“GREEKS are fond of pointing out that they invented democracy,” John Lanchester pointed out in The New Yorker a week or so ago; “they invented tragedy, too….”
That the two phenomena are hardly incompatible has been underlined not so much by last Sunday’s elections but by the overall Greek experience of recent decades.
The two parties that have alternated in power since the demise of fascistic military rule in the mid-1970s, the conservative New Democracy and the Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok), were poised at the start of the week to form a new government. New Democracy won about 30 per cent of the vote on Sunday, a substantial improvement on its 19 per cent showing in last month’s elections, but not enough for a simple parliamentary majority even with the 50 extra seats that the Greek constitution awards to the leading party.
Hot on its heels was the leftwing Syriza, the bête noir of Brussels, with roughly a 27 per cent share of the vote, 10 per cent more than it won in May. Pasok maintained its sharply diminished vote bank of about 13 per cent.
The result followed what could only be described as a concerted voter-intimidation campaign by a range of European leaders and institutional heads, notably the German chancellor Angela Merkel, the International Monetary Fund’s Christine Lagarde and the World Bank’s Robert Zoellick. Even France’s recently elected president, François Hollande, pitched in.
They were all singing from the same hymn book, emphasising that Greece’s only path to salvation lay in electing a government that would abide by a memorandum agreed with the European Union (EU), whereby financial assistance is contingent upon stringent austerity measures ranging from a sharp reduction in minimum wages and deep cuts in pensions to wide-ranging privatisation.
The alternative would be eviction from the eurozone — a prospect that’s unpopular in Greece even among most of those appalled by the prospect of further Brussels-imposed belt-tightening.
Even New Democracy’s electoral platform envisaged requesting a moderate amelioration of the austerity programme, and party leader Antonis Samaras, who is almost certain to take over as prime minister, has indicated he wishes to renegotiate the terms of a bailout that Greece desperately needs.
A number of European officials, including some in Germany, have indicated they wouldn’t be averse to a bit of tinkering at the margins, although Merkel, speaking from the venue of the G20 summit in Mexico, seemed adamant that Greek voters could expect no reward for effectively voting into power the sort of government she championed.
Perhaps she has noticed that almost 60 per cent of the electorate opted for parties that oppose the austerity measures. In the interim between the two electoral bouts, Syriza’s leader Alexis Tsipras spent several days in European capitals arguing that if his nation did not stand up to the EU’s unreasonable dictates on this count, other countries could expect the same treatment.
From the point of view of the EU hierarchy, a Syriza-led government could indeed have set an unpalatable example of resistance to neoliberal dictation.
The prospect of that variety of Greek ‘contagion’ arguably evokes more fear among European financial institutions than burgeoning sovereign debt and collapsing banks. The latter can invariably expect more sympathy when their speculative investments lead to spectacular losses than individuals whose pay packets or pensions are stripped away for no particular fault of their own.
In some quarters it has frequently been argued of late that the people of Greece deserve the pain they have been ladled with as punishment for electing governments that have squandered the wealth that came their way after Athens joined the eurozone in 1999.
It is much the same quarters, though, that have lately been demanding that the same parties — New Democracy and Pasok, most of whose policies are all but indistinguishable, notwithstanding their traditional rivalry — be re-elected.
Some economists, including Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, argue that whereas poor policymaking at the domestic level has indeed played a role in ravaging Greece, it’s European structures and officials who are primarily to blame for the eurozone crisis.
A common currency may have been an unworkable idea to start with in the absence of a common government — and moves towards closer financial and political integration face considerable resistance.
In the past few days it has been speculated that, notwithstanding a pro-austerity administration, Greek may anyhow be compelled to abandon the euro by the end of the year.
Although not everyone in Greece shares the opinion that a return to the drachma would necessarily exacerbate the crisis, such a move would undoubtedly renew the periodic turmoil that has become a part of the political landscape over the past couple of years.
It is highly likely, of course, that unrest will anyhow be unleashed in the months ahead as the new government seeks to impose the measures agreed with the EU in return for a cash injection, whether or not Samaras succeeds in winning the odd concession.
This could turn very ugly indeed. Amid mass unemployment and even more widespread impoverishment, comparisons are being made with Weimar Germany. The ultra-right Golden Dawn party, which encourages anti-immigrant violence and boasts a symbol reminiscent of the Nazi swastika, won seven per cent of the vote last month and, despite the histrionics of its representatives, more or less maintained that level of support this week.
It represents a Europe-wide phenomenon, but there are few grounds for complacency about the spread of fascist sentiments in the guise of Greek nationalism.
Like all similar movements, it feeds on fear, and Greece in its present shape is a crucible of uncertainty. The proposed austerity measures will only exacerbate this trend. Europe can afford to be a great deal more generous. It could at least try to stimulate growth without insisting on its pound of flesh.
What is more broadly a crisis of capitalism ultimately cannot be redressed without rethinking the underlying fundamentals. That may well prove inevitable in the slightly longer run.
For the moment, though, a concerted effort to ease or share Greece’s pain — and to spare Spain, to cite the most obvious example, the same sort of agony — could possibly turn out to be the least excruciating remedy for Europe as a whole.