One swing of the wrecking ball

We expected the two parties that have ruled Greece since 1974 to go through a staggered collapse, possibly over the course of two or three elections, but we are already surveying the debris today: The wrecking ball came in one fell swoop and left New Democracy and PASOK in ruins from which they will find it difficult to rebuild themselves.

ND and PASOK had been in gradual decline since 2000 but the economic crisis sent them tumbling over the edge of the cliff. Their worst combined showing in a general election since 1981 was in 2009, before the crisis struck, when they gained 79 percent of the vote. Today, they hold only about 40 percent of that. In 2009, New Democracy had its worst-ever election performance, drawing just 33 percent. Today, it can’t even muster that together with PASOK. Rarely in European politics has such a dramatic collapse been seen in such a short period of time.

The brief election campaign and the way the two parties handled it was the final blow to their chances. They were unable to shove the pre-election debate out of the sterile pro-/anti-bailout rut it was stuck in. This meant that the campaign was bereft of new ideas and policies, and lacked the element of hope it should have had in the wake of the PSI deal, which theoretically relieved Greece of a large part of its debt.

Instead, ND and PASOK chased their tails as they sought to repeatedly defend their support for the new bailout. Their attempts to present themselves as the parties of responsibility failed miserably. They failed because while their lips were talking about the EU-IMF memorandum and how vital it was for Greece, their actions spoke of two parties still stricken by the arrogance and populism that had led them to power over the last 38 years.

How could voters accept New Democracy’s claim of displaying responsibility when it spent the last six months trying to dodge any responsibility that came with being part of the coalition government it formed with PASOK and the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS)? How could it convincingly claim that it had the country’s interests at heart when its leader Antonis Samaras stubbornly insisted he would only accept an election result that would give his party a clear majority? How could Greeks believe in a party that based many of its election pledges on policies that had already been agreed with the troika and included in the new bailout program, such as unifying property taxes and privatizing ports and marinas? In the final days of the campaign, Samaras was flanked by former Prime Minister and party leader Costas Karamanlis, who led a government that failed to deliver on its promises of fighting corruption and reforming the public sector, and who in his last year in office saw Greece borrow double what it had budgeted for and the country’s deficit spiral out of control. Not once during the campaign did New Democracy show any compunction for its role in the crisis that has led to millions of Greeks being sorely tested. Instead, it seemed to celebrate its failure.

PASOK, the party that walked blindly into the mother of all crises and thought it could handle it on its own, was equally unconvincing. Its leader, Evangelos Venizelos, who as finance minister plucked one austerity measure after the other out of thin air to make up for the lack of public sector reform, personally guaranteed an exit from the crisis. But this alluded to a cult-of-personality politics that has been dying out with the two-party system. It was promise from a bygone era. Venizelos’s major pledge was to convince the troika that Greece should have an extra year, until 2015, to complete its fiscal adjustment program. He conveniently ignored the fact that the IMF has scheduled to keep funding Greece until 2015 anyway.

Playing with words was no way for PASOK and ND to rebuild voters’ shattered confidence. This tactic was compounded by the parties failing to convince people that they had changed and had caught up with a society that wants to move away from the petty politics and clientelism of the past. Instead, the two parties, unable to present a convincing plan for exiting the crisis, confirmed that they had run out of ideas. But they went further than that. They resorted to the patron-client tactics they honed over last four decades by arranging for the regular property tax, as well as the emergency property tax levied through electricity bills, not to be levied before the elections.

It is this incredible hubris that has led to the downfall of PASOK and ND. This arrogance of power was also evident in Samaras’s insistence that there should be elections when everything pointed to an inconclusive outcome. It was also visible in the confidence the two parties had that placing the dilemma of euro vs drachma before voters would lead to them securing a majority. It turned out that most voters saw this as blackmail. Extraordinary times demanded that they ditch the baggage of the past and find a new message and a renewed relevance. They did none of this and have been sent to a political purgatory from which they may never emerge.

The inability of PASOK and New Democracy to resonate with Greek people following more than two years of crisis and austerity meant that voters sought answers elsewhere. The Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) attempted to provide these answers. Its response to the dead-end of the crisis was to propose questionable, but certainly radical, solutions such as declaring a unilateral default. It managed to be clear where the more moderate Democratic Left — which had eclipsed SYRIZA until recently in the opinion polls — was muddled about what it actually wanted. By reaching out to the parties of the left, and even the Independent Greeks, it took on the profile of a party of power. The fact it has a 38-year-old leader in Alexis Tsipras has helped in the stale atmosphere of Greek politics. It is much easier for SYRIZA to claim it represents young Greeks than other parties who have always had an awkward relationship with them.

The Independent Greeks also captured the zeitgeist by tapping into the anti-bailout sentiment. Its harsh language for Germany and the IMF channeled the anger felt by many Greeks. Chrysi Avgi (Golden Dawn) also built on this festering rage, albeit with much more extreme positions.

Populism has what the Greeks call “short legs” but there is every reason to believe that we have witnessed a much more substantial change in Greek politics. While SYRIZA and other parties have benefited to some extent from saying things people want to hear, we should not underestimate that the circumstances in Greece have made it vital for people to grab onto any strand of hope they can find, anything that can help them climb out of the mire. There was something eerily symbolic in the fact that it was recently announced that 1.08 million people were unemployed in January, while 1.06 million people voted for SYRIZA on Sunday.

