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.
But populist nationalism is not confined to the right. At least since the rule of the first Pasok prime minister, Andreas Papandreou, in the 1980s, parts of the Greek left have had a strong nationalist streak, rooted in the anti-imperialist opposition to the CIA-backed junta and to decades of cold war meddling in Greek politics. Now, with Greece’s sovereignty once again hemmed in by foreign powers, those buttons are easy to push, and make for strange bedfellows. Politicians of all stripes reach for ugly metaphors of disease and war. In April Pasok ministers called the migrants in Athens a “hygenic time bomb” and began turning military bases into detention centers. A Russian prostitute who tested HIV-positive was locked up on criminal charges and had her picture plastered all over the media; when several Greek hookers were also found to be carriers, the immigration panic morphed into a moral one. Half the worried johns who called a public helpline turned out to be—shock, horror—married men, carrying infection into the heart of the “Greek family.”
Alexis Tsipras, the young leader of Syriza, the Coalition of the Radical Left, also plays the nationalist card (though he has never stooped to anti-immigrant rhetoric) and explicitly claims the mantle of the old populist PASOK—which is why, despite his recent embrace by the US media as a possible king-maker, I can’t bring myself to trust him. Together the three left parties in Greece—the neo-Stalinist KKE, the social democratic DIMAR and the hybrid Syriza—have polled at 37 percent. (There is also the Green Ecology party, perhaps the only one to take a truly global view, which is also likely to win its first seats in parliament.) Though pigs would fly before the KKE cooperates with any other party, and Dimar split from Syriza in 2007, Tsipras has made repeated overtures towards a coalition; some on the left have hailed this as the promise of a new dawn. Pasok leader Evangelos Venizelos launched a full frontal attack on him today, a sure sign he’s becoming a significant threat.
Tsipras has said that his first act if elected would be to cancel the EU/IMF memorandum and, “with the people backing us on the streets,” tell the European Commission that the Greeks demand a policy of redistribution and growth; otherwise Spain and Italy will follow Greece into despair, leading to the inevitable breakup of the Eurozone. The old liberal politicians are horrified by his nods to Chávez and Allende and his cheerful embrace of the masses on the streets, as are the reformers gathered in Dimar and in one or two small pro-European “modernizing” parties. I admire his chutzpah—someone should have taken such a stand many moons ago—and envy his certainty, but I can’t help feeling that it’s not going to be that simple. Without a wider European shift away from austerity and democratic reform of Greece’s political culture and economy (along lines which have hardly begun to be discussed), there’s no way out of this labyrinth for many years to come.
For Europe as a whole though, perhaps the most important fact about the Greek election is that almost all the candidates see support for austerity as political suicide. Samaras has promised to renegotiate some of the terms of the bailout and to halve unemployment in three years; even Venizelos has vowed to bring Greece “out of the memorandum” in the same period while slowing the pace of reform. The old parties reach deep and will die hard, but the air is crackling with rage against the politicians who drove the country’s economy into the ground, called in the IMF and let the heaviest blows fall on the most vulnerable. How Greeks will vote on Sunday remains an open question. The likeliest outcome is an inconclusive vote, followed by days or weeks of tortuous negotiations. What happens after that depends to some extent on what happens elsewhere Europe. But the opposite is also true: coupled with the election of Hollande in France, a strong anti-austerity vote in Greece may well push the Eurocrisis round another corner. There is no way to know what’s waiting for us there: the maiden or the minotaur, a new commitment to growth, solidarity and investment or a convulsive break-up of the Eurozone.