Greeks Go To The Polls

Germany’s minimal role in the Greek elections

27/04/2012 | von Nick Malkoutzis

Kategorie: Financial Crisis, Economy and Finance, Greece, Southern Europe, Europe

The effects of the eurozone crisis have been felt around the world, but it is Europe’s periphery that has been hit hardest. Staggering levels of debt and rising unemployment have brought social unrest and a re-think of the EU structure. In this dispatch from Athens, Nick Malkoutzis continues our VIEW FROM THE PERIPHERY series.

Henning Kettel, CC BY

The message to Greeks from outgoing Prime Minister Lucas Papademos as he announced the May 6 parliamentary elections was pretty blunt. Amid the rise of the smaller parties opposing the terms of Greece’s bailout, he warned voters to “choose the path that would secure the country’s place in the eurozone and the European Union.”

The truth, though, is that Greeks will face an infinitely more complicated choice when they enter polling booths in a few weeks time. The two parties that line the path described by Papademos are PASOK and New Democracy. They are the same two parties that have ruled Greece since 1974, presided over the ballooning of the country’s public debt, constructed an inefficient public sector, and failed to create a competitive economy. Voting for them now would be almost like absolving them of all their sins.

Yet many view the prospect of not supporting the main pillars of the Greek democratic system with some dread. They fear that if political instability follows the elections and Greece finds it difficult to keep up with the pace of structural reforms and fiscal targets being demanded by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, the country’s future in the eurozone, and its prospects in general, will be put in serious doubt.

Almost every opinion poll indicates that a clear majority of Greeks want to remain in the euro and, most definitely, in the European Union. In fact, many see membership of the single currency as their tether to the Union and perhaps the best hope of the country executing the reforms that many people support.

However, they have to balance this with their current reality, which is that the economic crisis and the fiscal austerity favored by Germany and others in the eurozone is having devastating consequences. A day after Papademos confirmed the date of the elections, January’s unemployment figures showed the rate has risen to 21.8 percent, double what it was just two years ago. Greece is experiencing its fifth year of recession and about 1,000 jobs are being lost a day as shops and businesses are no longer able to survive in an environment where customers are strapped for cash and the market is short of liquidity. Struggling to raise tax revenues, the government has taken wild swings at expenditure, slashing everything for its public investment program to spending on education, social benefits, and medicines.

It has become impossible to disassociate the negative impact of the fiscal adjustment program from the role of the EU and Germany in particular. A damaging pattern was established in the way that the bailout was executed, with each installment being released only after a fresh round of furious negotiations between Athens and the troika of the European Commission, European Central Bank, and the IMF. The frequent, critical, and even conflicting comments from politicians in Berlin that accompanied each inspection eroded trust and fomented antagonism. It caused great consternation that each troika visit should bring new fiscal measures and fresh criticism of Greece, especially since taxpayers were making the sacrifices demanded of them. Each inspection appeared to take Greece further away from recovery and deeper into uncertainty.

The cumulative effect of this has been to leave Greek society troubled and divided: troubled about where the country is heading and divided about which direction it should head in. Through this fog of crisis, some parties have emerged to adopt a strong line against the EU-IMF memorandum and, in some cases, Germany. The Communist Party (KKE) is the only one that has publicly stated it wants Greece to leave the euro and the EU. The Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) is opposed to the austerity that comes with the bailout and has attacked Germany for advocating such policies. The Democratic Left has a more pro-European stance but is highly skeptical of Germany’s role and advocates more emphasis on growth.

On the right, the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS), briefly a member of the interim government, has woven anti-German rhetoric into its populist message. But even its nationalist posturing has been eclipsed by the Independent Greeks, a recently formed party that has picked up on the frustration with the EU and Germany, and has based its existence around it. One of the party’s main policies is pursuing Germany for the repayment of a Second World War loan and damages from the Nazi occupation.

This sort of rhetoric has increased over the last few months and it seems to be working for the Independent Greeks, who have surged in the opinion polls. An opinion poll that was broadcast just minutes after Papademos’ address showed the fledgling party with an unlikely 11 percent. Its rise has led to support for New Democracy falling to 19 percent, according to the same survey by Public Issue. PASOK has also seen many of its voters drift to the left. SYRIZA has 13 percent, Democratic Left 12, and KKE 11, leaving PASOK with 14.5 percent. LAOS garnered just 3 percent.

If these results are replicated on May 6, it will lead to nine parties entering Parliament, no group with a clear majority, and PASOK and New Democracy short of the seats they would need to form a coalition government. It would be a rare form of political gridlock at a crucial juncture for Greece, but the fragmentation we are seeing is simply the projection of Greeks’ shattered dreams and jumbled thoughts. Their confidence in their government, their parties, their European partners, and themselves has been jolted by the crisis. This has caused desperation and some voters are clinging to the populist lifelines—often threaded with anti-German rhetoric—that have been dangled in front of them.

However, it is vital that this trend is not misinterpreted. Although growing, the parties that adopt this language and these positions do not represent a majority of the Greek electorate. Also, the May elections will be more about trying to find solutions rather than scapegoats. Parties like the Independent Greeks are weak in this department.

In a recent interview with CBS, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble justified the anger some Greeks feel towards Germany by saying “people tend to push the blame to others” when they have to adopt tough measures as a result of living beyond their means. But most Greeks are not looking to blame Germany for causing their problems. For three decades New Democracy and PASOK usually garnered at least 80 percent of the vote but will struggle to get 40 at this election—this is a clear indication that Greeks know full well where the blame for their problems lies. The real issue at the ballot box and in the months to come will be whether these problems are being addressed in the best way. In this respect, Germany’s role is under scrutiny and the part it has to play significant.

NICK MALKOUTZIS is deputy editor of Kathimerini English Edition newspaper (http://www.ekathimerini.com/) and blogs at Inside Greece (http://insidegreece.wordpress.com/).

 

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