How do you hold an election in a country that has lost its sovereignty, its sense of its own past and its imagined future? What promises can discredited politicians sell, in the fifth year of recession, to people whose wages have vanished or plummeted by a third, pensioners living on less than 300 euros a month, a younger generation facing one job between two?
Greece goes to the polls on Sunday, the same day as France, which is predicted to elect a Socialist president who has vowed to renegotiate the German austerity-driven European fiscal compact. If Hollande, in partnership with Spain and Italy, can add weight to the growing consensus against austerity, the French election may turn out to matter more for Greeks than their own. The economic crisis has exposed a crisis of representation: even the control nation states used to imagine they had over their own affairs has been sacrificed to the power of the financial markets. At the same time, in Greece, the collapse has completely discredited the two mainstream parties that have alternated in power since the colonels’ dictatorship fell in 1974—the center-left Pasok and the center-right New Democracy—laying bare the corruption and stagnation of the whole clientelist system. In Greek, “thief” is almost a synonym now for “politician.”
This is partly a local phenomenon, a consequence of the particular deformations of Greek politics, but it’s also part of a wider European pattern. From the Netherlands to France to Portugal people are losing faith in the old political elites, who have failed to protect democracy, hard-won rights and basic solvency from the financial markets and the impact of globalization. In the strange, shifting landscape of the Greek election campaign, in which thirty-two parties are running and nine or ten are expected to enter parliament, the deepest rift has opened not between left and right but between pro- and anti-Memorandum forces—between those committed to the EU/IMF bailout program and the Eurozone at any cost, and those prepared to take a leap of faith into an uncertain future, betting against the continuation of austerity politics and perhaps of the euro itself.
In Greece, as elsewhere (France, the Netherlands, Italy, Finland, even Britain) the anti-austerity camp includes the nationalist far right. This Sunday the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn—which escorts old ladies to cash machine and beats up immigrants, which sells protection to shopkeepers and harbours Holocaust deniers, whose symbol is the ancient Greek meander, shaped rather like a swastika, in black on a red ground—is almost certain to win seats, for the first time, in parliament. New Democracy’s leader, Antonis Samaras, has pandered shamelessly to the far right’s supporters: if he can’t win their votes, he may well need their parties (Golden Dawn, the Popular Orthodox Rally and the new Independent Greeks, led by a former New Democracy politican who thinks Greece should look to Vladimir Putin for salvation) to prop up a minority government. His rallies have been a sea of blue and white Greek flags (the same flags that were waved by some of the aganaktismenoi in Syntagma last summer before the anti-austerity movement started to fragment); he has vowed to protect the church and religious education as the core of Greek identity and to repeal a law giving citizenship rights to the children of legal immigrants. One of his campaign ads features Aghia Sophia in Istanbul, the lost heart of Byzantium and symbol of Greek irredentism, with its Ottoman minarets conveniently cropped away.