Greeks went to the polls Sunday – for the fifth time in six years – and returned Alexis Tsipras and his Syriza party to power. In fact, the results mirror those from the January general election almost exactly. Here’s a snapshot:
Syriza: 145 seats
Nea Demokratia: 75
Golden Dawn: 18
ANEL (Syriza’s coalition partner): 10
Union of Centrists (newbies): 9
Perhaps the most notable outcome is that Popular Union, the breakaway Syriza faction, didn’t reach the 3% threshold for entry into Parliament. So, Tsipras managed to purge his party of its most committed leftists and suffered little for it. On the other hand, the abstention rate, which has been a major focus in the Greek media since the election, was unusually high – ca. 44%. Greeks are understandably disillusioned at this point and, reasonably enough, many have come to see these “exercises in democracy” as pointless pageantry.
So, what now? Well, one could try to be optimistic, I suppose, and put forward an argument along the lines of: New-model Syriza, a party now committed to the bailout/reform program of its creditors, was just returned to power with a renewed mandate, shorn of its hard-core leftists. The party doesn’t have connections to the old clientelistic system and it should be willing to confront these vested interests as directly as it did its European creditors over the first six months of the year. This is a party, after all, which talks constantly about the need to “battle” the diaplekomenoi (the “entangled”), the oligarchs who control so much of the Greek state, economy, media, and so on. Maybe they’ll do it now, and maybe they’ll succeed.
On the other hand, there’s a lot of room for pessimism right now, too, and you can count me in this camp. First, what does the new “bailout” program demand of Greece? The same things that the previous two did: deregulation (open the closed professions, liberalize product markets), privatization and the sale of state assets (major ports, the railway company, electric company, etc.), reform of the public sector (curtailing collective bargaining, layoffs, salary cuts, etc.), restructure of the judiciary, lots of tax increases, spending cuts, and pension reform. The austerity measures bundled into this package are sure to cause economic contraction, as they have for many years now in Greece (and elsewhere). And what of the structural reforms? Well, I’ll eschew any judgment here on whether they’re good or bad for Greece–we can leave that to the economists (though some are good and necessary, e.g. reform of the courts and judiciary). More to the point, is Syriza capable of implementing this reform program? Does Greece’s governing party have the technical skill and the human capital to do so? Are Greece’s institutions of state up to the task? No on both counts, I’m afraid. Syriza consists, predominantly, of people who have never governed before–a motley collection of leftists, former academics, activists, and so on–who have no experience managing much of anything, much less a country of 11 million that is being asked to restructure fundamentally its entire state, economy, and society. We can add to this that the institutions of state don’t tend to work well at all–in fact, they’re notoriously dysfunctional, something which every Greek knows all too well. So, on a structural level I simply cannot see how this ends well. Neither Syriza nor Greek institutions are up to the task.
We can add that Syriza remains – even in its new form – a party of the left, fundamentally. Their ideology and party platform are, in many ways, at odds with the neoliberal reform package contained in the third “bailout.” And, in fact, there is little public support for such reforms in Greece. The political center in Greece is much further to the left on the spectrum than here in the US. Greeks of many political persuasions simply don’t support neoliberal economic policies. They didn’t before the crisis, and they certainly don’t now. So, there’s likely to be a lack of ownership over the reform program at the political and popular level.
And what will Europe’s response be if (or when) the reform program goes off the rails (again)? Well, there seems to be no room for error moving forward, and it does seem to be the case that the creditor nations are at wit’s end with Greece. They’ve said so bluntly. They were also willing to discuss openly and formally Grexit scenarios for the first time back in June. That was a major step and indicates that patience with Greece has run out. I suspect that once Alexi and Co. start missing deadlines and failing their semi-regular comprehensive reviews, the EU will simply pull the plug and cut off the money supply. This would be a draconian thing to do, but the EU has demonstrated quite clearly that it’s perfectly capable of acting in this manner.
So what happens, politically, if Syriza suffers the same fate as the “pro-bailout” governments before it? Well, I’ll turn it over to Ilias…