A Citizen’s Guide to Greece 2015


February 17, 2015

The mandate, and other democratic myths

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Written by: DW

This past weekend the digital site of the French newspaper Le Monde ran an interesting story entitled, in translation,  “The Greece that did not vote for Syriza.” I cannot say the piece was faultless, but Eliza Perrigueur, the author, did good research and presented an interesting view of the Greek elections for a francophone audience.

The premise of the article was that there was considerable diversity among the voting public beyond those who, for one reason or another (we are not told), voted for Syriza. The only thing missing was a profile of the voter who cast a ballot in favor of the second highest scoring party, center-right New Democracy, the incumbents.

Reading this fascinating series of portraits, I was brought to pose I a fundamental question I had been grappling with since the last time Greeks went to the polls in a general election, twice back in the first half of 2012.

What is a mandate?

Alexis Tsipras, the leader of Syriza, claimed in 2012 that forces opposed to the second Memorandum had won the election, as Greece’s political establishment lurched from one hung parliament to the specter of another. That is, more Greeks voted against parties supporting the Memorandum than for.

Come January 2015, a similar tocsin was sounded. More Greeks were claimed to have voted against the regime of austerity than for. Aside from the fact that this was a very clever communications strategy on the part of front running Syriza, however, it was only half true at best.

Make no mistake, Syriza’s performance in the polls was stunning. They ran the best campaign by a large margin, they mobilized people and continue to do so, and they managed emit a message of hope in dark times. There was no hint of illegitimacy in their result. Popular opinion is currently solidly behind them. Given where Syriza were a few years ago, this is a triumph.

Was it victory, though? Can they claim the mandate they have claimed? Coming from a winner-take-all system, as I do, I have always had my doubts about the extent that any party can win an election in proportional representation. The current Greek case is no exception.

This is not the essence the case, however. There is a deeper systemic issue waiting to be addressed.

One of the standout stories from the 2012 elections, to my mind, was the exceedingly high incidence of absenteeism, by late twentieth-century Greek standards at least. The Athens based journalist Damian Mac Con Uladh pointed out on social media that more voters had stayed home than voted for New Democracy, the party which received the highest tally of votes. It would appear that anti-memorandum sentiment had been trumped by disgust for the political system (that, and perhaps the call of the seacoast on an early summer weekend).

It was later suggested that the percentage of absenteeism had been skewed by outdated voter rolls, that is, by a technical glitch of sorts. The conflicting data on the IDEA databases is indicative of this ongoing problem. This does not detract from the undeniable fact that voter turnout has been falling steadily from the early 90s till the present, with the greatest percentages of absenteeism coinciding with the unfolding if the crisis, in local, national, and European elections.

True to form, absenteeism hit close to 40% in 2015, again with more voters staying home than voted for the leading party. Moreover, despite the fifty-seat bonus that the top vote-getting party received, Syriza did not win a sufficient number of votes overall to form a self-standing government (no more than had New Democracy in 2012).

For the record, Syriza’s current mandate is 36% of the 64% of eligible voters who cast ballots. By my calculation, that makes less than 20% of the eligible electorate who voted for Syriza this last time around. There are a couple of ways of looking at this.

One privileges popular perception. During the emergency eurogroup meeting in Brussels on February 13, thousands of citizens rallied outside the Parliament building in Athens and elsewhere in Greece. A government spokesman claimed that 10,000,000 strong (the population of Greece) were behind the governments campaign to rid Greece of the reign of austerity. A wit posted the following fantasy maths equation on a social media site:

36% of 70% of 6,000,000 = 10,000,000

The party line coming out of Athens has been that the new government has a mandate to stop the austerity, to heed the voice of the people, which is soon to be a pan-European tempest blowing down the temples of neo-liberalism. One of these temples, the Economist, retorted thus about Syriza’s mandate:

Tom and Dick can’t vote that Harry must lend them money.

While we are trading in muddled definitions of democracy and sovereignty it might be useful also to consider questions of practice. The political system in this country is close to a state of crisis, not only because the Troika has been waiting for the government to rubber stamp their decisions (if this is actually what has been happening), not only because certain practices, like ministerial amendments, have become widespread and corrupted. A democracy without citizens who trust the integrity of the system enough to vote cannot long survive.

Without this there is little sense talking about a mandate.

Post scriptum: How many extremes?

At various moments during the tenure of Antonis Samaras as head of New Democracy, since late 2009, Samaras has sought to portray the political landscape in Greece as composed of two dangerous extremes, with the centrist New Democracy in the center. Thus one had Golden Dawn, an extreme right-wing party, on the one end of the spectrum, and Syriza, an extreme left-wing formation, to the left.

The myth of the two extremes, as was called by Syriza spokesmen, has persisted in much mainstream international news coverage of the current political scene. Meanwhile, the world according to Syriza sees just about everyone else to be waywardly right wing, and the purveyors of austerity (read: neo-liberal austerity) to be just as extreme as Golden Dawn. Again, this is clever rhetoric and if one hears it frequently enough one might come to accept it as fact. (There are many variations of conservativism in Greece, very little of which in fact is actually neo-liberal.)

I suspect that neither of these spectra are correct, however. When one considers the fluidity of the current political scene, the dramatic increase of the number of parties (old and new) that have actually seated MPs since the onset of the Greek sovereign debt crisis, the relative turnover among MPs, and the degree to which Greece is an outlier in Europe, it strikes one just how deficient the classic right-left schism is in the Greek context.



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