A campaign that leaves Greece in pain

Agora Contributor: Nick Malkoutzis
Photo by Panayotis Tzamaros/Fosphotos
Photo by Panayotis Tzamaros/Fosphotos

Earlier this month, the Pew Research Centre published a survey indicating how satisfied people are with the way democracy is working in their country. In Greece, 84 percent said they were not satisfied, which was the second highest among the 27 countries surveyed and well above the 51 percent average. A few days later, the Greek prime minister and the opposition leader traded barbs in Parliament about their fathers.

The campaign for this Sunday’s European Parliament and local elections – the first vote in Greece since the general elections of September 2015 – has confirmed the dire state of the country’s politics and the lack of interest in tending to the basics of democracy.

Unsurprisingly, given that national elections are due later this year, European issues have hardly featured on the agenda – apart from New Democracy’s overly-enthusiastic support for Manfred Weber as the European People’s Party (EPP) spitzenkandidat for the European Commission presidency, and SYRIZA’s feeble attempts to argue that Greece’s centre-right party has to be defeated as part of an EU-wide effort to stop the advance of ultra-nationalism and the far-right.

In effect, both parties have shown disdain for the European elections by largely refusing to engage in any kind of meaningful debate about the future of the EU and Greece’s place in it. The campaign has been little more than a proxy war for the national elections.

As in any battle, there have been plenty of casualties. The most significant has been democracy itself. It will emerge from Sunday’s vote wounded as a result of the behaviour of Greece’s leading politicians, who have shied away from an honest, measured forward-looking contest.

The lion’s share of the responsibility for this descent into the mire lies with SYRIZA. Apart from the fact that as the ruling party it has the most prominent platform and the biggest duty to set the tone for the country’s politics, SYRIZA also built its raison d’etre on the argument that it was more respectful of voters than its predecessors, whether this meant fighting corruption, being transparent, pursuing social justice or eschewing meaningless polarisation.

Even if one sets aside the hyperbole emanating from the mouths of political opponents and the keyboards of commentators as they seek to influence voters in the run-up to Sunday’s vote, it is clear SYRIZA has failed to meet its own standards.

Below standard

Whether it is the repeated but unproven attempts to link the opposition leader and his family to corruption, the interference in the judiciary, the exploitation of alleged scandals, the cajoling of independent institutions, the inability or lack of willingness to contain the raids conducted by anarchist groups, the empty but divisive rhetoric about “the many” versus “the elite,” the lack of respect for political opponents and the last-minute pre-election handouts/relief measures to voters, it has all been damaging for democracy.

Of course, the current Greek government is not the first to show contempt for the country’s institutions, voters and public finances. Greece ended up in such a profound economic and social crisis because the rot set in over many years, well before the first bailout deal was signed in 2010 and SYRIZA’s rise to power in 2015. But when SYRIZA and its supporters use the excuse that previous administrations were just as bad, or worse, they have admitted failure.

The leftists came to power claiming a “moral advantage” because they were not part of the flawed governance that led to the crisis and promising to address the shortcomings that derailed the country. They set the bar high but have spent much of the last five years content to pass well beneath it.

Tsipras claims to represent the “new” in Greek politics, suggesting a more progressive and constructive approach to doing things. In reality, he has always favoured knocking things down rather than building them. As a party in opposition, it was much easier for SYRIZA to pick holes in the EU-IMF adjustment programmes and the Greek governments implementing them, than to offer credible alternatives. Upon coming to power, it was simpler for him to confront the creditors rather than search for a compromise when the opportunity was there. In this campaign, it has been simpler for him to fuel division, focussing on portraying his opponents as servants of an elite obsessed with obstructing SYRIZA’s supposed altruistic mission, rather than offering any kind of coherent vision of Greece’s future.

Tsipras’s actions suggest that he believes his only chance of surviving is to cut his opponents down to size by turning each political battle into a street brawl. This may have been understandable when SYRIZA was a fringe grouping with a handful of MPs but it falls well short of what is appropriate for a governing party, and one that is seeking to establish itself as the voice of social democracy in Greece for years to come.

Wrong path

The divide-and-rule approach favoured by Tsipras also has admirers in New Democracy. The opposition party’s tendency to follow down the path to polarisation has compounded the misery of this campaign and means that for many voters the national elections, due in October, cannot be over soon enough.

