Europe is once again turning its eyes to Greece — hard as it is to spot behind its mountainous debt. After failing to elect a new president on Dec. 29, a process that required the vote of 180 MPs, which the conservative-led coalition government of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras failed to secure, the country will see snap elections on Jan. 25.
The world’s media have pronounced the beginning of Greek crisis 2.0 and speculated whether the country will have to leave the eurozone if the radical-left Syriza party comes to power. To be sure, the new Greek crisis is not as threatening to the global financial system as the one that engulfed the country in 2010. It does, however, reveal how problematic the economics of austerity have become since it came to dominate Europe after the 2008 global recession.
It’s been obvious since Syriza won Greece’s elections for the European Parliament last year that the government and Samaras have been in panic mode. Throughout 2014, it invested heavily in a good-news strategy, going so far as to say Greece would exit the memorandum of understanding that ties the country to a harsh austerity program devised by its troika of lenders — the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and the European Central Bank — by the end of the year. Τhe move backfired spectacularly.
Even so, it was still possible for the center-right New Democracy (ND) party and Samaras, its head, to find common ground with almost every other party and independent MPs. ND’s failure has more to do with the polarizing politics it has employed for the past two years rather than its political failures, legion as they are.
Even now, ND is trying to paint Syriza as the faction that will bring bankruptcy and ruin to Greece. MP Adonis Georgiadis has gone so far as to call the opposition party “a bunch of communists that don’t understand the markets,” while Minister of Health Makis Voridis revived memories of Greece’s bitter civil war in the late 1940s by saying “we will defend with our vote what our grandfathers defended with guns.” The mainstream Greek press, with few exceptions, is also toeing this line. “Mad Max scenario if Syriza comes to power,” Demokratia, a ND-affiliated newspaper claimed on its front-page, quoting an op-ed by Failos Kranidiotis, a close friend to Samaras. “Russian winter” warned Ta Nea daily about the potential state of the economy after the election. Even the Islamist attack on Charlie Hebdo’s offices was exploited, this time by Samaras himself, to tarnish Syriza. “Today in Paris there was a slaughter and here some people are inviting more illegal immigrants and giving out citizenship,” he said.
A similar line predominates abroad with politicians and journalists. Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, has mentioned the danger of “extreme forces” taking power in Greece and expressed a preference for “familiar faces” at the negotiating table next year. A day later, under pressure for his comments, he claimed that he didn’t mean Syriza. German politicians are tripping over one another to appear tough on Greece, saying there is no room for renegotiation of the rescue package and debt relief is not possible for Greece.
Junker’s comment and similar remarks in the German press highlight the extent to which Greece’s new crisis is not just about economics but also about political ideology. The idea that the European Commission and the EU in general can’t work with any government that is not subscribing to the austerity dogma is a terrifying prospect for democracy.
To understand why putting ideology first is driving the EU apart, let’s examine what this means for Greece. In the past five years, the country has accepted incredible sacrifices. Greece’s GDP is now 24 percent lower than it was in 2008. Its expected growth of up to 1.4 percent this year hardly makes up for it. Wages are lower than ever, and 25 percent of Greeks — and 60 percent of Greeks under 25 — are still unemployed. The health system is falling apart, and 40 percent of children are in danger of poverty. One bright spot is an increase in demand reflected in falling deposits, which the government tried to suggest is a covert bank run fueled by Syriza’s rise.
Instead of facing up to this reality and how the past four Greek governments have treated average citizens by imposing heavy taxes and gutting the welfare system, European leaders resort to anti-Syriza red-scare talk and back a government engulfed in scandal and authoritarianism. Under the New Democracy–PASOK governing coalition, the police have become a destabilizing element used to crush popular dissent. Greek oligarchs have consolidated their power while refusing to carry any of the burdens the crisis brought on, and the ideals of parliamentary democracy have been debased beyond recognition. Presidential decree — an emergency procedure typically reserved for war and natural disasters — has allowed the Samaras government to pass a series of laws without discussing them in parliament or putting them to the vote, delegitimizing the parliament in the process. Samaras has visited the chamber fewer than a dozen times during his tenure.
In such a political climate, the country’s future is on the line, and the Greek people are ready to vote for change. Is there any hope European leaders and officials can listen to them without a biased mindset?
The excuse that markets would be upset by a Syriza government is absurd. The markets have worked in the past with every regime in the world. What exactly sets a relatively moderate left-wing party apart? If anything, the debt relief the radical left demands has been proposed by countless mainstream economists and is something the EU itself promised in 2012 but has reneged on.
There is no good reason a Syriza government (or a left-wing Podemos government in Spain, for that matter) would frighten investors either, especially after the leadership of the radical left has vouched to keep running a balanced budget but with an eye to growth this time. In fact, the quantitative easing program announced by the European Central Bank’s Mario Draghi this week shows the left is not alone in worrying about the economic effects of austerity. As it’s often repeated, investors just want to be dealing with serious people. And the current government is not serious; it’s just ruthless. Why continue supporting the current governments in Greece, Spain and elsewhere that show such disregard for the rights and well-being of their citizens on a daily basis?
The rest of Europe has an obligation to work with anyone the Greek people choose. Instead, alarmists worry that elections will be a source of instability. If the most basic of democratic rights — voting — is such a nuisance, what disproves the Euroskeptics’ view that the European project should be ended because of its inability to respect national sovereignty?
If anyone can see a way to continue down the austerity path even in the face of popular disapproval and keep the EU alive, feel free to explain it to me. I don’t see it.