“Democracy No Longer Matters in the EU”: An Analysis of the Greek Election

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras giving his last public speech before the Greek elections, Athens, Greece, Sept. 18.Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras giving his last public speech before the Greek elections, in Athens, Greece on September 18, 2015. (Photo: Bill Anastasiou / Shutterstock.com)

On September 20, amid record-high abstention, early Greek parliamentary elections were held, bringing Syriza and Alexis Tsipras back to power in a new coalition with the right-wing Independent Greeks Party (ANEL). Despite the collapse of the previous Syriza-led coalition government over the summer following its betrayal of the overwhelming referendum result, which rejected further troika-imposed austerity, Syriza managed to emerge victorious with barely a decline in its electoral share, albeit with a much smaller pool of voters casting ballots in these snap elections.

What does this electoral result mean for Greece though, and does this re-elected government have staying power? Political analyst and journalist Dimitri Lascaris of The Real News Network, who has closely monitored the political developments in Greece during the crisis, shares his insights into the election results, voter behavior, the failure of the breakaway Popular Unity Party to enter parliament, and the likelihood of this new government remaining in place for more than a few months. Additionally, he discusses his own candidacy in the upcoming Canadian parliamentary elections as a member of the Green Party and draws some parallels between the political situations in Greece and Canada.

Michael Nevradakis: After a tumultuous political summer in Greece, during which we saw the Syriza-led government turn its back on the referendum result of July 5, where Greek voters resoundingly rejected austerity, we saw those same Greek voters bring Syriza back to power, with barely a decline in its share of the vote compared to January’s elections. Are you surprised by this result?

Dimitri Lascaris: I am surprised that they didn’t suffer more losses in terms of the popular vote. However, I am not surprised, given the sad state of the Greek political landscape, that they emerged as the party with the most votes. The options, frankly, were not particularly attractive, and the one that I think was most disappointing from my perspective – I would have hoped that it would have performed better – was Popular Unity. Not because Popular Unity is necessarily ready to take power – it was a party that was remarkably formed just shortly after the election was called – and I’ve never, in my experience, seen a party perform well after it comes into existence following the calling of an election. Parties need to have organizational infrastructure in place; they need to have funding in place; they need time in order to contend, and Popular Unity had none of that. So it’s not surprising they didn’t have a dominant share, but I would have thought at least they could have exceeded the 3 percent threshold.

“It’s not at all surprising that you would see a record-low turnout after the democratic choice of the Greek people was completely squashed.”

This may have something to do with their choice of leader. I don’t know if an alternative was available to them or not, but I think if they had put someone like Zoe Konstantopoulou in the leadership position, they would have almost certainly performed better. I think she has proven herself to be a person, certainly by the standards of the Greek Parliament, of incredible integrity and conviction. She seems to command a great deal of respect amongst the Greek electorate, and she would have constituted a break with the male-dominated past of Greek politics, and so perhaps that would have helped them get over the threshold and garner a larger share of the vote. But at the end of the day, there was no party that I think was really well positioned, that had the infrastructure in place to challenge Syriza in the sorry landscape of Greek politics.

What other factors do you believe may account for the electoral failure of Popular Unity?

As I understand it, there was a failure, to some degree at least, of the anti-austerity forces of the left to unite. My understanding is that there was some movement from the anti-capitalist front Antarsya to Popular Unity, but there wasn’t a complete union of those political forces, and of course you have KKE (Communist Party of Greece) remaining aloof of the attempts to unify the anti-austerity left. I think if there had been a true united political front put up, then there undoubtedly would have been a much better performance by the true anti-austerity forces in Greece, and I certainly don’t count Syriza, as it’s currently constituted, as part of that movement. So I think that had something to do with it.

One of the big stories coming out of this election is the very high abstention level, the highest in Greece in almost 70 years. What do you make of this? Do you believe that those eligible voters who did not participate in the elections were attempting to send their own message to the political system?

Certainly some of them were probably of that mind. Others may have just given up, frankly. If anything has been learned over the last eight or nine months since the election of Syriza, it’s that democracy doesn’t matter anymore in the European Union, particularly if you are a voter in one of the so-called “peripheral countries” like Greece, which has very little influence within the EU.

