In the past weeks and months, Greek institutions have taken a battering in the eyes of the world. An election produced no firm results; a far-right party gained an unprecedented share of the vote; and uncertainty reigns as the last opinion polls before tomorrow’s re-run election suggest a further surge for Syriza — a coalition of leftist groups that has never governed before.
Talk about Greek democracy, and most people imagine you are referring to ancient Athens. Yet the modern country has respectable democratic credentials, having introduced universal male suffrage decades before most European states. Of course, from early on, the combination of a strong populace and a weak state had unpredictable and often undesirable consequences. While small bands of armed patriots easily dragged the country into military adventures, civil servants in Athens found it hard to impose direct taxes. They could not even draw up a comprehensive land register.
It is tempting to read back many of Greece’s present problems into this distant past. However, until recently, the general view inside the country was that the bad old days had been left behind. Thanks in no small part to Europe’s support, the wounds of the Nazi occupation and civil war healed. After the collapse of Greece’s junta in 1974, integration into the European Community, with its ample subsidies and access to a flourishing continental economy, had knock-on political benefits.
A two-party system emerged, loosely revolving around the centre-left Pasok and the center-right New Democracy. Pasok’s charismatic leader, former Greek prime minister Andreas Papandreou, buried his pipe-smoking past as head of the Berkeley economics department and remade himself as a fiery leather-jacketed opponent of US imperialism; his long-time rival, the soberly uncharismatic conservative former Greek prime minister Konstantine Karamanlis, led the country out of dictatorship and into Europe in a political career that spanned more than 40 years.
To be sure, not everyone believed even then in the idea of democratic transition. The communiques of November 17 — once Europe’s most feared terrorist group — present a revolutionary victimology in which Nazis, US citizens and Greek businessmen succeed one another seamlessly as the country’s tyrants, in a perspective that casts the EU as the latest incarnation of an unending capitalist oppression. On the right, critics castigated both parties for a catalog of sins ranging from the betrayal of Cyprus to civil marriage and the moral state of the country. However, none of these grievances translated into political success.
It is one of the achievements of the EU’s insistence on austerity at any cost that Greece’s democratic stabilization now seems jeopardized. Once democracy’s guarantor, Europe itself has now become the chief source of pressure upon it. It was doubtless inevitable that New Democracy and, above all, Pasok would pay a heavy price for their support of the austerity program — the attack on “bipartisanism” has been a constant motif in Syriza’s electioneering. Yet Greeks have not turned against Europe: On the contrary, public opinion remains deeply committed to membership in the union. One of the numerous follies of the current German government was to come out so strongly last autumn against former Greek prime minister George Papandreou’s idea of holding a referendum, which he would certainly have won. Nor do the Greeks fail to recognize the need for a sweeping reform of public finances. The reason for the implosion of the two-party system is simply because in the absence of any plausible scenario or package for growth to accompany Europe’s endless cost-cutting demands, the country’s suffering and social disintegration seem futile.