Democracy is usually the first casualty of severe economic crises, and Greece is no exception to the rule. The current political crisis is the outcome of an economic recession unprecedented in the history of Greece as an independent nation-state. The centre-left Pasok government and the wider political class have been the target of social anger, expressed violently and frequently in protests outside the national parliament, amid a sense of political insecurity and unpredictability.
The political mood in Greece is vile: political parties across the board are discredited, the two-party system is being stretched to its limits, protest politics are becoming the new means of direct political involvement, and a view of politics as a violent struggle – an agony – predominates. Two years after Pasok took power in October 2009, Prime Minister George Papandreou and his government have been forced to resign and to share power within a government of national unity, with the prospect of an election early next year.
To be sure, Greek democracy – despite some significant gains since 1974, when the military dictatorship ended – has been marred by perennial deficits, pathologies related to political corruption and scandals, an unfair and slow justice system, the capture of the state by the party in power, and a clientelistic nexus between politicians and citizens. All these are issues that have been widely known and criticised for many years. They are features of a political system that has malfunctioned since the inception of the Greek state in the early 19th century.
The post-2008 economic crisis was seen initially as an opportunity to bring about reforms that could address some of these democratic deficits in the political system. There were calls – and attempts – to reform the justice system, bring transparency to the public sector, end favouritism in the public administration, and share the tax burden more justly and equally. But the depth of the economic crisis has meant that this effort to create a more rational and democratic state has also generated many new democratic deficits and paradoxes – and these now threaten to derail any achievements of Greece’s post-1974 democratic consolidation.
These threats come neither from populism and political extremism, nor from the possibility of another military intervention in politics: so far, Greece has not witnessed the rise of an extremist nationalist right, and the military is firmly under civilian rule.
The main threats come from the gradual but systematic loss of sovereignty in the context of European power politics, the strengthening of the conditionality set by the International Monetary Fund and the EU, and extreme pressure from abroad. These have reduced the role of the national elites to mere vehicles for the passing of legislation demanded of them.
While the parliament is now at the centre of decision-making and has attracted massive international attention during the past two years, there is less and less emphasis on the substance of legislation and more on procedure. Laws have to be passed in their entirety without any discussion on the specific clauses.
Moreover, Greek democracy is guided by the politics of fear, blackmail and complete unpredictability. Political decisions are taken under the threat of economic catastrophe, exit from the eurozone, and complete marginalisation from the future of Europe. Instead of a transition to a much-needed reform process that would lead to the deepening of democracy, we are witnessing the reverse: the path from a substantive to a procedural democracy.
In recent days, we have seen some of the most paradoxical examples of a democratic process rendered procedural, nominal and devoid of substance. Following his announcement of a referendum on 31 October, Papandreou was forced to change the question of the referendum by the big lending powers in Europe, and then his government was forced to resign after having survived a vote of confidence in the parliament on Friday (4 November). The two main parties were then forced to agree on the creation of a national unity government by Sunday evening, in order to prevent the Asian markets from melting down on Monday morning.
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Democratic politics in Greece are being eroded by the new global and transnational space of ‘market correcting’, in which notions of political reform and accountability are becoming irrelevant and the notions of time and urgency are the prime movers of political change.
In 1970, Andreas Papandreou, one of the architects of some positives and many negatives of the post-1974 state (and the father of the outgoing prime minister), wrote a book entitled “Democracy at gunpoint”. He was referring to the role of the military in politics and the reasons that led to the imposition of the seven-year military junta. Today, Greek democracy is under the threat of a different gun – a hollowing out of democracy because of a gradual loss of national sovereignty and the fear of contagion to other indebted European economies. Under such circumstances, it is difficult to see who is going to lead the political catharsis that is so desperately needed in Greece.
Othon Anastasakis is director of south-east European studies at the University of Oxford.