socialist Party may be sympathetic to the plight of Greek citizens and, furthermore, willing to express its support for Greece’s membership in the Eurozone, but is not the ideological kindred of SYRIZA, as Mr. Tsipra’s hoped. President Holland and his Finance Minister, Pierre Moskovici, are quite explicit in their insistence that Greece needs to satisfy the terms of its international agreement with the EU, the IMF, and the ECB in order to continue receiving financial support. On the other hand, France under the Socialists is more likely to lobby for “more Europe” as a solution to the broader European Union economic crisis.

“More Europe”, meaning deeper European integration, will be to the benefit of Greece and the other ailing economies of the Eurozone: EU institutions—the European Commission and Parliament, in particular—are axiomatically positioned in favor of European cohesion and solidarity. Expulsion of Greece from the Eurozone or the European Union is legally impossible no matter how much some government officials or business people may wish it. Sanctions, ‘demarches’, and public disapproval of Greek policies are legally possible, but they are a very long way from expulsion. Even if the majority of the European Council, which represents the national interest of the member states, becomes openly hostile to a recalcitrant Greek Government (as Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, and Finland have been), they cannot move against it. To simplify a vastly complex European decision-making process, the supranational European Commission “initiates” policy (it is its exclusive prerogative), and the Council and Parliament “co-decide”. In other words, the only draft laws that can be voted on are drafted by the solidarity-minded, albeit also neoliberally-minded, Commission. Said law will have to garner a qualitative (that is, weighed) majority vote in the Council, and an absolute majority in the Parliament. The likelihood that the EU will punish Greece in some formal way—other than by withholding funding negotiated on the basis of an intergovernmental memorandum that also involves the IMF (a non-EU body)—is highly unlikely. Some may decry this perceived laxity as evidence of the EU’s ineffectiveness. Most will recognize it as an essential ingredient in building “Europe” incrementally, and over a very long time, out of substantially disparate and unequal economies, and polities with distinct cultures and priorities.

By now SYRIZA knows that it cannot govern from the very popular, very outspoken, leftmost pole of its organizational-ideological spectrum. By moving closer to the center-left, currently occupied by yet another left party—the Democratic Left—it raises the odds of finding allies that may be willing to help it form a coalition government. A broad coalition would also address SYRIZA’s other structural limitation: the absence of international-grade cadre to staff an effective government. What is absolutely certain is that, if SYRIZA finds itself at the helm of the state, it will disappoint its most ardent anti-troika, anti-establishment supporters. Leading a complex coalition of parties, it will have to govern from the coalition’s middle. The tone of that government will be moderated both by the voices of its coalition partners and by the systemic and political limitations that will be imposed on any Greek government by the troika and, more broadly, the EU.

I estimate that on Sunday night we will likely see ND lead SYRIZA by a very small margin. That will not be a testament to Antonis Samaras’ leadership, but SYRIZA’s inability to develop a pragmatic program and publically express strength, constancy, and confidence—a cost of its polymorphic character. As I note above, ND will likely be able to put together a coalition government that will include PASOK, the Democratic Left, and the small neoliberal parties, should they make it into the Parliament. I give that scenario a 60% probability.

So, will some sort of apocalypse occur in the EU and the world economy should SYRIZA come first? Absolutely not. The only scenario under which SYRIZA could pursue its unalloyed program is if it, singlehandedly, earns a majority of Parliament seats. That would be a stunning outcome—it is highly unlikely. If SYRIZA emerges as the leading party, harvests the 50 bonus Parliamentary seats but falls below the bare majority of 151 seats, it will attempt to form a coalition with the Democratic Left that is decidedly Europeanist in its orientation. That outcome will pull SYRIZA further to the center. A potential alliance with the anti-EU Communist Party of Greece (KKE) has already been dismissed by the KKE. Drawing on these speculative scenarios and on SYRIZA’s own shift in the last few days to a more pragmatic position, I argue that there is now substantial evidence to suggest that a SYRIZA-led government will not denounce the Memorandum of Agreement, but rather would call for its wholesale renegotiation over time. This would be both qualitatively and quantitatively a sea change as far as internal SYRIZA politics is concerned.

Conventional wisdom would dictate that Berlin, Brussels, and Washington, DC, alongside all other capitals of the Eurozone, should hope that ND will be the one to prevail and form a government on the 18th of June. Such an event will certainly pacify capital markets for a brief amount of time, and allow for a more collegial renegotiation of, at least, some aspects of the deservedly-maligned Memorandum of Agreement. And indeed, even Berlin is starting to accept that an “austerity-only” strategy has caused as many problems as it has addressed. Berlin’s shift to “yes to growth, but austerity and structural reforms first” cannot be construed as a sea change. I expect it to move further to the center and toward the French position of projecting “growth” and “austerity/structural reform” policies as co-equal within a broader EU strategy of closer integration.

The question on the eve of the Greek elections, and certainly on the days and weeks that will follow it, is whether the new government—especially if it is formed by SYRIZA—will create conditions that will compel its EU partners and the IMF to suspend payments to Greece. No such actions will be taken by the new Greek Government. Greece will continue to pay its bills under a SYRIZA-led government as under an ND-led one.  The alternative is catastrophic on many fronts: Non-compliance with the terms of the Memorandum after 18 June, will likely lead to a suspension of payments to Greece by the troika. This will compel the Greek Government to unilaterally abandon the euro to meet salary and pension payouts in the only currency it would control—the Drachma. Assessments by the Bank of Greece and other reliable entities envision massive energy and humanitarian crises. The state’s inability to support adequately its armed forces with spare parts, new technology, munitions, and fuel, will precipitate a national security crisis. The geopolitical implications of Greece’s abandonment of the euro and the EU’s abandonment of Greece over a funding dispute are substantial and not entirely understood.

A more positive reading of a possible Greek exit from the Eurozone is that, some hardship notwithstanding, the return to the Drachma will greatly enhance the competiveness of the Greek economy and create the basic conditions for its eventual return to prosperity. That may be true for a state that can balance its budget by containing public sector costs, operates under an effective and transparent public administration model, has a diversified economy, a regulatory environment that is conducive to entrepreneurship and incubates innovation, and a stable political-economic system that welcomes foreign direct investment. In the case of Greece, all these structural components are either not extant, appear to be at some planning stage, or, if planned, at an early stage of implementation. In fact, many of these elements find expression in the Memorandum of Agreement signed by the two previous Greek Governments and the troika. Most of it needs to be implemented still.

It is clear that SYRIZA’s vision, as I have outlined it above, is a very poor fit with the Memorandum’s structural reforms, hence the heartburn in EU capitals. ND’s vision comes decidedly closer, and an ND-led coalition would be the preferred partner in a renegotiation of the Memorandum of Agreement. Such an election outcome will only be the lesser of evils, as ND has a long track record of inefficiency and statist, clientalistic politics. It is, indeed, a turning point for both Greece and the European Union. Their actions in the next few months will express what European solidarity means in the age of the global economic crisis.


16 June 2012

Mykonos, Greece

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