The unbearable lightness of Greek democracy

Greeks have abandoned all hope that their political leaders have the skills to rescue the nation’s economy.

People stand in front of the parliament building illuminated in blue lighting in Athens, Greece [REUTERS]
People stand in front of the parliament building illuminated with blue lights in Athens, Greece [REUTERS]

Is there anything more ironic than a nation, which has surrendered its sovereignty in return for a financial bailout, holding national elections less than a year since the previous vote, and with a referendum in between?

Amazingly enough, this is precisely the situation Greek citizens find themselves in.

The more their political leaders capitulate to brutal austerity measures demanded by the nation’s official creditors [the European Union and the International Monetary Fund], the more frequently they are dragged into meaningless elections.

Indeed, with the three major parties – the centre-left Pasok, the centre-right New Democracy, and the radical left Syriza – having taken part in the signing of bailout agreements with onerous terms for the future of the country, elections in Greece have become nothing more than a ritual and a cynical political ploy.

Economy main issue in Greece election

But let’s review the political developments of the last several months.

The radical leftist Syriza party swept to victory on January 25 on a promise to overturn austerity by shredding into pieces the bailout agreements that had converted the country into a banana republic and an economic wastebasket.

After months of intense negotiations in which the leftist government in Athens discovered that it was impossible to have your cake and eat it too, Alexis Tsipras, the prime minister, scheduled an austerity referendum, hoping that the Greek people would vote “yes” out of fear that a “no” vote might lead to Greece’s exit from the euro – this would have made it politically harmless for his government to agree to a new bailout agreement.  

However, things turned out quite differently than expected.

Years of harsh austerity measures and a sense of national humiliation led Greek citizens to vote by a big margin [61 percent] against a new bailout agreement. So much for democracy.

A week later, Tsipras consented to a new $96bn bailout package, which literally cemented the conversion of the country into an EU protectorate.

Also read: Syriza’s lies and empty promises

The Greek parliament approved of the new bailout package with the overwhelming support of the conservative New Democracy and the socialist Pasok, but the move led to a split within Tsipras’ governing party.

Many hardline leftists interpreted the government’s surrender to creditors as an act of “betrayal”.

The new anti-popular measures of the third bailout package, which include further pension cuts … will not be felt until after the elections.


With over 40 Syriza MPs abstaining or voting against the agreement, including Yanis Varoufakis, the highly popular former finance minister, Tsipras opted eventually to hand in his resignation and call for a snap election.

Tsipras’ decision was made after he received German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s wholehearted support.

Germany is the single largest contributor to Greece’s bailouts, and it was part of a strategic decision to get rid of the radical elements inside Syriza and establish the party as the new pole of social democracy in Greece.

Moreover, the new anti-popular measures of the third bailout package, which included further pension cuts, additional taxes, and the complete privatisation of all state-owned assets, will not be felt until after the elections.

The mood on the ground right now ranges from disappointment and despair to hopelessness and anger, with the abstention rate in the upcoming elections expected to exceed 40 percent.

In general, citizens have abandoned hope that their political leaders have the skills to rescue the nation’s economy or the willingness to combat corruption and proceed with administrative efficiency, especially following the disastrous experiment with the Syriza government.

Also read: Greek referendum is a Machiavellian plot

Indeed, Syriza’s short tenure in power was accompanied not only by a betrayal of promises and astounding lies even for a highly clientelistic political party, but by unparallelled governance incapacity, which has lead, among other things, to an extended bank shutdown and capital controls, and has put additional stress on an already beleaguered economy.

Former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis [EPA]
Former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis [EPA]

As a result, the moribund party of the New Democracy is making an unbelievable comeback, as polls indicate that the gap from Syriza has shrunk to less than one percent.

Public disillusionment

At the same time, Syriza’s splinter group, the Popular Unity, an anti-bailout force that advocates a return to the drachma and exit from the eurozone, may barely clear the 3 percent vote hurdle to sneak into parliament. 

Public disillusionment with politics exploded following last week’s televised debate between the nation’s political party leaders. It was arguably the most boring debate ever in Greek politics, and all parties came across as being totally clueless.

But how else could things be in a country where the leaders of all the major political parties have given their consent to the same catastrophic policies?


The big question in Greece right now is over the shape of the next government.

It is clear that Tsipras will not have the majority he had hoped for when he called for a snap election.

But he also insists that he will not form a coalition government with New Democracy, which he considers a relic of the old and corrupt political system.

Ironically, except for the most faithful Syriza supporters, no one seems to believe anything that the former prime minister says – but none of that matters.

The only certain thing is that a government will be formed by a grand alliance whose only mission will be to implement the most painful, humiliating measures ever attempted by a democratically elected body.

This, alas, is the unbearable lightness of Greek democracy.

C J Polychroniou is a political economist/political scientist who has taught and worked for many years in universities and research centres in Europe and the United States.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.