In the short few days since the defeat of the government’s choice for president of the republic and the subsequent announcement of general elections for 25 January, some of the usual gloom for the year ahead that has recently been following the new year wishes for prosperity and happiness has started to lift. For the first time in many years most people you meet here in Crete, in the kafeneia, in supermarket queues, while waiting for hours in the bank to pay the latest tax bill, have started to have some hope for the future.
A hope that does not so much spring from a belief that the opposition party is going to keep their promises for change; people in this country are used to monumental pre election lies and they have learnt to take a cautious approach to pre election promises.
Without completely dismissing disaster scenarios of the effects of the election on the country’s chances for economic survival as portrayed in the media, many people felt the veil of fear lifting when the election date was announced. They just had enough being frightened of an impending economic collapse and the subsequent loss of their life’s savings for the last five years. Now, after they paid most of what they had to the government in taxes and found themselves without a job or with a much reduced income, they do not longer seem to worry. Many see the prospect of an election victory for SYRIZA as the country’s liberation from pointless servitude to cruel foreign creditors.
“The drenched man does not worry about rain” said an old man, a pensioner in his seventies, who was discussing the political situation with fellow customers in the bank queue on New Years Eve, to pass the time. “Do you think I have any money left?” the old man added waving as proof a bunch of tax demand printouts for himself and his unemployed son.
According to all the opinion polls, the old man was clearly amongst the minority of people in the country who did not object to a snap general election. For several months before the announcement of the election, opinion polls indicated that the overwhelming majority of those asked, around 58%, did not want an election at this point. A result which is not at all surprising, if you think about the daily barrage of news reports raising fears of Greece’s exit from the euro and estimating a complete collapse of the economy in the case of an election, which the government is likely to lose. What is surprising is that despite this drive of terror 42% of people did want a national election.
The international media, on the whole, followed the line of the European Union politicians, with the German press being at the forefront of the ‘election against the will of the people’ assault.
Amongst them, most popular with the Greek mainstream networks, comments in the financial daily Handelsblatt, where the Christian Democrat chairman described the failure of the Greek parliament to elect a president as an upsetting event that could lead to another economic crisis for Greece, while the credible Die Welt commenting that the road to elections in Greece leads to exit from the euro. The paper warned that a change of policy by a new government ‘will have minimal effects on the rest of the eurozone, but it will lead to the utter impoverishment of Greece and her eventual exit from the EU’, a statement that greatly underestimates the impact of a possible Greek default on the German economy. And in the days that followed there were many, many more, from the rest of Europe and the USA, all assessing the possibilities of a Greek exit, looking at possible effects and advantages, but not a single report amongst them claimed, at any point, that the Greek debt was sustainable.
Political uncertainty and German fears
Elections bring political uncertainty. As far as I know, elections in any country have a temporary adverse effect on the markets. But, the last time I recall so much international anxiety before an election in Greece, was when, a month before the elections that were scheduled for 28 May 1967, fears of ‘left wing’ Andreas Papandreou coming to power led to a military coup and yet another dictatorship in Greece; and that, at the time, satisfied both Greece’s best friends and allies, the Americans, and, presumably, the markets.
Today the situation is different of course. There is no question of suspending elections in a country member of the EU to suit the country’s new friends, the Germans. Democracy was after all the reason why Greece was admitted in Europe in the first place, and in the Eurozone later, with the full knowledge of Europe’s senior partners that the data was a bit ‘Greek’ on both occasions.
Today, once again, there are political reasons, why the Greek electorate are being coerced through fear to keep the ‘same familiar faces’ in power. For there is no reason to suggest that a SYRIZA government will take Greece out of the euro, after the party leader has repeatedly assured all concerned that Greece will remain in the eurozone. True, he has also said that he will increase low end pensions, restore the minimum wage and reemploy some of the few workers removed from the public sector, mainly in low grade essential jobs like cleaners and school caretakers.
But as far as the German government is concerned, the apparent commitment of Mr Tsipras to renegotiate the Greek debt and reduce the budget surplus targets, is not acceptable. And while it is heart warming to see other nations care about the welfare of Greece enough to try to help the Greek electorate make the right choice, the German government, understandably, fears that the revolting Greeks, if successful, will open the floodgates for other countries to break the strict European budget controls and abandon their own austerity policies.
However, the difference between a self proclaimed ‘radical left’ party and the ruling conservative /socialist coalition, is lost in political rhetoric, as every one knows here. Many people have not forgotten that pre election PASOK in the 80s wanted Greece out of Europe but post election not only did it keep the country in the EU, but also laid the foundations for entry in the common currency.
And that as recently as 2012, before the last election, Mr Samaras, with German political support, made himself popular by attacking the agreed austerity policies, while promising to restore bottom end pensions and salaries to their pre crisis levels and funding the cost from efficiency savings in the public sector, and to renegotiate repayment of the debt. More cuts Mr Samaras said, lead to a bigger deficit and prolong the recession. In reality, what he did was something quite different.
Voting behaviour and the campaign
What is difficult to understand is why the Greek electorate keeps supporting parties after their pre election promises turn out to be such blatant lies. A possible explanation is that the Greek voters do not care for policies. And, apparently, neither do their politicians who spent all their time on air shouting the same political clichés to each other, instead of outlining their own policies to create jobs, provide better services and fight corruption and tax evasion.
So, in today’s pre election ideological battleground, we have the (left wing) populists and the (right wing) neo liberals, terms that have become the dirty words of the political campaign. The government accuses the opposition of being populist, because it wants to establish the elements of a rudimentary welfare state and re employ a few cleaners and caretakers, the only civil servants the government managed to sack in the last two years.
On the other hand, the opposition blames all of society’s ills on the government’s fervent neo-liberal ideology. And if you thought the term refers to the resurgence of ideas associated with laissez-faire economic liberalism, you’d be right. But a government that has for years avoided any labour reforms, has not abolished entry restrictions to professions and leaves the management and the structure of the bureaucracy untouched, can hardly be called neo liberal or said to be supporting free enterprise. Unless of course by ‘laissez-faire’ they mean turning a blind eye to smuggling, tolerating large scale tax evasion and corruption and a lack of transparency in privatisation deals.
Unfortunately, Greek voters choose their governments on the basis of an ideology they support but which they do not really underrstand. Maybe because of a traditional dislike of the right or the left that stems back to the civil war, maybe because traditionally their parents always voted that way, or because of their deferential attachment to a party leader who takes good care of his supporters. Or, as it is often the case, because of an ‘obligation’ to one of the politicians involved. The old system of patronage in politics has not yet gone away. And no matter what the opinion polls and the betting agencies predict, it is going to be a very close result.
Twenty five years of austerity or will something change?
But whatever the result, the political scene is not going to be the same after the election. New parties, new alliances, new pressures from Europe ,will inevitably force the new government to face the challenge of structural change their predecessors have been avoiding all these years. Europe in its part, will have to find a solution to the Greek debt problem whether Mr Merkel likes the new government or not. Otherwise, the only alternative for Greece is austerity and cuts and stagnation, unemployment and desperation for the next 25 years it will take to repay the debt, something which for millions of people is a far more frightening prospect than a possible Grexit.