There have been several occasions over the last few months when the conservatives have stooped extremely low to score points over their rivals. These include making unsubstantiated claims that the Macedonia name agreement was the product of an under-the-table exchange between Tsipras and Greece’s European partners in return for the cancellation of this year’s pension cuts, that the government has been freely handing out Greek citizenship to migrants so they can vote and affect the outcome of the elections and that there will be an attempt to tamper with Sunday’s ballot.

These claims alone are insidious and grist to the mill of every kind of fanatic out there. While the opposition is right to point out the impunity with which anarchists have targeted the opposition’s local offices, the Parliament building and electoral stands (including an abhorrent attack on the kiosk of centre-right Athens mayor candidate Kostas Bakoyiannis, whose father was murdered by the November 17 terrorist group in 1989) over the last few days, we should not forget that death threats were issued against ministers, and SYRIZA politicians were targeted as result of the whipping up of hostility to the Prespes Agreement.

The recent debate in Parliament, when conservative leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis accused Tsipras’s uncle and father of having profited from construction projects during Greece’s 1967-74 military dictatorship was one of the low points of the centre-right party’s campaign. The opposition leader insisted that he would not be dragged into a brawl and would focus on talking about policies and the future instead. New Democracy has made more of an effort to discuss policy, including vital issues related to healthcare and education, but too many of the headlines have been driven by politicking. In this sense, the opposition party also failed to live up to the standard it set itself.

While New Democracy is not burdened with the extra responsibility that comes with running the country, it does carry the expectation of likely being the next government (if opinion polls prove accurate) in a few weeks or months. This means its choices carry an additional significance.

A couple of days following the tawdry exchange (during which Tsipras accused the Mitsotakis family of doing “nothing else apart from being involved in politics and being very wealthy”), the centre-right politician tried to dial back but the poison had already been released into the public discussion.

Amid this apparently testosterone-fuelled spat, Greece’s only female party leader, Fofi Genimmata, president of the centre-left Movement of Change (KINAL), reminded her opponents of their grave responsibilities and highlighted their apparent inability to live up to them.

“I am ashamed of the image Parliament is projecting,” she said. “Stop committing crimes against this country. You are sending people to vote for the far-right.”

As the parent of three children, Gennimata knows very well that when a fight breaks out, the question of who started it is the last issue that needs to be settled. The immediate task is to stop the bickering and make each side realise the damage they are doing.

Her appeals are likely to be in vain even though she is right that the clearest danger of this fatuous polarisation (which has little to do with actual policies) will further erode Greeks’ interest in the democratic process and turn them to extreme options or just turn them off.

History repeating

The only hope is that voters will have the acumen and appetite to place recent developments within a broader framework, which contains a long history of Greeks turning on each other, with damaging results.

In “Salonica: City of Ghosts,” historian Mark Mazower quotes the observations of a British war correspondent as he watched the supporters of liberal leader Eleftherios Venizelos and Thessaloniki residents who backed King Constantine bicker during a fierce conflict between the two men during the First World War.

The journalist noted “how little attention the ordinary population of Salonica paid to these happenings. They went streaming past on foot and in trams… hardly turning their heads to notice the blue-coated revolutionaries and khaki-coated royalists facing each other with arms in their hands at the side of the street.” He surmised that people who have “seen so many uprisings and disorders in the last few years could hardly be expected to give great attention to so haphazard a bickering as this.”

An opinion poll carried out by Alco on behalf of Open TV this week, suggested that 20 percent of voters think SYRIZA will benefit most from the recent polarisation in the election campaign, while 12 percent of respondents believe New Democracy will be strengthened. Significantly, most of those questioned seemed to identify with the residents of Thessaloniki from more than 100 years ago, as 37 percent told the pollsters nobody would gain from the intense clash between the two main parties. 

Perhaps this electoral campaign will also have a limited impact because Greeks have truly become inured to attempts to stoke division purely to serve political ends. Even then, though, this means the best-case scenario will be indifference. Two leaders who claim they are breaking with the past should see this as a cause to be embarrassed. Whatever the result of Sunday’s vote, the winners and losers will have to consider how much democracy has been dameged in their efforts to outdo their political rivals and whether they are capable of healing the wounds.

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