While rioting and violent protests have been a frequent occurrence on the streets of Greek cities since the start of the debt crisis, Spain has not yet experienced similar scenes. Aikaterini Andronikidou and Iosif Kovras assess why this is the case, noting that the two countries have very different cultural attitudes toward anti-system politics. This partly reflects the historical transitions to democracy which occurred in both states during the 1970s; however it is unclear whether Spanish authorities will be able to maintain control should the crisis within the country deepen.

Greece has been marked by frequent, highly visible, anti-system politics and street riots, while similar phenomena have been rare in Spain, at least until very recently. Why, despite similar background conditions, have Greece and Spain developed different repertoires of collective action? A comparative study of both countries shows that despite their similar background conditions and the tendency of global media to focus on similarities, the two societies have taken divergent paths.

Most theories of violent collective action focus on the relationship between motivation and cost. Although people tend to pursue actions that maximise gains and minimise costs before they act violently, the literature downplays the fact that cost and gain are often mediated by culture. In effect, individuals opt for practices with which they are familiar; a formula that was successful in the past will be assumed to be so in the future.

The literature on democratisation shows that political culture and the design of the democratic institutions in a society in transition are shaped by past experiences. This process of learning and the type of the transition itself partly explain why the Greek and the Spanish societies have adopted vastly different repertoires of collective action. The Spanish Civil War (1936–1939) was followed by the victory of the nationalist forces and the prolonged dictatorship of General Franco (1939–1975). An established body of researchhas shown how the traumatic experiences of the civil war informed the priorities of the

Protests in Spain Credit: Ateak Ireki Creative Commons: BY NC

political leaders who carried out the transition to democracy in the mid-1970s. The diagnosis that the primary cause of the civil war – and the ensuing 40-year dictatorship – was the inability of the Second Republic (1931–1936) to maintain stability, convinced political elites of the virtues of consensus. Thus, Spain experienced a ‘paradigmatic’ transition founded on consensus among political leaders. It has been argued that the ‘pacted’ nature of the transition shaped the basic features of Spanish political culture, especially its propensity for consensus and ideological moderation. Arguably, these elements ensured the success of the transition and became integral to Spanish political life, from nascent institutions, to electoral engineering (promoting coalition governments), while accommodating ‘Nationalities’.

While Spain cultivated consensus, the Greek transition took another route. The Greek junta (1967–1974) collapsed after its forceful intervention in the domestic politics of the Republic of Cyprus, followed by a short-lived coup and the invasion of the island by the Turkish army. The transition thus represented a ‘clean break’, reflected in the design of the political institutions, the low level of proportionality of the electoral system, and the unilateral decisions of Prime Minister Karamanlis on issues of transitional justice (see Sotiropoulos, 2010). Hence, in sharp contrast to the negotiated nature of the Spanish transition which set the stage for the cultivation of a culture of compromise, in Greece the ‘clean break’ institutionalised a ‘winner takes all’ mentality and a political culture characterised by non-compromise.

Spanish political elites quickly realised that the deployment of a ‘vocal’ repertoire of protest by social, political or professional groups would endanger overarching priorities during democratic consolidation. In fact, although mobilisation was high in the early days of the transition, the murderous attacks against left-wing protesters in 1977 and the unsuccessful coup on 23 February 1981 (F-23) had a moderating effect on the demands of all groups. It should be noted that the terrorist activities of the Basque group ETA also posed a considerable challenge to the stability of the regime.

Credit: Odysseas Gp Creative Commons BY NC SA

Meanwhile in Greece protesting, rioting, and resisting authority are part of a deep-rooted culture of resistance. The predominant narrative of the transition provides useful insights into Greek political culture. For example, it reserves a special place for the student uprising of 17 November 1973 in the National Technical University of Athens, commonly called the ‘Polytechnic’. Although accurate survey data are missing, it is not farfetched to argue that in the public imagination, the uprising triggered a series of events that led to the Cyprus debacle and the collapse of the dictatorship. In fact, in a 1997 public survey, the Polytechnic (although an academic institution and not a movement) and the ‘student movement’ (in general) were included in the list of resistance organisations. In short, 17 November has become the ‘Bastille Day of modern Greek democracy’.

