Elections can be very anticlimactic: after more than two years of living under siege, the Greek people are expected to channel their immense frustration and anger by putting an envelope into a box. Yet as we approach May 6, it is also clear that after complaining about everything under the sun – corruption, politicians, the troika, the Germans, speculators, high taxes, tax evasion, rising crime – the political system is now telling the average citizen, “OK, what do you want? No more pretenses, no more whining and yelling. What do you actually want?” And the answer to that question is incredibly complicated.
My sense is that it is incredibly complicated for two reasons. The first is that the stakes are enormous. Politicians often say that their country is “at a crossroads” or that their country “has to choose between two paths.” Mostly, this is hot air. But in this election, it is clearly true. Faced with the deepest political, economic, social and moral crisis that most Greeks have ever experienced, our choice does matter greatly. One can imagine a very wide range of outcomes after the election – from a gradual degeneration of the state and society to a rapid return to economic growth and prosperity. Rarely are the stakes so high in an election.
If importance is one reason, ambivalence is another. It is hard to know exactly what we’re voting for. Are we voting for the rival programs of the different parties? Are we voting in favor of or merely against something? Are we going to the polls to pick a future or to condemn the past? Does our vote even matter since the two big parties both supported the second bailout? Are we meant to vote for whom we like best or should we vote strategically given what the polls say? If the parliament has eight or nine parties, will our country even be governable?
These are haunting questions for a people to ask just a few days before an election. But they are also real questions that deserve serious thinking. I can’t pretend I have all the answers but I too have been wrestling with those questions as I prepare to cast my vote next Sunday. So I wanted to share what conclusions I have reached over the past few weeks.
First, I do think that these elections matter and matter a lot. Yes, our government has made a series of commitments to the Europeans and to the IMF, and these commitments limit the sovereignty of any new government. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves. We have many choices that remain – choices both within our current path and outside of it. There are always choices. One of the refreshing consequences of the current crisis is how vigorously we have been able to debate ideas that were merely taboo a few years ago. But the crisis has also shown that in desperation, no idea sounds too crazy; and the more desperate the people, the more open they are to crazy ideas.
So yes, we have choices – many choices. We can choose to unilaterally default on all our loans. We can choose to leave the Eurozone and even the European Union. We can debase our own wealth. We can choose to raise taxes on the rich and we can use the system to confiscate their property. We can prosecute politicians whether or not they are corrupt. We can send the police to round up immigrants and expel them. We can close our borders and try to shut ourselves from the forces of international competition. We have many choices indeed and no one should underestimate just how wide the field of action has become.
Even within the memorandum, we have choices. The memorandum is a live document – it is negotiated and re-negotiated, as conditions change, as targets are met or missed, and it has to be implemented. If the last two years taught us anything, it is that no country can improve its lot merely by signing a piece of paper (although it can certainly worsen it). Implementation, a commitment to change, competency and courage – these are all important even when the destination is fixed. But the destination is hardly fixed so they become more important still.
With so many choices, do we vote for whom we want or do we vote based on what we read in the polls? In general, I think there is a case for a “strategic vote,” but only in limited cases. I can see the argument for a strategic vote in the 2000 US Elections for example when a vote for Ralph Nader could (and did) help elect George W. Bush.
But in today’s Greece, it doesn’t make sense because there are too many permutations. A strategic vote is sensible when you can foresee the consequences of your actions (it was easy to see, for example, that a vote for Nader would aid Bush). But with so many parties trying to enter parliament and with so many possible post-election coalitions, trying to vote by thinking about everyone else’s vote becomes mentally exhausting. All strategic votes distort elections, but in Greece’s case, too many strategic votes risk creating an outcome that is wildly disconnected from reality.
There is another reason I don’t like strategic voting. In a country with as much complexity and fluidity as Greece, it is an easy way out. By spending hours upon hours thinking about outcomes, you can easily miss the big picture – you can miss that you are called on to vote on what you think the future of Greece should be. “I voted for x because I thought that other people would vote for y” is in general not a very thoughtful answer and it is even less so today.
Having tackled these two questions – do the elections matter and whether or not one should vote strategically – we then have to start thinking about who to vote for. I think this is a two-step process (assuming you don’t have a selfish reason to vote for someone, in which case you probably haven’t been tortured by all the doubts above anyway). First question is: do I vote for one of the big parties? If not, which of the smaller votes do I vote for?
In my mind, there is no reason to vote for PASOK. What exactly is PASOK asking for? “Vote for us so that we can actually do all those things that we said we were going to do in 2010 and 2011 but didn’t actually do?” I can’t see anyone voting for PASOK, which is one reason their numbers are pitiful. What about New Democracy? The question is: do you trust Antonis Samaras? All the signs he has given us over the past few years is that his desire to become prime minister will outweigh any other philosophical or political position that he holds. I listen to his campaign speeches and he is talking about how great New Democracy is doing and how we wants to rule alone. These are not the instincts I want in a leader.
If not PASOK and ND, then you ask a second question: what is the root of our current crisis? If you think the problem is international capitalism, the Eurozone, speculators, the banks and the rich, you have several good choices on the left. If you think the problem is that Greece’s moral values and security is assaulted by immigrants and lawlessness, you have several choices on the right. And if you think the problem is a gluttonous state and ridiculous protections in the marketplace, you have several centrist and center-right choices to pick from.
There is one thing I would add here. Politics is about choices. You can’t have it all. You have to do things and you have to not do things. You have to prioritize, to make tough calls, to inflict pain and to be prepared to be unpopular. You have to weigh trade-offs and make sacrifices. PASOK’s failure in 2011 was in part a failure to make choices. Ii wanted it all. It wanted to dismantle the clientelism that it had created and yet still be elected by its historical supporters. It chose everything and so, in the end, it chose nothing. We have no more time for choosing nothing.
So who am I voting for? For me, the choice has been clear: Stefanos Manos and his DRASSI party (running in partnership with the Greek Liberals.) Anyone who has read my blog will hardly be surprised. Manos is by far the most sensible and consistent Greek politician. He has the most accurate diagnosis of what went wrong, he understands the need and is willing to campaign on the promise to shrink the state and has liberal instincts that will create a space for the private sector to breathe and ultimately thrive. That’s what I want for Greece and no one best represents that hope than him.
In the end, voting is an act of courage. We tend to forget this, especially in established, parliamentary democracies. It is a boring and simple act, but most big acts are simple if not boring. What I hope for on May 6 is that the country goes to the polls with what Barrack Obama termed “the audacity of hope.” Hope is a feeling that the country desperately needs. But more than that it needs audacity to rebel, to imagine, and to stand up to the fear of change. It has been our fear of change that has condemned us to our current misery. Our fear to compete and our fear to live without the shelter of the state. Voting for Stefanos Manos is my act of audacity on May 6.