It’s not at all surprising that you would see a record-low turnout after the democratic choice of the Greek people was completely squashed. There was a resounding and historic vote in excess of 60 percent in the face of intense pressure to reject the so-called “bailout” that was on the table in early July, and what did the Greek people end up with? They ended up with something worse than what they rejected, and I think it’s actually worse by a wide margin. In those circumstances, why would anyone have any confidence in the democratic process in Greece?

At the end of the day, what we get is that Alexis Tsipras attained the vote of 20 percent of eligible voters. So if he thinks he has some kind of resounding mandate to now proceed with this inhumane austerity program, I think frankly the man lives on another planet.

What type of government do you believe will be formed in Greece in the aftermath of the election, and how long do you believe this new coalition will last?

Well, it appears that the prior coalition partner, the Independent Greeks (ANEL), will again be the coalition partner of Syriza in the new government. You know, if we weren’t dealing with an agreement – a so-called “bailout” agreement that is going to have devastating effects on an already ravished Greek economy – I would say that this coalition would have some prospect of lasting for several years. But the reality is quite different. The slashing; the further reduction in pension benefits; the primary surplus targets which are simply and irrationally aggressive; the additional taxes, consumption taxes and income taxes that are being imposed upon the population; the privatization program, which is going to result in a fire sale of key Greek assets; all of these things are going to exacerbate the economic difficulties in Greece. It’s already dealing with Depression-era levels of unemployment, and in my view, there is no realistic prospect whatsoever of Greece obtaining the debt relief that it requires in order for its debt to become sustainable.

“The eurozone has austerity baked into its DNA.”

The German government has been quite clear that a write-down is out of the question, and officials even said that there may be some minor tweaking of the interest rates, which is possible, but they really don’t have any appetite for that. All they’re really talking about doing is extending the maturities on Greek debt, and that is going to be a very marginal benefit to the Greek people because, as I understand it, the next debt principal payment dates are in 2022. So if you extend out the maturities modestly, which is what the German government is talking about doing, it’s going to be of no significant benefit to the government fiscally for the next six years, and when a country is in a depression, that’s an eternity, six years. And certainly this government has no prospect of lasting six years.

So what we’re going to find, very soon, is the Greek debt drama will again resurface; it will again become apparent, no matter what modest debt relief is afforded to Greece, that that debt is unsustainable, and it’s wildly unsustainable. That this program that’s being imposed on the Greek people has no prospect of lifting Greece out of its depression and will, in fact, exacerbate it, and when all of that becomes readily apparent, as it soon will, we are going to find ourselves again in a world of immense political instability in Greece and that government will fall. And at that point, all bets are off as to what could happen.

Many of us have feared that the extreme right will eventually become a much more potent political force. It’s already a force that has a frightening level of support amongst the population, at around 7 percent. It’s now the third party in parliament. That’s really a raging indictment against the European Union, that a vehemently neo-Nazi party could command that level of support in a country in the EU. So, what happens when that government falls, as it will in I think a reasonably short order, is really uncertain and could cause us all to rue the day that the European Union was created.

How can the Greek people and the anti-memorandum forces in Greece mobilize and regroup and gain a stronger foothold in the Greek political landscape, especially if the current government doesn’t last very long?

I think the forces of the left have to demonstrate themselves capable of significantly improving the day-to-day lives of the people, and through cooperative networks, [and] grassroots efforts, it’s possible to inspire a greater level of confidence amongst the Greek electorate. But the sad reality is, in the current environment, it’s very, very difficult for any political force in Greece to make a meaningful difference in the lives of the Greek people. There has to be, ultimately, either a withdrawal from the eurozone, which itself invites quite significant risks and many would say potentially catastrophic risks for the Greek economy, or there has to be a wholesale change in the architecture of the eurozone.

Right now, the eurozone has austerity baked into its DNA, and it’s dominated by political forces that are absolutely determined, in the face of a mountain of economic evidence to the contrary, to pursue austerity throughout the EU and to continue to weaken the rights of workers, [and] to continue to favor large business interests over the population. As long as that is the political landscape in the eurozone, and as long as Greece remains within the eurozone, any political force in Greece, however well intentioned it is, is going to be extremely limited in what it can do.

