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In Defence of Greek Elections

Sunday, 20 September 2015

 

The latest elections called by Prime Minister Alexi Tsipras have left many friends, observers and professional partners scratching their heads. Counting the January 25th elections that brought SYRIZA to power and the July 5th Referendum, this is the third national election this year.

Many have questioned why this election is necessary. After all, any new government will have no choice but to implement the Third Bailout Programme agreed after so many months of discord and strife. This means that the room for political maneuver is limited, while any election called now appears to be for the purposes of providing a political alibi rather than a real choice.There is much merit to this argument. After all, there has been no real change in the political parties or leadership. Yes, Panayiotis Lafazanis has formed a new party, but he was already in charge of a significant political faction within SYRIZA. More importantly, there have been no real plans announced by any party (with a few exceptions) which might help Greece emerge from the crisis it finds itself in.

But this election, as difficult as it may appear, is necessary:

  1. In purely political terms, SYRIZA saw the defection of between 40-50 MPs who either voted against various bills or actively defected. Further governance in a normal parliamentary system was untenable. For this procedural reason alone, an election was necessary. (The alternative, a government of national unity, was not realistically discussed).

  2. Through the previous efforts of Alexis Tsipras and Yannis Varoufakis, the country had effectively been led into a political dead end. They actively campaigned for—and won—a national referendum which said “no” to further austerity. Prime Minister Tsipras then signed up for this very austerity he had been campaigning against. For purely ethical reasons, therefore, a new election was needed.

  3. The election does indeed provide a political alibi. Immediately following the election, many of the new tax increases and payment cuts will take place. That means that by the end of September, Greek citizens will be called upon to dig deep into their pockets to pay for the disastrous effect of previous political decision. These decisions stretch back at least as far as 2004, when Konstantinos Karamanlis took power and proceeded to fatten the state leviathan and the entrenched interests that fed off it using sovereign loans. If the elections were not held today, they would have to be held fairly soon in October. Better to finish with them early.

Finally, it deserves mention that elections are actually one of the few relatively efficient tasks organised by the Greek state. The campaign period is usually brief. The polls are open for 12 hours, and the results are typically announced with a fair degree of confidence 2-3 hours thereafter. Although ballot mistakes do occur, they are not similar in scale to the hanging chad controversies of the Florida vote recount. It is also a relatively low-cost exercise which remains local in nature.

While the elections themselves are acceptable, what is unacceptable is the lack of any viable political plan on the part of the politicians running in them. Apart from Golden Dawn, which has an unacceptable plan for using power, none of the other parties with the possible exception of Potami have a clear or reasonable manifesto suited to economic life in 2015.

This is not an endorsement of Potami by any means: I merely note that its political line up includes tested individuals and policy statements which, while lacking detail, are at least in line with European policy and the economic reality we find ourselves in.

It is also difficult to accept that Alexis Tsipras and Vangelis Meimarakis lead the two largest factions. One would have expected that a person in Alexis Tsipras’ shoes would have the good sense to resign after his disastrous 6-month term and the many contradictions he has both engineered and personally expresses.

One would also have expected that New Democracy, a party that has done so much to damage the Greek economy since 2004 could find some better alternative than nominating a career politician who has been in Parliament since 1989, has actively contributed to Greece’s economic crash, and who has more than a fair share of skeletons in his closet.

Unfortunately, this is not the case. Greek voters continue to vote deeply tainted political parties or less-than-competent career politicians into power. These are politicians who do not see far beyond the horizon of their own tangled parochial interests. These are also politicians who belong to political dynasties, or are in the process of founding them.

As such, we should not blame the institution of a democractic election. We should blame the composition of people (and parties) running in it, and the fundamental lack of accountability that electoral results and criminal justice provide.

As for my predictions today: I believe that SYRIZA will win by at least 3-5 points over New Democracy. My prediction is based on the same factors as in my July 4th article on likely referendum results. I do not believe that polling accurately captures pensioners, young and unemployed voters who are inclined to vote for SYRIZA. And I believe that, contrary to predictions, SYRIZA voters are far more likely to mobilise for the elections than New Democracy voters are.

There will be a very high voter abstention rate, possibly as high or slightly higher than 40%.

Neither SYRIZA nor ND will get a majority, meaning that a coalition government is necessary.

And, given that neither SYRIZA nor ND appear to have the basic competencies necessary to manage an economy in normal times (let alone the disastrous conditions we are currently in), I do not have high hopes for an economic recovery, even if Greece’s debt load could be managed.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

 

(c) Philip Ammerman, 2015


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