international analysis and commentary

Greece’s political paralysis and the danger of superficial consensus

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For the first time since the beginning of the crisis in Greece, almost nobody is paying attention. As there are far more dramatic international political issues to worry about, this does not come as a surprise. Nothing is really at stake in Greece at the moment as the two leading parties, SYRIZA and New Democracy, both sing the same tune.

However, this cannot last for long. In the whole of Europe, there is a noticeable divide between federalist forces and nationalist forces. (Left-wing “moderate” euro-skepticism is apparently rather weak as it failed to persuade public opinion in the Brexit campaign and in the Italian referendum. Left-wing opposition to Brussels ended in Greece with the capitulation of SYRIZA.) Therefore, the main issue around which the political debate evolves in the rest of Europe, namely the nationalist parties against some version of federalism combined with free market economics, is virtually absent in the case of Greece. The country lacks a right-wing catch-all nationalist party to accommodate the dissatisfaction and distress over Brussels-led policies.

The Golden Dawn party – which is doubtless a far-right movement – cannot fill this space. Since the assassination of anti-fascist hip-hop singer Pavlos Fyssas, and Golden Dawn’s acceptance of the political responsibility for the killing, the party’s criminal record was made public, so much so that it is now very unlikely that it could play this role. It still is the third biggest political force in Greece, but given the publicity of its violent past and neo-Nazi affiliations, it is highly improbable that it could lead in representing the euro-skeptics.

This is a vacuum that is sometimes acknowledged by recognizable figures of the extreme right, such as some of the people who surrounded former Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, like Failos Kranidiotis and Takis Baltakos. The eventual alignment of far-right political parties, like George Karatzaferis’ LAOS (which participated in Lukas Papadimos administration) and now the  Independent Greeks (participating in Alexis Tsipras administration), with the European austerity establishment leaves a sort of anti-establishment void One can only assume that this void will be filled at some point by a somewhat xenophobic force. It does not seem politically plausible to continue to have two opposing parties that both advocate the same policies. This might have been possible in more peaceful times, but not now, when the rest of Europe is in turmoil.

Meanwhile, there is not much international attention given to a government that so willingly follows the rules of the game as they are set by its creditors. There is no story where there is only compliance. It is ironic that until now elections were used as a negotiating tool by the government. It could always be argued that if the creditors do not back down on some of their more aggressive demands, then the country would resort to elections and the creditors would have to deal with a much more unpredictable interlocutor.

As things stand, when SYRIZA exhausts its political capital and reaches a point where it is no longer in a position to enforce the required policies, the second party standing in line to take office will be even more willing. This means that when at some point support for their policies starts to fade and support starts to tip towards the opposition, then a “heroic exit” can be expected – or at least a minor breach with the creditors over some ease-the-pain measures, in the hope that this might score pre-election points. These tactics were first rehearsed with the “Christmas bonus” given to pensioners, which was immediately followed by a letter from Greek Finance Minister Euclid Tsakalotos, reassuring the EU institutions that this was a one-off and that there is no prospect of challenging the status quo. In this perspective, the now much discussed participation of the IMF in the program becomes irrelevant, in the sense that German Finance Minister Sigmar Gabriel has recently stated that there will be more measures to come, irrespective of its participation. The government’s reaction was to eagerly stress that this is not to be interpreted as yet another memorandum of understanding. In other words, there will be even more austerity measures, but without the funding. As far as the government is concerned, what matters is that we can still save appearances.

All this boils down to a continuation of the same policies, with the same problems that SYRIZA’s politicians once knew very well, and Greece is left with the theatrics of handling the communications strategy.

 In this context, there is no social or intellectual pressure to invent new solutions. It is as if all has been tried and failed, but this time with literally no alternative for the foreseeable future.

If some kind of alternative can be imagined, the biggest fear is that this will come from the European-bureaucracy-haters of the far-right. Until now, the refugees that have been stranded in Greece have made headlines for mostly humanitarian reasons. Despite their suffering and the unbearable cold they have had to recently endure, the money has been spent or wasted without providing decent accommodations for them. It will not take long, however, before stories about some sort of “Islamic danger” catches the spotlight.

Given that the dividing line that relied on the criticism of austerity has now ceased to differentiate the two leading competing parties, it will not be surprising if a serious turn to the right comes about in Greek society, giving voice to a radical anti-establishment vote against the elites. Whether or not nature abhors a vacuum, as is so often said, it is reasonable to assume that given the larger European picture and Greece’s constant tendency towards nationalist ideas, this would be too big a chance to miss for the Greek extreme right. Especially given the loss of credibility and the so-called moral superiority argument, in a Europe that scorns Angela Merkel’s immigration policies, it is quite possible that there will be a change of route for good: financial failure and the presence of refugees is a bad combination.

A possible way to avert this unwelcome prospect would require both the intellectual effort of putting together a working version of an alternative, which is so painfully lacking now, and the political effort to make this an inspiring vision for a substantial number of citizens. None of this is on the horizon.