Greece before the elections: “The old political system is in turmoil”

This Sunday, September 20, Greek citizens will be asked to go the polls for the third time in just eight months. While the refugee crisis in Europe has ousted Greece from the international headlines, the country’s political landscape is undergoing some deep and significant shifts. We spoke with Olga Drossou, director of our hbs office in Thessaloniki, to shed light on what moves Greece in these times of turmoil.

Hbs North America: On September 20, Greek citizens will be asked to the polls for the third time in just eight months. How would you describe the public mood before the elections?

Olga Drossou: The fact that the Greek people have been asked to go to the polls repeatedly in such a short period of time reflects that the political system is shaken by a deep crisis. The old political system is in turmoil: Traditional ruling parties like the social democratic PASOK have shrunk considerably and are increasingly fighting for their survival. Political clans like former Prime Minister Papandreou’s family, who have played a central role in the post-war period, are vanishing from the political scene. New party formations appear on the political stage instead. The development of the left alliance SYRIZA is particularly interesting. In a very short time it grew from being a fundamental opposition with 3 percent of the votes to being the ruling party. After 6 months in government, SYRIZA had to undergo a “turn to reality”, signed the third memorandum with the international creditors, experienced an internal split, lost the ruling majority and provoked new elections. Many people who saw in SYRIZA the bearer of hope for a paradigm shift away from austerity policy are now disappointed and confused.

What we are witnessing in the run up to the elections is a duel between two big camps- the left and the right. But despite this polarization, the rhetoric is much more restrained than it used to be. No great promises are made this time around, as not much is left from the promises made in the past.

Hbs: Recent polls suggest that Tzipras’ Syriza has lost about 10 percentage points since the January elections. Do you think that the rise of the left and right-wing populist parties we saw in the January elections will be reversed?

It’s a bit more nuanced than that. The radical neo-Nazi protest party Golden Dawn, for example, seems to profit from the polarization we currently witness. It is very likely for Golden Dawn to emerge from the elections as the third strongest party. They will most likely overtake both the social democratic centrist parties and the radical left Laiki Enotita (Popular Unity), which was founded after splitting from SYRIZA and propagates leaving the EURO and taking a national solo effort. Golden Dawn, Popular Unity and the Communists are all radical in their own way, as all of them aim at changing the system. They are not populist parties though in terms of making great promises to the people. The era of populism seems to be over for now.

Hbs: Some commentators have suggested that the election outcome will barely have an impact on Greece’s relations to the EU and the Troika. What is really at stake in the elections?

That’s true. The memorandum that SYRIZA signed with the international creditors pretty much outlines the basic course for the future government. Next to the contested budget consolidation that demands significant budget cuts, some large reforms are supposed to be implemented to turn the country into a modern European constitutional state. The country is supposed to rid itself of the vast influence of political clientelism, which prevented any sensible reforms in the past decades. The necessity for these reforms, e.g. with regard to the state bureaucracy, the social welfare system, the tax system, and the health care sector, are very obvious and mostly uncontested.

SYRIZA now claims to be the only party that can credibly follow through with these reforms, as it was not involved in shaping the broken institutions in the first place. It claims that those parties invested in the “old system” do not have the will to implement the necessary changes. But many people doubt that SYRIZA has the ability and resoluteness to implement the far-reaching reforms, which it used to fight due to their neoliberal agenda when SYRIZA was still an opposition party. That is why many people would like to see a broad coalition between the parties in favor of political reform. This coalition could act as a guarantor for the successful implementation of reforms, and for meeting the agreements reached with the international creditors.

Hbs: A few months ago, many people feared that Greece would leave the European Monetary Union, and potentially even the EU itself. Popular frustration and anger against Brussels were running high. What can the EU realistically do to turn around the negative image it has in Greece?

Skepticism of the budget cuts agreed upon in the third memorandum is justified, because they risk driving Greece even deeper into a recession. The image of the EU will become much more positive if, with their help, Greece will manage to build a modern, just and fair state. Any success in this direction will help to show the EU in a different light by portraying it as a supporting rather than a controlling force.

Hbs: Europe is currently struggling to deal with the high numbers of refugees arriving at its eastern and southern borders. Greece has of course been confronted with high numbers of refugees arriving at its shore for years. What does it take to change the situation in Southern Greece for the better?

The migrant and refugee influx at the Greek and Italian shores cannot be shouldered by any one country alone. All European countries have to solve this together and in solidarity. They have to at long last agree upon a common immigration policy and create legal pathways to immigration for those people whom we now call „economic migrants“ or „labor migrants“. The refugees from Syria constitute a different group altogether, as they are fleeing from war and are not classical asylum seekers. Here, it is necessary for the United States and the Gulf States to step up as well, which both have contributed to the destabilization of the Middle East and Afghanistan. It should not be left to Europe alone to take in those war refugees.