You are a candidate in the upcoming Canadian parliamentary elections with the Green Party. Share with us a few words about your campaign.

To give you some context, the Green Party in Canada currently commands a little less than 5 percent of the popular vote. The party in power, the Conservative Party of Canada, is without a doubt, the most neoliberal, right-wing government that this country has ever seen, and certainly that it has seen in the post-World War II period. The government that’s currently in power seems to have one overarching objective, and that is to convert Canada into a petrostate superpower, and for that purpose has bended or altered the laws to favor the tar sands industry, which is concentrated in the province of Alberta. That party has, through the pursuit of these policies, earned a very high level of opposition and hostility from the vast majority of the electorate. It’s currently commanding about 30 percent of popular support.

The problem is that the other political forces are divided. It’s not dissimilar to what you see in Greece, although the level of division is not quite as acute as it is in Greece. There are three significant parties opposing the Conservative government. The first is the Liberal Party; the second is the New Democratic Party (NDP), which historically has been the social democratic force in Canadian politics; and then there’s the Green Party. I chose the Green Party for one simple reason, and that is – those two parties, the Liberals and the NDP – have become the parties of the status quo. This country faces quite severe problems, and at the very top of the list is climate change. We all face that problem, and there is absolutely no appetite in the leadership of the NDP or the Liberals to confront that problem; they in fact are openly advocating for an expansion of the tar sands. They favor, to varying degrees, the construction of pipeline infrastructure that would facilitate the expansion of the tar sands.

There’s a very telling and sad development in Canadian politics: The NDP threw one of its star candidates, Linda McQuaig, based in Canada’s largest city, Toronto, under the bus a month ago because she had the courage to state a simple scientific fact, which is that in order for us to avoid catastrophic climate change, we’re going to have to leave the majority of the oil underground. I mean, this is just science; this is not a political judgment. When she said this, the leadership rushed to the microphones because she came under fierce attack from the right, and said that’s not part of the NDP platform. So here you have Canada’s so-called social democratic party saying that science is not part of its platform, and basic humanity is not part of its platform, because the consequence of it rejecting the science will be a disaster for humanity.

Quite apart from that, the NDP, under a gentleman by the name of Tom Mulcair, has begun to look increasingly like the current government. The NDP favors, for example, democracy-destroying trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and there’s a similar agreement under negotiation with Europe in fact, the Canada-European trade agreement. These agreements contain investor-state dispute resolution provisions that will effectively give multinational corporations the ability to obtain huge judgments, potentially multibillion-dollar judgments against Canada, when it adopts legislation that’s economically and environmentally beneficial for the citizens.

And the people who are going to be deciding whether these judgments ought to be rendered against the Canadian government are going to be corporate lawyers, the very people who are enriched by the activities of the multinationals, who will be suing the government of Canada in the future. So these provisions – these investor-state dispute resolution mechanisms – are horrible for our democracy, are fundamentally antithetical to the principles of social democracy, and when we have the leader of the so-called social democratic party, Tom Mulcair, saying publicly a few weeks ago that his party now enthusiastically supports the Trans-Pacific Partnership and, in fact, it supported a recent agreement between South Korea and Canada, which contained essentially the same type of provisions.

So, what we have here is similar to what we are seeing in Greece, a wasteland in the political scene, and there’s only one party that is truly offering transformative change, and that’s the Green Party, and that’s why I’ve decided to run for them. Of course, we don’t have the advantages of the money, the financial support that the other parties receive, particularly the conservatives, and we don’t have the benefit of media sympathy. Like Europe and like the United States, Canada has a high level of corporate concentration in the media. The people who run the media here frankly have an agenda, in my view, that is inconsistent with the objectives of the Green Party, and so we’re constantly having to battle against those forces and our leader, who has been given one opportunity in this election to debate the other leaders, and who I think was universally or almost universally viewed as having been the winner of that debate, has been shut out of subsequent debates by various shenanigans, by the media and the main political parties. Her name is Elizabeth May, [and] she’s widely admired across the political spectrum in Canada, but she can’t get in front of the microphone nearly often enough in order to convey to the electorate what the party has to offer and why we are the party the people of Canada should support in order to save the future of our children.