The memory of the Polytechnic shaped the emergence of the Greek culture of resistance in two important ways. First, the protesting youth acquired independent agency: only the student movement overtly resisted the dictatorship. Second, the memory of the Polytechnic has institutionalised the individual’s ‘duty to resist authority’. Since the 1970s, 17 November has been a day of remembrance and a school holiday; an annual memorial is conducted in the Polytechnic to pay tribute to those who died (the precise number has never been established). These cultural elements help explain why the public was so sensitive to the incident triggering the 2008 riots in Athens. The victim was a teenager, and the murder occurred in Exarheia, an Athenian suburb where anarchist, libertarian, and other anti-authority groups are located – a flammable mix.

Hence, in Greece, a ‘culture of sympathy’ towards acts of resistance to the state has been institutionalised and reproduced over the past few decades, even since the transition to democracy. Surprisingly, the concept of ‘public sympathy’ has received scant attention in the relevant literature, even though it affects policy-making by determining whether a government’s decision to adopt a ‘law and order’ frame will be embraced or resisted by public opinion. Consider the difference between the UK and Greece, for example. In the aftermath of the 2011 London riots, David Cameron stressed: ‘If you are old enough to commit these crimes, you are old enough to face the punishment’. In Greece, meanwhile, the Minister of the Interior said: ‘We prefer a police in a defensive position that effectively protects human rights, rather than adopting an aggressive stance that could harm an individual or, even worse, lead to another death.’ Despite a long history of rioting, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, over the past two decades in the UK, political elites have been trying to establish a close relationship with the public to avoid similar incidents. Lately, this relationship has been disturbed by political decisions, resulting in contention. The study of incidents of violent collective action in the UK would be an interesting field for further research.

But what happens now? Will the current economic recession and the implementation of severe austerity measures affect the protest activity in Greece? Will incidents of rioting wax or wane? What about Spain?

The process of political learning depends on the ability of political elites to adapt to new conditions, and the situation is likely to change dramatically in the near future in both countries. Because of the need to reach the twin objectives of debt reduction and broader structural reforms, the ability of Greek politicians to distribute resources to accommodate an elite system will likely shrink. Vocal minority groups will gradually cease to perceive unlawful collective action as a winning political formula, because public sympathy towards, and tolerance of, acts of resistance will plummet. Ethnographic research into ‘critical constituents’, such as shopkeepers in central Athens, could test the validity of this hypothesis. Finally, but equally importantly, the fact that politicians have been the target of violent attacks is likely to strengthen the ‘law and order’ frame. Still, in case of an unexpected ‘accident’, including but not limited to a Greek default (GRexit) or the strategic deployment of violence by parties of far right and/or far left, these assumptions will probably crumble. Meanwhile, violence has recently emerged in Spain mainly because of the country’s financial crisis. While, the Spanish political system has proved successful in its recent history in absorbing turmoil, it remains to be seen if this will be the case this time, or whether the recently emerged violence will mark the beginning of a new period of violence and turbulence in Southern Europe.

This article is a summary of the article ‘Cultures of Rioting and Anti-Systemic Politics in Southern Europe’ published in West European Politics, Vol. 35, No. 4, 707-725,  July 2012.

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Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the Authors

Aikaterini AndronikidouQueen’s University Belfast
Aikaterini Andronikidou  is a PhD candidate at Queen’s University Belfast. Her research focuses on human rights and social movements. She is currently investigating rioting in Western Europe.


Iosif KovrasPrinceton University
Iosif Kovras is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Princeton University (Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies). His research focuses on truth-recovery and reconciliation initiatives in transitional justice. Currently he is exploring exhumations and recovery of historical memory in Cyprus and Spain as well as the impact of grassroots movements on these processes.

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