Elections are considered the hallmark of representative democracy. Their essential function is to allow voters to hold existing politicians accountable and select their future representatives. Yet, the true quality of a democracy isn’t directly proportional to the number of elections and electoral contests. This much is evident from recent developments in Greece. After the new round of national elections on September 20, Greek voters will have been summoned to the ballot seven times since May 2012.
Since the onset of the Greek debt crisis and the signing of the first bailout agreement in May 2010 between Greece and its creditors, the Greek political system has degenerated from a solid two-and-a-half party system to a fluid and unstable multi-party parliamentary democracy characterised by high levels of political polarisation and party fragmentation. European integration in its current resurgent form of intergovernmentalism — polarised between debtor and creditor nations and bedeviled by declining levels of output legitimacy — has had a subversive influence on the quality and effectiveness of the Greek political system.
Ironically, Greece’s democratic transition and the consolidation of its fledgling democracy in the late 1970s and 1980s have been attributed to the country’s accession to the European Community (EC) in 1981. The economic benefits of the single market, growth-enhancing structural funds and the transposition of the EC’s high-standard body of rules and directives helped shape a wide pro-European consensus and a moderate political centre that vacillated between the centre-left Pasok and the centre-right New Democracy.
These two parties dominated Greek politics through the first three-and-a-half decades of post-dictatorial democratic rule, in the process building a collusive system of patronage, clientelism and corruption. This political cartel, however, proved unable to withstand the unassailable dual forces of global markets and mass protests, namely globalisation and its discontents. Syriza, as a coalition of radical social movements, came to the forefront of Greek politics with a firebrand political agenda against globalisation, the neoliberal bias of economic integration and the deleterious effects of austerity and unsustainable debt. Embattled pro-European moderates came under fire from empowered extremes both on the left and right. Syriza’s meteoric rise in the polls finally culminated in the election of the first leftwing government in Greece in January.
Syriza was elected on austerity reversal, debt relief and humanitarian aid — all within the strict confines of the eurozone. The rigid rules of monetary integration and fiscal coordination coupled with the declining legitimacy of and trust in European institutions finally gave way to a new strand of political populism against the dictates of globalisation and regionalism. According to the official party narrative, Syriza was giving voice to the disenchanted, disenfranchised and newly pauperised masses that had fallen prey to the vagaries of global capitalism.
Greece suddenly found itself at the epicentre of a political earthquake of potentially global reach. The saga of the Greek bailout negotiations started with Syriza’s election and ended in the third Greek bailout agreement in July, following a dramatic concatenation of events including the closure of banks, imposition of capital controls and resounding victory of “no” in a dubious and ill-timed referendum on a draft proposal by the European Commission.
This is the third rescue package offered to Greece by its international creditors. It amounts to a liquidity-dripping cash-for-reforms bailout agreement that also includes a somewhat more concrete commitment to assess the sustainability of Greek debt and possibly agree to some form of debt restructuring or reprofiling. Although the latest bailout was passed by parliament with the widest level of legislative support, it has prima facie the lowest level of political ownership. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s narrative has been that this explosive mixture of austerity and structural reform was forced upon him in the form of a take-it-or-leave-it offer, with default as the only alternative, while moderate pro-Europe opposition parties have distanced themselves from this third rescue package, arguing they had no input in the negotiations.
Tsipras’s solution to overcoming this predicament and bestowing democratic legitimacy on a policy package in which he does not believe was to call for snap polls less than eight months after his election. In light of the rebellion of several of his own backbenchers who did not vote in favour of the third bailout and the creation of a new anti-bailout splinter party, the PM was all too keen to go back to the polls, aiming to gain a clear democratic mandate to implement the proposed reforms.
Syriza’s ideological rhetoric and policies on issues such as debt renegotiation, immigration and the environment showcase the ambivalence of a resurgent strand of European populism towards globalisation and economic integration. The new government seems to be perfecting the politics of victimhood by exposing the country to the full brunt of unfettered market forces, capital flight and migration flows. This new brand of left statism is adopting policies of immiseration and pauperisation at the expense of the beleaguered private sector in order to create a new state-dependent proletariat, enfranchise mass protest movements and accelerate the process of systemic change from within.
Alas, the so-called “cradle of democracy” is being rocked as a result of the tightening policy constraints of globalisation and economic integration. Yet, current developments in Greece may end up redefining the practice of national democratic politics within the confines of regional and global governance structures.
The writer, university lecturer in international political economy at the University of Cambridge, is running for parliament in Sunday’s election with To Potami