Monday, 21 September 2015

Rocking the Cradle of Democracy

Elections are considered the hallmark of representative democracy. Their essential function is to allow voters to hold existing politicians accountable and to select their future representatives. Yet, the true quality of a democracy is not in direct proportion to the number of elections and electoral contests.

This much has been clearly evidenced by recent political developments in Greece, a small member state of the European Union, the Eurozone, and NATO. After the new round of national elections called for next month, Greek voters will have been summoned to the ballot seven times since May 2012.

Since the onset of the Greek debt crisis and the signing of the first bailout agreement in May 2010 between Greece and its creditors (EU member states, the IMF, and the ECB), the Greek political system has degenerated from a solid two-and-a-half party system to a fluid and unstable type of multiparty parliamentary democracy, characterized by high levels of political polarization and party fragmentation.

European integration in its current resurgent form of intergovernmentalism - polarized between debtor and creditor nations and bedeviled by declining levels of output legitimacy - has had a subversive influence on the quality and effectiveness of the Greek political system.

Ironically enough, the country’s democratic transition and the consolidation of its fledgling democracy in the late 70s and 80s have been historically attributed to the country's accession to the European Community (EC) in 1981. The economic benefits of the Single Market, the growth-enhancing inflow of structural funds, and the transposition of the EC's high-standard body of rules and directives helped shape a wide pro-European consensus and a moderate political center vacillating between the center-left Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) and the center-right New Democracy.

These two catch-all parties dominated Greek politics throughout the first three and a half decades of post-dictatorial democratic rule, building in the process a collusive system of patronage, clientelism, and corruption. This political cartel, however, proved unable to withstand the unassailable dual forces of global markets and mass protest movements, namely globalization and its discontents.

SYRIZA, as a coalition of radical social movements, came to the forefront of Greek politics with a firebrand political agenda against globalization, the neoliberal bias of economic integration, and the deleterious effects of austerity and unsustainable debt. The embattled pro-European moderates came under fire from the empowered extremes both on the left and right (especially with the rise of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party). SYRIZA’s meteoric rise in the polls finally culminated in the election of the first left-wing government in Greece (and continental Europe) in the recent elections of January 2015.

SYRIZA was elected on a ticket of austerity reversal, debt relief, and humanitarian aid all within the strict confines of the Eurozone. The rigid rules of monetary integration and fiscal coordination, coupled with the declining legitimacy and trust in European institutions, finally gave way to a new strand of political populism against the neoliberal dictates of globalization and regionalism. According to the official party narrative, SYRIZA was giving voice to the disenchanted, disenfranchised, and newly pauperized masses that had fallen prey to the vagaries of global capitalism.

Greece suddenly found itself in the eye of the storm and the epicenter of a political earthquake of potentially global reach. The saga of the Greek bailout negotiations started with the election of the SYRIZA government in January and ended in the third Greek bailout agreement on July 12 following a dramatic concatenation of events including the closure of banks, the imposition of capital controls, and the resounding victory of ‘No’ in a dubious and ill-timed referendum on a draft proposal by the European Commission.

This is the third rescue package offered to Greece by its international creditors. It effectively amounts to a liquidity-dripping cash-for-reforms bailout agreement that also includes a somewhat more concrete commitment to assessing the sustainability of Greek debt and possibly agreeing to some form of debt restructuring or reprofiling.

Although the latest bailout program was passed through parliament with the widest level of legislative support (garnering a total of 222 votes - out of 300 - from government backbenchers and moderate pro-European opposition MPs), it has prima facie the lowest level of political ownership. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ narrative has been that this explosive mixture of austerity measures and structural reforms was forced upon him in the form of a take-it-or-leave-it offer, with disorderly default as the only alternative, while moderate pro-European opposition parties have been distancing themselves from this third rescue package, being that they had no input in the negotiation process.

Alexis Tsipras’ solution to overcoming this predicament and bestowing some democratic legitimacy to a policy package, in which he avowedly does not believe, has been to resign and call a new round of snap elections less than eight months after his election to office in January. In light of the rebellion of 44 of his own backbenchers who did not vote in favor of the third bailout and the creation of a new anti-bailout splinter party from the left flank of SYRIZA, the PM has been all too keen to go back to the polls aiming to gain a clear democratic mandate for the implementation of the proposed reforms.

SYRIZA’s ideological rhetoric and policies on issues such as debt renegotiation, immigration, and the environment showcase the ambivalence of a resurgent strand of European populism towards globalization and economic integration. The new government seems to be perfecting the politics of victimhood by unabashedly exposing the country to the full brunt of unfettered market forces, capital flight, and migration flows. This new brand of left statism is adopting policies of immiseration and pauperization at the expense of the beleaguered private sector in order to create a new state-dependent proletariat class, to enfranchise mass protest movements, and thus to accelerate the process of systemic change from within.

Alas, the so-called ‘cradle of democracy’ is being rocked as a result of the tightening policy constraints of globalization and economic integration. Yet, current developments in Greece may end up somehow redefining the practice of national democratic politics within the confines of regional and global governance structures.

Dr Nikitas Konstantinidis, University Lecturer in International Political Economy, University of Cambridge, Department of Politics and International Studies

This note has been also published at The Indian Express

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