19 nov 2012

A Pyrrhic victory for Greece

Antonis Samaras and his party, New Democracy (ND), won the elections of the 17th of June 2012 in Greece. But what appears to be a victory for New Democracy and the forces advocating the continuation of harsh austerity policies, might as well soon prove to be but a mere 'pyrrhic victory'.


Antonis Samaras and his party, New Democracy (ND), won the elections of the 17th of June 2012 in Greece by receiving 29,66% of the vote. Its main opponent, the radical left coalition SYRIZA rose to second place with 26,89%, continuing an impressive upward dynamic (from 4,6% in 2009 to 16,78% on May 6th 2012). Yet, one cannot but ask the question: who was the real winner? To be sure, it's not that obvious. Was it ND? Was it SYRIZA? Was it the 'pro-bailout' or maybe the 'anti-bailout' political forces in general? Was it the Left or was it the Right in the broader sense?

For most of the Greek newspapers and TV channels the victory was quite clear. The day after the elections they were celebrating with relief a victory of the 'pro-euro' or 'pro-bailout' political forces (namely ND, PASOK and DIMAR which have since formed a coalition government), together with international media. But this is a rather simplified picture, since SYRIZA is also a 'pro-European' force that has always expressed its commitment to Greece's participation in the eurozone and the EU in general, with the crucial difference that this should not be pursued at the cost of social destruction. Nor is SYRIZA an 'extremist' party, like many commentators have unjustifiably suggested.

Social democracy or extremism?

To put it as briefly and schematically as possible, SYRIZA represents an alternative radical-left political agenda which emphasizes democracy and collective/direct participation of citizens in the political domain as well as social justice, welfare provision, fair taxation and tolerance in the social. It also champions the nationalization/socialization and the collective control of the banks and ex-public companies (service & utilities) in strategic sectors, as well as a radical 'top to bottom' redistribution of wealth in favour of the poor in the economic domain. That's neither 'extremism', nor 'populism' per se; on the contrary, that could be seen as a return to some of the core values of modern democracy's promise (in a socialist or even social-democratic perspective).

But Europe's post-democratic state of affairs could only regard such a political project to reinvigorate mass participation in decision-making, to (re-)establish collective/social control over the banks and the financial system --and thus to regulate capitalism's anti-democratic or/and anti-social excesses-- as a dangerous break with the neoliberal orthodoxy of 'one-way solutions', as an assault to the dominant 'managerial virtue' of technocratic governance. But since when are social justice, social control and wealth redistribution equivalent to 'populism', 'extremism' or 'economic destruction'? Wasn't this political approach that saved the economies of many western democracies after the destruction of WW2? Wasn't a kind of radical wealth redistribution and regulation over the market a core element of Roosevelt's 'New Deal' back in the '30's? Wasn't it this mixture of policies that helped the US rise rather unharmed from a destructive phase of economic depression and war?

The establishment

Today, if one takes really seriously what Angela Merkel and other European officials are advocating, it seems that the peoples of Europe can change their governments and choose to be governed by different parties, but only as long as nothing ever really changes, only as long as the same policies are guaranteed to be implemented. Every political disagreement, every radical opposition, every alternative is simultaneously stigmatized as 'irresponsible populism' or 'cheap demagogy'; moral stigma and denunciation replaces political argument and the opponent becomes an enemy. But this resembles a 'decaf democracy', as Slavoj Žižek would say or maybe a 'postdemocracy' in Jacques Rancière's words. That is a state of democratic affairs which has abandoned the element of real choice and negates antagonism, alternative paths, or even the ever present possibility of radical change, 'a democracy after the demos'. That means that everything is OK as long as everything stays the same, even if everything has collapsing around us1.

That's why ND's marginal victory was welcomed with such a relief by European elites, the media and the stock markets. It was interpreted as a sign that things will not really change and Greece is going to stay on the austerity path imposed by the so called 'troika'. That is also why most of the Greek media throughout the course of the second consecutive electoral campaign (between May 7th and June17th 2012), in an effort to hold back SYRIZA's upward dynamic, merely parroted ND and PASOK's side of the argument regarding the stakes of the polls by posing constantly blackmailing dilemmas to the electorate ('memorandum or complete destruction', 'austerity or chaos', 'inside or outside the EU', 'euro or drachma', 'ND or bankruptcy', and so on). It was really impressive to watch almost every channel and newspaper in Greece issuing daily warnings to the public that everything should be done the 'right way' (which also happens to be the Right-wing way) in order to secure the formation of a 'pro-euro' (which in fact means 'pro-austerity') coalition government to avoid a complete economic and social breakdown in the hands of the 'populist' SYRIZA. Even the Financial Times Deutschland intervened with an editorial in Greek warning the Greek voters not to vote for SYRIZA's dangerous demagogy!2 So, we wouldn't exaggerate if we suggested that it wasn't really a fair fight, at least at the level of media coverage.

A Pyrrhic victory

In this perspective, it is rather impressive that SYRIZA managed to get an extra 10% of the vote (which means an extra 600.000 voters) performing an amazing jump from 16,78% (a month before) to 26,89% of the vote. If SYRIZA's dynamic can be explained by the party's 'politics of hope' then ND's mere 'repatriation' of some of its traditional voters is due to its persistence on a 'politics of fear' and 'scare tactics', which was also supported by most of the media. While SYRIZA advocated throughout the whole campaign a series of measures which would ease social pain and boost growth and employment on the basis of an alternative paradigm (yet to be proven wrong or right, but still possible), ND's campaign was mainly negative propaganda against SYRIZA (sometimes even sycophantic) and a storm of warnings to the public for a 'coming Apocalypse' in case of a victory of the left. ND's 'positive politics' regarding the country's way out of recession and social stagnation was nowhere to be found.
So, to conclude, what appears to be a victory for ND and the forces advocating the continuation (in one way or the other) of harsh austerity policies (PASOK-DIMAR), might as well soon prove to be but a mere 'pyrrhic victory' (a victory which inherently leads to defeat or the payment of a heavy toll). And what's more disturbing is that it might prove a pyrrhic victory not only for those already deteriorating parties of a collapsing establishment (ND-PASOK), but also for Greek society as a whole, since the lack of alternatives seems to be directing significant parts of the electorate towards the neo-Nazi extremists of the 'Golden Dawn'. And that's a real danger for democracy.

*First published in Roman Gerodimos (ed.), First thoughts on the 17 June 2012 election in Greece, Greek Politics Specialist Group (GPSG), June 2012, pp. 29-30

  1. Isn't that what even the rather neoliberal Economist was also criticizing on the front cover of the issue of 9th-15th of June 2012?
  2. 'Widersteht den Demagogen', Financial Times Deutschland, 14.06.2012 
is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.
Alle artikelen