‘One Swing of the Wrecking Ball’

by Andrew Stuttaford

Ekathimerini’s Nick Malkoutzis surveys the devastation:

We expected the two parties that have ruled Greece since 1974 to go through a staggered collapse, possibly over the course of two or three elections, but we are already surveying the debris today: The wrecking ball came in one fell swoop and left [conservative] New Democracy and [socialist] PASOK in ruins from which they will find it difficult to rebuild themselves…

Malkoutzis argues that framing the election as (effectively) a referendum on euro-or-drachma failed. If accurate, that is extremely interesting. The single currency remains very popular in Greece, for obvious reasons. Its replacement by a new drachma would wipe out savings, and (at least in the short term) deliver yet another savage blow to real earnings. Despite that, could voters be beginning to believe that the cost of hanging on to it is simply too high? When Sweden rejected the euro in a 2003 referendum, one of the arguments that resonated was that it was better to be paid in kronor than to draw unemployment benefit in euros. Are some Greeks at least coming to a similar conclusion?

But back to Malkoutzis :

…The inability of PASOK and New Democracy to resonate with Greek people following more than two years of crisis and austerity meant that voters sought answers elsewhere. The Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) attempted to provide these answers. Its response to the dead-end of the crisis was to propose questionable, but certainly radical, solutions such as declaring a unilateral default. It managed to be clear where the more moderate Democratic Left — which had eclipsed SYRIZA until recently in the opinion polls — was muddled about what it actually wanted. By reaching out to the parties of the left, and even the Independent Greeks, it took on the profile of a party of power. The fact it has a 38-year-old leader in Alexis Tsipras has helped in the stale atmosphere of Greek politics. It is much easier for SYRIZA to claim it represents young Greeks than other parties who have always had an awkward relationship with them.

The Independent Greeks also captured the zeitgeist by tapping into the anti-bailout sentiment. Its harsh language for Germany and the IMF channeled the anger felt by many Greeks. Chrysi Avgi (Golden Dawn) also built on this festering rage, albeit with much more extreme positions.

Populism has what the Greeks call “short legs” but there is every reason to believe that we have witnessed a much more substantial change in Greek politics. While SYRIZA and other parties have benefited to some extent from saying things people want to hear, we should not underestimate that the circumstances in Greece have made it vital for people to grab onto any strand of hope they can find, anything that can help them climb out of the mire. There was something eerily symbolic in the fact that it was recently announced that 1.08 million people were unemployed in January, while 1.06 million people voted for SYRIZA on Sunday.

You simply cannot expect GDP to fall by a fifth over a couple of years, people’s income to plummet by 25 percent, their tax bill to increase by about the same amount, and unemployment to more than double to 21 percent in just a year without it having a profound effect on people’s political choices.

Greece is now at a nexus in its history, where the decline of its two major parties has met the social and economic upheaval caused by the crisis. The next few weeks will give us an idea of whether the wrecking ball will just keep swinging or whether there will be a chance to build on the ruins.

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