Against all odds: Democracy vs technocrats in Greece

The real importance of the Greek elections is not which party wins, but whether the elected will defeat the unelected.

Daily Life In Athens As Greece Prepares To Go To The Polls
Greek leftist party Syriza, led by Alexis Tsipras (second from right) could win elections on Sunday [Getty Images]

It’s just a few days before the Greek parliamentary elections, and the whole world is watching this small corner of Europe with bated breath. Stress captures the markets, Brussels, and Berlin as statements by top European officials indicate the possibility of an undesirable political outcome on Sunday.

One after the other, politicians such as Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Manuel Barroso and technocrats such as IMF head Christine Lagarde underline the need for Greece to comply with the bailout programme or face the consequences of a possible cancellation of the financial support, something that could result in a Greek exit from the eurozone.

However, the Greek elections’ outcome is not the most important issue at stake. At the moment, a coalition government seems to be the more likely scenario, whether conservative New Democracy or progressive Syriza finishes first. Any coalition is by its very nature an affair of compromises – therefore, no matter how hard the lines of the political parties, the next Greek government will probably be a little more moderate. And even if Syriza manages to form a government of its own, it has repeatedly stated that it will seek for solutions in the European context.

So, are the Greek elections overestimated or unworthy of this extraordinary attention they’re having? Absolutely not. The repercussions of June 17 will be of historical importance for Greece, and they will have a great impact on European politics as well.

A radical left party leading a coalition government in a small country in the European periphery might not mean much for decision-making in Brussels and Berlin, but it could provide a strong paradigm for all those on the continent who are suffering the consequences of neoliberal orthodoxy and its mantra: austerity. As Aristides Baltas, a Greek philosophy professor at the University of Athens wrote in an article published in the Greek press: “Politics is not just knowing how to walk down a path. Indeed it is also to understand that every step you take opens new paths and possibilities and walk in that spirit.”

A leftist victory might also inspire the young, highly educated, but unemployed demonstrating in the squares of Rome, Lisbon, Dublin and Madrid. Would they then see that they could create politics in a way that includes them and not just tolerate them in a passive manner? Or that the economy is a political issue par excellence? That is the true importance of Syriza’s possible victory in Greece – a victory that would be against all odds.

The wrong narrative

A few days ago, Spain, one of the largest European economies, agreed to a 100bn euro ($125.5bn) bailout to recapitalise its banks. The bailout will require the country to sign a memorandum with the lenders, which includes supervision by the IMF. To all those who doubted the validity of the narrative that the corrupt Greek public sector caused the crisis, this news is not surprising at all.

A structural European economic and political problem needs to be addressed as such, and cannot be contained within a miserably functionalist interpretation that blames a small part of the machine for the malfunction of the whole system. Back in 2009, public debt had already become a European issue, with almost all countries presenting growing numbers and many European banks exposed to debt to an extent that seemed unsustainable. Today, almost half of the eurozone countries are in economic trouble, despite the fact that the Greek economy took the medicine of internal devaluation by deregulating the labor market, slashing pensions and wages, and reducing public spending.

Not only has the rescue plan proven to be a total failure for Greece, but the “disease” is spreading rapidly throughout the continent. If the troika and the conservatives in Europe were correct, then contagion would not be such a big problem: financial “firewalls” would work and ejecting Greece would be a sustainable solution for the eurozone.

But with half of the European periphery in trouble, everybody has serious considerations for the validity of the rescue that has been exercised so far. Still, the elites insist to remain on course, putting economies such as Spain, Italy and even the euro itself at great risk. In their persistence, they don’t hesitate to intervene in the democratic process of sovereign states, turning this partly into a political crisis as well.

In Greece, the political system that ran the country for 37 years collapsed like a house of cards. But the troika is openly promoting its favourite candidates, the parties that created this mess (PASOK and  New Democracy), and some of its members are issuing warnings that if other parties are elected, there could be serious consequences. Looking at it from the point of view of an ordinary Greek, this translates more or less as follows: “Support the corrupt, inadequate forces that ruined your life or suffer the consequences.” In one word: Blackmail.

Hope against fear

Blackmail has been the tool used since the beginning of this crisis, and it has caused a series of dangerous distortions in the political and social fields that Greece will probably have to cope with for quite some time. The supporters of the memorandum, the two ruling parties, used it in order to target workers’ rights and the left by accusing them of being lazy, corrupt and irresponsible.

For the past two years, going on strike was considered to be a sin against the national economy and was heavily criticised in the media every other night. The famous dictum “we all partied” was etched into the public conscience as collective guilt. And the left, though marginal back then, was attacked in an effort to construct a scapegoat, for defending established social rights within the liberal democratic context. In this narrative, Greece was the last Soviet economy, the crisis was a national security issue, and the government’s main job was to impose order both in the economy and society. However, the intensity of the attack on workers’ rights, the extreme rise of unemployment and of poverty and suicide rates left no room for consent with the austerity program. The left’s repeatedly confirmed criticism of the crisis’ causes and its ability to grasp the signs in society and translate them into political discourse worked triumphantly in its favour.

That ignited a second wave of attacks, this time against immigrants and against the left, only this time in ideological and historical terms. The adoption of the extreme right-wing agenda by PASOK and New Democracy in regards to immigrants’ rights raised questions of whether Greece is capable of respecting human rights or not. And again, it’s the left that defends these values against the “responsible” forces of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the European conservatives.

But the conservatives in Greece took it even further by adopting militant ideological rhetoric against the “communist danger”, which sounds like the rhetoric that the right was using during the Greek civil war back in the 1940s. The left responded with a Keynesian economic program, a denouncement of corruption and the clientelist state, and a discourse that defends democracy as a value. By all means, what is happening today in Greece is a struggle between fear and hope.

The romanticism of democracy

A couple of weeks ago, the head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, ironically stated that she had no sympathy for the Greeks, and that she was more concerned about the children in Niger than the people of Greece who – according to her – should start paying their taxes if they want to get out of this mess. Online social networks were immediately flooded with angry comments against her: “If Christine Lagarde is thinking of implementing to Greece the same programme she’s introduced to the Niger in Africa, then it might be better for us if we just didn’t have the pleasure of her sympathy,” wrote one Greek Twitter user.

The wave of criticism wasn’t just due to Christine Lagarde’s inability to show empathy with a people who are trying to pull themselves together in a difficult moment of their history. But the criticism also targeted the IMF and its policies which destroy social cohesion and damage democratic procedures wherever they have been implemented so far. What, if not democracy and social consent, are the necessary pre-conditions for any country to emerge from its misery? For many in Europe, Lagarde’s sentiment reflects the cynicism of the elites who are dealing with the economic crisis in a technocratic, inhumane manner that recognises numbers in stock markets but fails to see real people jumping into the abyss of despair.

Returning to the election, Syriza’s victory on Sunday – though quite possible – is not the most important thing. The most important thing is Syriza’s struggle for the restoration of politics as the primary field of decision-making and democracy, as opposed to technocracy. This is the romantic aspect of its struggle, and as such, it is not limiting itself to change in Greece – but also in Europe at large. As Syriza has managed to come to this point against all odds, we will soon see whether this romanticism is naive or truly essential.

Matthaios Tsimitakis is a freelance journalist based in Athens.