You simply cannot expect GDP to fall by a fifth over a couple of years, people’s income to plummet by 25 percent, their tax bill to increase by about the same amount, and unemployment to more than double to 21 percent in just a year without it having a profound effect on people’s political choices.

Greece is now at a nexus in its history, where the decline of its two major parties has met the social and economic upheaval caused by the crisis. The next few weeks will give us an idea of whether the wrecking ball will just keep swinging or whether there will be a chance to build on the ruins.

Nick Malkoutzis

3 responses to “One swing of the wrecking ball

  1. The wrecking ball did its job. PASOK is no more.

    Now if you consider the fact that 35% abstained from voting and of the remaining 65%, almost 19% did not enter Parliament or 0.65 X 0.19 = 12.35% the total non-participatory vote stands at 47.35%.

    To that figure add an approximate 2+% of invalid votes, it basically means that 50% of the Greek voters did not participate in this election.

    Trying to interpret the remaining 50% who voted in a fragmented way is an exercise in frustration.

    In summary, the Greek people told Merkel to take a hike. That’s all you need to take from this. The rest is for those skilled in politics to take advantage of and use it as bulding material.

  2. Wrecking balls and such are the wishful thinking and propaganda, I might add, of Germany.

    What happened last Sunday is fairly simple to explain. The message is/was:

    1. collaboration with memoranda spawned on alien shore is out of the question.

    2. and since no single political party is trusted enough to hold such non-collaboration pledge, the Greek people in their infinite wisdom decided to divide political power in such a way to make coalition governments impossible.

    Very elementary stuff. Again the message is :”The direction of collaboration with Merkel is wrong and for the time being we will suspend your power of deal making in this regard.”

    As a result, to talk about wrecking balls and tectonic shifts and similar imaginary constructs detracts from the main message, which is: Since no one from the political spectrum had the strength to stand up to Merkel, the Greek voters did so by producing a new (but temporary) political landscape that makes cooperation with the enemy impossible.

    The only way to remove this stalemate is for Merkel to revise her arbitrary terms attached to the ECB funding. Since such terms were a political construct to begin with, we now have the answer of how such political move was appreciated on the receiving end and the counter measures taken as a result of such political action.

    It may have taken a bit of time, but now the Greek voter is fully engaged and will never allow any Greek government to become simple caretakers of Berlin’s orders again.

    And that’s the truth and nothing but the truth.

    You can also discern here the wisdom of the people. They primarily punished those in power (PASOK) with great deficiencies in EU negotiations (which the Greek people consider that never occurred) and left all others with great warnings flashing that even the smallest next infraction will result to an automatic ejection from the game (it’s like at this stage of the game the referee’s pocket is full of nothing but red cards).

  3. It’s absolutely suprising on how accurate the two German business newspapers are on their assessment of the situation and remedy needed. Couldn’t agree more (and it has been a very long time since I last agreed with a German position).

    The business daily Handelsblatt writes:

    “Can the Greeks simply vote out austerity? Can a new government in Athens simply abandon the reform and debt reduction targets it agreed with the EU? On Monday, Chancellor Angela Merkel emphasized that the fiscal pact was a done deal and could not be renegotiated. But what if nobody in Athens wants to stick to it? Greece can’t be kicked out of the euro zone — the EU treaties don’t allow for that. The crisis-ridden country can only abolish the euro by itself. It’s unlikely that the Greeks would do this, given the vast drachma-denominated sums that they would then have to pay to service their debt. Hence a new round of negotiations is likely to begin, once the political chaos has passed and a new government has been formed — negotiations over the conditions for further Greek aid.”

    “But the election had one unreservedly positive outcome: The Greeks have been freed from the stranglehold of the three ruling political dynasties with their two parties, the conservative New Democracy and the center-left PASOK, which used to hold quasi-monopolies. The first step toward a new political era in Athens has been taken. But this long journey needs to first lead through the chaos of many small parties, which put the country at risk of ungovernability.”

    The Financial Times Deutschland writes:

    “What good does it do to complain that extremist parties were strengthened at the expense of moderates in the Greek election? Or that the Greek people decided on a protest vote rather than on an endorsement of the current system of political reform? Or indeed that the establishment of a government in Athens and consequently the attempt to save the euro has now become more difficult than ever?”

    “The result was as predictable as it is frightening. And yet the EU, and especially its former ruling duo, Merkozy, did nothing to prevent it. Instead of offering the ruling coalition political support, it dictated austerity measures that would cripple both the Greek economy and government. After all, opposition to the EU grew alongside extremist parties. Merkel had trusted that things would work out. But unsurprisingly, they didn’t.”

    “If the most important goal is to strengthen the euro and overcome the crisis and investors are to be persuaded that they can put their trust in Europe, and if politicians are to show that they can learn from their own mistakes, then the harsh austerity measures imposed on Greece must be re-examined. Germany must set forth a new strategy to promote growth in the crisis-hit countries rather than stalling it further.”

    “If this happens quickly, then one of the smaller parties could enter a coalition with New Democracy and PASOK. Then Greece and Europe would gain another chance at forming a government dedicated to political reform. This might not necessarily work, but it is Europe’s last chance.”

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