Amid fog of confusion, Greeks vote... again

Agora Contributor: Nick Malkoutzis
Photo by MacroPolis
Photo by MacroPolis

The fact that we are entering Sunday’s elections with the result still difficult to predict is a reflection of the failures of Greece’s parties but also the confusion felt by voters who feel sapped by the tumultuous events of the last few months, which came on top of an exhausting 5 years.

The parties have failed to make it clear what this election is about. SYRIZA has focussed on the new versus old theme, presenting itself as a paragon of virtue that will take on entrenched interests and clean up the system. New Democracy has made this campaign about the issue of trust and whether Greeks can put their faith in Alexis Tsipras again after his erratic time in office.

Neither theme has really gripped the Greek public. Most voters are savvy enough to understand that SYRIZA is not “purer than pure”, as Tony Blair had once implored his Labour Party to be. SYRIZA may have appointed an anti-corruption minister and rekindled the investigation into the Lagarde list of Greeks with Swiss bank deposits, for which it drew praise from the ex-HSBC expert-turned-whistleblower Hervé Falciani. But people also see that SYRIZA did not deliver any significant results during its, admittedly brief, time in office. At the same time, it picked up many of the nasty habits of previous governments, appointing cronies to key positions and compromising its ethics.

The scepticism surrounding ex-State Minister Alekos Flambouraris’s involvement in a construction firm that won a public works contract has only added to the sense that SYRIZA may talk a good game on fighting corruption but that it will ultimately be as susceptible to temptation as the “establishment” parties that it rages against.

New Democracy, though, also faces difficulty when it comes to the issue of trust that it put at the centre of its campaign. It is easy for conservative leader Evangelos Meimarakis to pick apart SYRIZA’s record in office, especially with regards to the negotiations in the eurozone. However, the difficult part comes when it has to convince voters that they should instead put their faith in New Democracy, again.

Meimarakis cannot be personally blamed for the New Democracy-led government’s failings between 2012 and 2014 as he held the institutional, rather than the political, role of parliamentary speaker, but the party he represents has a lot to answer for. Voters cannot overlook that the anomalous way in which Tsipras ran the country between January and August is – to a certain extent – mirrored by the capriciousness shown by his predecessor, Antonis Samaras, between May and December 2014.

In the parcelling out of the responsibility for Greece’s current plight, the package to be delivered to Samaras will be fairly big. Samaras decided to remove key personnel from his government after the defeat to SYRIZA in the European Parliament elections in May 2014 and apparently desired to see Tsipras inherit as complicated a situation as possible once it was clear that it would be hard to fend off snap elections in January.

Meimarakis has opted not to engage in these dark arts, stressing the need for unity and running a much more positive campaign. But his party remains tarnished by its recent record, which includes the sudden closure of public broadcaster ERT, the scrapping of the municipal police and the repealing of the citizenship law.

SYRIZA preaches that it is clean but has little evidence to prove it, while New Democracy insists that it can be trusted when it has done much to betray voters. However, there is one thing that united the two parties in the way they ran their campaigns and that is that they both focussed on the past, whether it was the last few months or the last few decades. Nobody spoke about the future and what proposals their party had for getting Greece out of the mire, apart from suggesting that some minor tweaks could be made to the bailout. It’s true that the loan agreement seeks to define Greece’s economic policy for the next three years but where were the ideas for innovation, industry, trade, tourism, exports, jobs, immigration, and education? There simply weren’t any.

It is little wonder, then, that most opinion polls up to Friday showed little separating the two parties. But it is not just their inability to establish credible themes that is causing the utter fragmentation of the Greek vote, which could lead to a once-inconceivable nine parties entering Parliament. There is a feeling that Greeks have not only exhausted themselves over the last five years but also their political options.

In a bid to find a way out of the crisis, either by backing parties that pledged to cooperate with lenders or with those that vowed to resist them, Greeks have switched their allegiances numerous times over the last few years. A total of six parties have been in government since late 2011 – more than one a year – while about 30 parties have been founded since 2010, some of them splintering off from New Democracy and PASOK.

The rigours of implementing the bailout and the erosion of public support that this brings means that the average lifespan of Greek governments since the first memorandum of understanding was signed in May 2010 (if caretaker administrations are excluded but the break-up of the New Democracy-PASOK-Democratic Left in June 2013 included) stands at just over 12 months. Sunday sees Greeks going to the polls for the fifth general elections since October 2009 and the 10th time they are voting since June 2009 if you include European Parliament elections, local polls and the the July referendum.

Despite the Greek electorate displaying a newfound fluidity, nobody has been able to provide any solutions. Six years after the crisis broke out, the Greek economy is still mired in problems: Unemployment remains at close to 25 percent, its banks are in need of a new recapitalisation and continue not to lend. While some will argue that Greece was on the road to recovery last year, many of the underlying figures were extremely poor and the average Greek had seen little sign of the supposed uptick.

It is no surprise, therefore, that the majority of Greeks want to see some kind of coalition emerge from Sunday’s elections. This is perhaps their way of throwing the problem back to the politicians after five elections in six years during which voters have been asked to find a way out of each impasse.

Even though opinion polls suggest that Greece will probably end up with a coalition, nobody is particularly hopeful that this will mark the beginning of a new era of productive cooperation for the country. This has been an exhausting year for Greeks emotionally – hope, fear and frustration have interchanged almost on a daily basis. The introduction of capital controls at the end of June has created numerous practical problems for individuals and businesses as well as putting an extra psychological strain on the electorate.

The only certainty at the moment is that Greece’s politicians and voters have a hard slog ahead of them from Monday if this fog of confusion that has enveloped the country is to lift and allow Greeks to start seeing their future a little more clearly.

*Nick Malkoutzis is the editor of MacroPolis. You can follow him on Twitter: @NickMalkoutzis
An earlier version of this article first appeared in our weekly e-newsletter, which is available to subscribers. More information about subscriptions can be found here.

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