Thursday, May 10, 2012

Digesting Greece’s Electoral Message

Just three days have passed since Greek voters delivered a loud but equivocal message to their leaders. In witnessing the efforts to form a government, we have learned a lot about our political leaders and our political system. Here are my four main takeaways from the past three days.

First, interpreting the electoral message remains elusive. Beyond merely delivering a message of “we are fed up” little can be said about what the Greek people actually want. SYRIZA says that the verdict delivered a clear anti-memorandum position since the pro-memorandum parties received a third of the vote (and, by contrast, two-thirds of the people voted against the memorandum). But this is a rather limited read of the May 6 vote: the anti-memorandum vote contains so many strands that it is impossible to classify them as having a common position. Plus, there were three liberal parties that support many of the reforms embedded in the memorandum – they got a 6.5% vote. So the pro-reform movement is over 40%. The inability to interpret the message is one reason that the efforts to form a government have run in parallel: New Democracy and PASOK believe that the main axis of cooperation is “for or against Europe” while SYRIZA says it is “for or against the memorandum.”

Second, Greece’s fate still stands in the balance. Before the election, I noted that, “one can imagine a very wide range of outcomes after the election” and that “no one should underestimate just how wide the field of action has become.” Rhetoric and actions have reinforced this observation. Even eliminating an extreme scenario of outright default and exit from the Eurozone, the program espoused by SYRIZA, which is 1950s and 1960s socialism, entails a very different Greece than the program espoused by New Democracy or PASOK. There are still many paths open to Greece, especially since the Greek political establishment does not seem to appreciate just how little goodwill the country has left with the European elites and that a prolonged ambivalence might just exhaust Europe’s patience.

Third, Greece’s political leaders have, in general, thought very little about Greece’s options. The level of debate remains very shallow and few parties have managed to move beyond their campaign slogans to discuss precisely what they are proposing. Nor is there any real appreciation of the trade-offs involved with different choices. For example, SYRIZA’s proposals simply assume that this crisis does not exist – otherwise, its proposals sound outright silly or, at best, useful but irrelevant in dealing with the crisis. The overall insistence on “canceling” or “amending” the bailout agreement sounds great – but in what way does each side want to amend it and what does “canceling” means? No one is really discussing these issues, and so the discussions are ultimately irrelevant.

Fourth, the vote dispersion is already showing signs of re-consolidation. New Democracy is making an effort to gather the center-right under its umbrella; PASOK is soul-searching, and many in the party feel that SYRIZA’s speaks to PASOK’s move away from the left; SYRIZA’s announcements after the elections have probably underscored how little it has to offer by way of precise proposals in dealing with the crisis; and the intense focus on Golden Dawn has probably served to trim its support already. Just as we proclaimed the end of the two-party system, we are already witnessing the reconsolidation of the country’s political forces. As I noted before, “we have destroyed the old but have not quite erected the new.” Well, it may be that the new ends up being somewhere near the old.

This election allowed the Greek people to express their frustration, but it has also shown that anger is no substitute for policy. Flicking off the political system can be fun, but resolving Greece’s problems is made no easier by bombastic rhetoric and empty slogans. One lasting benefit I hope for is that this election demonstrated quickly and decisively the yawning gap between one’s ability to speak well at rallies versus the ability to contribute intelligently in the debate. It is a yawning gap indeed and if the electorate becomes any wiser from it, then these might have been worthwhile elections.


  1. Indeed, it is bombastic rhetoric, and it is very concerning for foreign observers. Ok, Tsipras of course is the chief of the Radcial Left, but he still should take care to come up with realistic demands, if he wants to negotiate improvements for Greece from the Troika. But I suspect his statements are meant for left wing voters inside Greece instead. It sure looks like he's already preparing for the next election. His otherwise unexplainable talks with parties that didn't win any seats three days ago probably are part of a strategy to increase Syriza's share of the vote. It looks like he may be able to add at least two small groups to his coalition, and the additional roundabout 6% of the vote could push his party to the #1 spot this summer. That, of course, would make them win the important 50 seat bonus and give them a very good chance to form a left wing government.

    So, Tsipras may look like yet another grandstanding left wing loudmouth (a la Hugo Chavez) to other European leaders, but they would be badly adviced if they underestimated him. He could be the new heavyweight of Greek politics soon!

  2. He could be the new heavyweight of politics in a very isolated Greece soon. And then it will not matter if he's over- or underestimated, since both will be measures of irrelevance.

    The mental gymnastics needed for policies that reject the memorandum (which I happen to think is what Greece would need even if there had been no crisis at all) but insist on keeping the euro are also out of this world.

    I mean, what's the use of throwing Greece into the abyss by cutting its access to foreign funding without even having the advantage of printing your own (albeit rapidly devaluing) currency? It wouldn't be austerity inflicted on the Greek people but hardship squared.


    1. Indeed, Tsipras' course would isolate Greece and can't work, since even without the debt payments the nations still doesn't have a balanced budget and can't get additional credits at affordable interest rates. So, this will lead to Greece having to exit the Eurozone. I suspect Tsipras is well aware of this (and, in a fashion typical for Greek politicians, misleading the ovters about his true intentions). He can't be that dumb to ignore that without Troika support, the only way to fund the state is with freshly printed Drachmes.

  3. The May 6th elections proved how incredibly political-amateurs the Greeks are, from their pseudo leaders to the electors even the ones who chose not to participate. No political leader had the understanding of simple economic laws. Now, unfortunately, it is pay time.
    Socialism is a 37 year political system in Greece and as Thatcher correctly said “Socialist governments always run out of other people’s money” now it is Greece’s time. The ND Party was no different than PaSoK and both are responsible for this outcome. Today is Greece, tomorrow is Portugal’s, etc.
    NOTHING compares with a free capitalist system, with the smallest possible government, and with people free to enterprise without the state’s compassionate looters to breathe over their heads.
    The US is not far from Greece’s condition either…

    1. "NOTHING compares with a free capitalist system"
      Indeed, nothing compares with that hypercapitalist nightmare! That's why Germany's system is a social market economy instead. Best compromise of free markets' drive and leverage plus regulation for the welfare of all people. Call us socialists, we don't care. Our unemployment numbers are lower than yours! :P


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