May 12 2014

EU Election: Austerity will make for Lively Contest in Greece

By Dr Spyros Economides

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Greek public will go to the polls on May 25 as a massively divided electorate. The obvious factor which shapes public opinion is the continuation of an economic crisis which has resulted in a six-year recession and ongoing austerity programme which has led to a massive contraction in the Greek economy and dramatic falls in levels of income and standards of living.

The divide which stems from this is between those who support the continuing austerity and reform drive within an EU/Euro context – who will mainly vote for the centre-right New Democracy party (ND) – and those opposed, and wish to see a more expansive, growth agenda based on public spending and an end to “foreign-imposed” austerity packages – who will mainly support the radical populism of the left-wing Syriza party.

This is an obvious cleavage in time of a harsh economic climate which has seen unemployment soar (especially among the youth), wages and pensions cut, and no let-up in the call for further culls and sacrifices.

But it is only one way of portraying a series of divides which characterise the Greek political agenda today and which will be evident in the final election outcome next month. This pro/anti-austerity representation of the electorate divide is also a traditional right-left divide. Supporters of the government’s adherence to the austerity/reform packages “negotiated” with the EU/IMF/ECB troika are also the traditional core voters of New Democracy and of an enduring centre-right tradition. The radical left sees Syriza as its champion, pursuing a socialist, anti-capitalist agenda, highly populist and based on a big State and big spending.

Eurosceptics to the Left

This also brings into the picture a different dimension in the race between these two parties which lead the polls which estimate that Syriza has anything up to a 2% lead over New Democracy (a remarkably small lead considering the supposed unpopularity of the government which New Democracy heads): the question of Europe. Indeed, almost paradoxically, Europe forms a big part of the political debate in the run up to the European elections of 2014.

While New Democracy adheres to Greece’s European future and membership of the Eurozone, and has acceded to the German-led agenda of cuts and restructuring in return for substantial bail-outs. Syriza – and other parties significant to the electoral outcome – diverge from this view. Syriza, sees Europe as anathema to the extent that it is imposing a foreign agenda on Greece. The party pursues rhetoric and promotes policies which are incompatible with continuing membership of the Eurozone and potentially the EU as a whole (even though its official line is that to save Greece we need to reform the EU). There is a xenophobia here which is mirrored by others such as Independent Greeks and the Communist Party (KKE), but far distant from the overt rascism of the neo-fascist Golden Dawn which has had such an impact both in Greece and across Europe in general.

Based on polls conducted from 3 to 9 April by Kapa Research, University of Macedonia, GPO and Pulse RC

But what these parties do share is an anti-establishment agenda, targeting the “old parties” of New Democracy and PASOK (electioneering under the Olive Tree’ – Elia – platform), and holding them responsible for the maintenance of a clientilistic, nepotistic political system which they manipulated for personal gain, and mismanaged so horrendously, that the crisis was a direct result.

This is the last split in electoral term, between “old” and “new” parties/politics. And perhaps the most significant development stemming from this in the current Euroelection context is the emergence of To Potami (The River): a political movement, headed by a journalist, which is polling at up to 10% and campaigning on an anti-“old party” agenda. At the heart of the message is the idea of forging a new kind of trust between the electorate and its government based not on left-right, pro-anti ideologies but on real issues and real people.

The divisions are complex and span a wide range. It is a close race between New Democracy and Syriza with the surprising emergence of a new political force playing a significant role – and Europe actually figures quite high on the political agenda in a Euroelection!

Spyros Economides does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This entry was posted in Greek Politics, Spyros Economides, The Greek Economy. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to EU Election: Austerity will make for Lively Contest in Greece

  1. katherine says:

    Dear Dr. Economides,

    I wonder at how it might have occurred to you that your analysis was necessary and important for public debate, given that what you have said is just the same old banal and oft-repeatedly stale script. This logic of the for-or-against model is so antiquated, so completely disconnected from the conversations and concerns had over dinner tables all across Greece. My questions to you are simple: What is your role as a public intellectual, one who is paid highly to educate yourself and the public? Do you believe that history is determined and that our future is one of the most minuscule modifications of what already exists? In whose name does the EU “speak”, for whose interests––long and short term–-in your last analysis? If one is tired of being unemployed and wants a good future for her family, and IF a party discourse speaks to that concern, is the combination necessarily “populist” or “radical”? Your commentary actually speaks to how demoralized and broken our understanding of “representation” is. If there are many people currently unable to make ends meet, suffering from health conditions that are not being appropriately treated, and angry at the total rejection of democratic process and respect for citizen’s rights and IF these concerns become voiced in parliament this is taking us just a little bit closer to “representation” in its true sense. Moreover, your abstract constructs of EUROPE are the stuff of children’s dreams…First of all, “Europe” is not an entity that you can simply point to on a map and leave it at that, nor can it be reduced to the European Union (a political and economic institution). In this way, it is nonsense to suggest that SYRIZA is against Europe, and that ND is “for Greece’s European future”. What does this even mean? Similarly, it is silly to state that SYRIZA is against membership in the EU; as you may or may not know, SYRIZA is a coalition of many different voices, so by definition you can’t rightly point to a given statement made by specific persons years ago and declare it a party position. The party has a mandate and a constitute, however, which I do recommend you read carefully. I would also ask after the ways in which you apply characteristics and intentions to parties, but the eurozone and “the EU” remain some kind of static figure that just IS. Are there not very specific political and economic forces and interests guiding the decisions and practices that constitute “the EU”? Or is it something devoid of people, ideas, legal and institutional decisions and practices? Greece is a MEMBER of the European Union, Dr. Economides, along with Spain, Italy, Portugal….as such, we may very well see changes within the practices of the European Union, in terms of who makes decisions for whom, through what process and with what legitimacy. You have a responsibility to demystify complicated processes, not simply rely on the same old tune that Greece is divided between those who want in or out of the Euro. The European Union is a project, Sir, and as members, we all have a right to lay claim to the future of the EU, rather than just a Greek future determined by being in or out.

    • Elli Pal says:

      Dear Katherine,
      You mention: “If one is tired of being unemployed and wants a good future for her family, and IF a party discourse speaks to that concern, is the combination necessarily “populist” or “radical”?”
      The answer is no. But SYRIZA is.

      You also mention that it is silly to state that SYRIZA is against the EU. I agree (putting aside the fact that Mr. Lafazanis mentioned exiting the euro just a few weeks back). Ever since the rise of the party since 2012, Mr. Tsipras has changed his rhetoric to a great extent, becoming much more moderate and pro-European than in the past. However, despite representing the anti-austerity ideology in the European Elections (which is a perfectly fine proposal, consistent with being pro-European), his political beliefs include much more radical notions too. And these are indeed incompatible with continued membership of the EU. Forgetting the crisis for a moment, the demonisation of “the capitalist system” and “private interests”, and the persistent unwillingness to reform the obviously unsustainable public sector (to make it healthy, not eradicate it) are features that are deeply entrenched within this party and I cannot see how he will accommodate the interests within SYRIZA to establish a uniform policy framework.

      If it was only anti-austerity that he was defending, I would agree that this does not make SYRIZA radical, nor populist. But in light of the rest, and taking into account the absolute lack of concrete, detailed proposals, I disagree. The EU elections are not only about in or out. But Mr. Tsipras is not about a viable “in” either.

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