Second, a multiparty coalition government was possible only because of a new electoral proviso giving the plurality party a bonus of fifty seats in the three hundred-seat parliament (a measure denounced by many Greeks as disproportional and inherently undemocratic). If the normal seat-distribution system had been in use, even a grand coalition would have lacked a parliamentary majority.
Third, the coalition leadership is same old, same old with a vengeance. The new Center-Right prime minister, Antonis Samaras, is well remembered in Greece as the New Democracy double crosser who brought down his own government in 1992, giving Andreas Papandreou a last turn in power. Samaras’s coalition partner, social-democratic PASOK leader Evangelos Venizelos, is the lawyer who got Papandreou acquitted in a corruption case back in 1989. Both are old-style, inbred, clan politicians widely viewed as incapable of rising above narrow partisanship. Their “program” is to attempt to con Europe yet again. The only senior figure in Athens really respected in Brussels, former finance minister George Papaconstantinou, has no role in the new administration.
A History of Radicalism
The alternatives to the present coalition are even worse, with the supposedly new generation of Greek politics represented by Alexis Tsipras of the SYRIZA party, who got his start in the Stalinist Communist Party but then smartly moved on to the Trotskyite Synaspismos. His combination of economic populism, political xenophobia and contempt for democratic values is reminiscent of Andreas Papandreou in his early years but without the latter’s advanced education, international exposure and willingness to make deals. The radical Left has moved rapidly to near-majority status in a political culture bereft of the talents for accepting responsibility or making compromises.
Greek politics shift easily from the ballot box to the streets. The society is broadly accommodating of violence in political causes and shows little support for the forces of public order. The Greek police have much better professional skills than even ten years ago but are a very thin screen between constitutional government and anarchy. Tsipras pledged to eliminate the country’s overworked riot police altogether, while many of the police reportedly voted for the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party. The political violence of recent years has gone largely unreported outside of Greece but, if past is prologue, it will increase in scale and lethality.
The threat to democracy in Greece today comes from the Left rather than the Right. The opprobrium which the military still carries from the junta should be sufficient to discourage a uniformed intrusion into politics. However, the youthful anarchism growing on the Left is hardly discouraged at all—quite the contrary. As prospects for a better life have disappeared, as resort to the ballot box yields ever less in terms of national leadership and as Europe turns its back on its prodigal protégé, the Balkan/Levantine quality of Greek political culture is coming to the fore.
The gap in political culture between Greece and Europe is now a chasm. As an Athens commentator recently pointed out, a subsidiary definition in every major European language for the word “Greek” is “cheat.” While European distrust of the “birthplace of democracy” is old, it is now deeply reinforced by the litany of Greek lies of the past decade. Nobody in Europe believes anything coming out of Athens, as European policy makers focus on saving their own financial institutions. Nobody in Athens will commit political suicide by accepting anything coming from Brussels. Thus, there is an impasse.
In most of continental Europe, democracy enjoys popular support for what it delivers—peace, prosperity, security, welfare—rather than for its own sake. In hard times, democratic norms are sorely tested; Hungary, for example, is a very worrisome case. But Greece remains the most extreme and fragile case. Constitutional democracy there could fail, something which in the long view of history might be much more costly to the European project than bond defaults and devaluations. As the Russian experience after 1998 showed, money can be recreated relatively rapidly—but democracy does not return so easily.
Wayne Merry is senior fellow for Europe and Eurasia at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.
Image: Onkel Tuca!