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The Forces of “Stability” Win in Greece; Social Disintegration Continues

Over the last months the three coalition parties had formed an unofficial group centered on the idea that Greece should remain in the Eurozone at all costs.

“I ask the Greek people to demonstrate their patriotism, national unity, and trust that with the help of god we can do our best to exit this crisis as soon as possible.” This first official statement of Antonis Samaras, the winner of the elections on Sunday, marks Greece’s entrance into a twilight zone of renewed conservatism. The right-wing New Democracy managed to win the elections—gaining 30 percent of the popular vote and 129 seats in parliament—and now has formed a coalition government with the participation of the center-left PASOK, which won 12 percent of the vote and thirty-three seats, and the moderate Democratic Left, at 6 percent with seventeen seats.

To those unfamiliar with the situation in Greece, this might seem a strange coalition of forces, but it is not; over the last months these three parties had formed an unofficial group centered on the idea that Greece should remain in the Eurozone at all costs, while striving to reform the memoranda that have been negotiated with the European Central Bank and the IMF. Their cooperation after the election demonstrates how a new polarization around these “bailout” agreements has altered the dominant political dichotomies of the past.

The election results also reflect Greece’s rising social polarization due to the disintegrating effects of the depression. The relatively crisis-immune agrarian Greece, elite and upper-middle-class suburbs, pensioners, and housewives voted for New Democracy. SYRIZA, the leftist coalition that transformed the Greek political scene and gained 27 percent in this election, was supported by the working-class neighborhoods of Athens and Piraeus, along with those that have less to lose and not much to hope for—the youth, civil servants, and small businesspeople competing with “big business.” These are two worlds apart: voters for New Democracy and its partners wanted stability, feared the exodus of Greece from the Eurozone, and detested the leftist rhetoric of SYRIZA; the others were united in their opposition to the memorandum, but from various standpoints—from the radical Left to those who wanted to express their despair but cared less about a specific political program. At the end of the day, the “silent majority” for stability prevailed. Only some dozens of supporters of New Democracy were in Syntagma Square to applaud Samaras upon his victory.

The lack of enthusiastic support for New Democracy reflects its lack of aspirations and a political program for the day after the election. Like many traditional right-wing parties, New Democracy banked on fear: the “perils” of a possible SYRIZA victory, the “danger” of returning to the drachma, the “threat of illegal immigrants,” and the “insecurity” of everyday life. It was a successful choice, but not one conducive to creating an atmosphere of excitement and hope. New Democracy has guaranteed the prolongation of the current stalemate, with the possibility of minor concessions—a proposition that appealed to those who feared that worse days were ahead if SYRIZA won. In the ten days preceding the elections, New Democracy, with the support of the mass media, managed to present SYRIZA as the equivalent of the Bolsheviks and at the same time as a bunch of amateurs from the “loony Left.”

These were not only tactical maneuvers. They correspond to the rising anti-immigrant and anti-left tendencies in Greek society, a parallel and antithetical development to the growth of leftist radicalism. In 2004, when the conservative Konstantinos Karamanlis came to power, he and his party made overtures to the Left in the name of forgetting a contentious past. The present-day militancy of the conservative Right and its determination to “uproot” the “ideological hegemony of the Left” point to divisions that have less to do with the past than with contemporary challenges. New Democracy emerged as the legitimate institutional medium for expressing these tendencies.

The election results attest to the fact that economic depression does not lead automatically to progressive change. For months commentators focused on the rise of the Greek Left, paying less attention to the growing anti-political and nationalistic tendencies that targeted the old political order, interpreted the crisis in conjunction with immigration, and mixed despair with hatred. For the time being, New Democracy has managed to claim the mantle of these new forces by proposing a conservative social agenda and promising to halt further financial decline. It is more than plausible that the new government will emphasize social issues to skirt around an economic deadlock; if it does achieve a minor revision of the memorandum, it will be presented as a “national success.” Samaras is experienced in this field. He was instrumental in the nationalistic fervor of the early 1990s regarding the Republic of Macedonia. In forming the new government, New Democracy eagerly designated technocrats, such as the promising Vasilis Rapanos, to financial positions, while retaining the ministries of Public Order and Interior Affairs for its hard-line, right-wing representatives.

The far-right Independent Greeks and the neo-Nazis of Golden Dawn retained sizeable percentages of the vote (7.5 and 6.9 percent, respectively), but they remain outside the new governing coalition. The success of Golden Dawn has been met with the usual hypocritical cries about the “danger of extremes,” with no actual discussion of the links between the established political order and this paramilitary formation. When it comes to immigration issues it is difficult to distinguish between the dominant rhetoric concerning the “invasion of illegal immigrants” and the “extremist” slogan of Golden Dawn: “Immigrants out of Greece.” In this context, Golden Dawn seems merely to guarantee implementation of the “law and order” on the streets of Athens that other forces on the right also wish for; it isn’t a coincidence that Golden Dawn has a strong following among the police force. During a popular TV show earlier this month Ilias Kasidiaris, a Golden Dawn MP, physically attacked two female MPs from left-wing parties, and many thought that this action would deter those that had voted for Golden Dawn in May. But Kasidiaris was re-elected, and many praised his action as an attack on a corrupt political order.

These developments do not signify the end of what’s been called the “short summer of the Left,” but they highlight its insufficiencies. Over the last weeks unemployment has risen again, violent attacks on immigrants have become a daily routine, and hospitals have moved to the edge of collapse. Even though the Left has no responsibility for this social disintegration, condemning the consequences of austerity measures—even from the most radical standpoint—is futile if not accompanied by action: a social and political movement that will link particular changes and demands with a coherent agenda of alternative policies. This missing link, evident in the inability of the Left to respond convincingly when challenged over the European Union and the euro, was a decisive factor in the elections. That link will be necessary if the Left is to become not merely an ethical force on the outskirts of society, but a political force demanding change.