It is an important moment for the Greek people, probably a once-in-a-life-time moment. The Greek parliament has failed to vote for the proposed new president Stavros Dimas put forward by Antonis Samaras, the current prime minister and leader of conservative party New Democracy. The Greek MPs failed to elect Dimas no fewer than three times on December 17, 23 and 29. As a result, the parliament will be dissolved and the country will go to the polls on January 25. But this time, the outcome of the elections might be very different.
In the second round of the 2012 general elections, the radical left party Syriza missed victory by only a small margin with 26.89% of the votes, just behind the 29.66% of New Democracy. In May 2014, Syriza came first in the European parliamentary elections – already described by many as an ‘historic’ event. It is now leading the polls. The stakes are high. Alongside other radical policies, including plans to reverse privatisation and restore pre-crisis wage levels, Syriza pledges to write off much of the Greek debt and renegotiate the terms of its bailout. These aims promise a decisive break with the past six years of austerity politics.
Only nobody seems willing to let the Greek people have it their way. Already in 2012, the mainstream Greek politicians and media made concerted and sustained efforts to discredit Syriza. At the time, the main argument was that they had no experience of governing and hence could not possibly be trusted to lead the country out of the economic crisis. This line of reasoning was not entirely obvious given the role of the mainstream political parties – effectively the only realistic alternative to a Syriza-led government – in generating the current crisis. But it was convincing back then. After over two years acting as the main opposition party, Syriza is now less susceptible to this earlier brand of criticism. However, it is now facing renewed and mounting pressures, the ultimate effects of which might be to undermine the free and un-coerced expression of the popular will.
A few hours after the decision of Antonis Samaras to move forward the presidential election to December, the Greek stock market reportedly saw a dramatic fall (although different sources do not seem to agree on the numbers). Markets elsewhere in Europe apparently took the news badly. The confirmation that national elections are now going ahead sent them into yet another frenzy of fear, confused speculation and panic. Meanwhile, in the European political arena, the reactions ranged from gentle reminders to more explicit warnings and threats over the alleged risks involved if the Greek people were to make the ‘wrong choice’. What those risks are is never comprehensibly articulated, although the new president of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker explained that he would prefer to trade with ‘known faces’ instead of unnamed ‘extreme forces’ (incidentally Stavros Dimas was the European Commissioner for the Environment from 2004 to 2009). By contrast, Juncker’s own involvement in major tax evasion schemes – recently uncovered by the so-called LuxLeaks – must presumably have been for Europe’s greater good. Untold and carefully hidden must also be a fear that Syriza-like ‘extreme forces’ may spread across Europe. In a November poll, Podemos – the Spanish party that was born out of the indignados movement – was leading in Spain for the first time with 27.7% of support, up from 8% in the European Parliament elections in May 2014.
Unsurprisingly, the doomsday rhetoric has been taken over and widely re-produced by the Greek media. Hugo Dixon’s prognosis – appearing in the New York Times – that a Syriza win ‘would put Athens on the fast track to bankruptcy’ and would make ‘the prospects for Greece bleak’ is cited with authority in the Greek press. Inevitably, such threats can be persuasive. People confusingly hope one day, doubt the next: ‘they are serious, they will starve us and kick us out, they know better, we have no choice’. Syriza too is not entirely immune to these threats and has attempted to alleviate fears over a possible Grexit from the Eurozone. Tellingly, this is a move that spokespersons for key actors in the banking sector—JP Morgan among them—smugly take for granted, declaring Syriza will inevitably abandon its ‘communist’ policies and instead negotiate more ‘pragmatic’ and ‘relatively cosmetic’ changes to Greece’s bailout programme. Whether Syriza actually bends to such outside pressures is contingent upon the ability of its leadership not to flinch before such intimidation.
This kind of propaganda is illustrative of a whole new way of doing and thinking about democracy – let’s call it ‘neo-democracy’. Neo-democracy has its parameters set by the private sector as countries are increasingly vulnerable and responsive to the demands and interests of international private investors, global markets and corporate giants. Neo-democrats use the language of catastrophism and exploit people’s fears and insecurities – often ones to which they have themselves contributed – to entice support. Neo-democracy’s basic premise, moreover, makes a joke of human agency. Representative democracy – for all its flaws – supposedly gives citizens a basic choice. But under this neo incarnation, apparently not all of those choices are equal.
Of course, neo-democracy is not in fact entirely new nor is it unique to Greece. On the contrary, it is discernible almost everywhere. The much-debated Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) – currently under negotiation by the EU and the US – is but a recent example of the way in which democracy is hijacked by corporate interests. Governments routinely use fear as a strategic tool. It was terrorism – or rather the ‘war on terror’ – that helped keep George W. Bush in power in 2004 – a decision that the Americans have since had ample opportunity to regret, especially following the recent report disclosing the full extent of the CIA’s ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques, otherwise known as torture. The Greek case, moreover, does not mark the first time that the EU has indulged in demeaning practices that challenge its alleged commitment to democracy, equality and solidarity. To take but one example, the Irish in 2008 were effectively asked to think again after failing to ratify the Lisbon Treaty. That being said, such treatment might only be the prerogative of the underdog; by contrast, the French and Dutch ‘No’ votes in 2005 led to the demise of the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe.
But the distinctiveness of the Greek case is both one of scale and effects; all the different elements of neo-democracy are coming into play in what is akin to an existential decision on whether and how the Greek electorate can win back control over the Greek state and economy. Perhaps the closest recent parallel example was the reaction to the ‘Yes’ campaign in the run-up to the Scottish referendum, which was met with a carefully crafted and powerful narrative about the possible (grim) future of Scotland were it actually to vote for independence. Then, too, the markets went crazy; the value of Scottish companies dropped dramatically; Cameron was repeatedly accused of ‘dictating the terms’ of the Scottish vote; and discussions over Scotland’s relationship to the EU stirred considerable controversy.
Legally, Greece has already ceded most of its sovereignty and is effectively under Troika rule (i.e. the joint tutelage of the IMF, European Commission and European Central Bank). However, the type of market-conscious propaganda that is specially reserved for elections attacks the very core of popular democracy and signifies a deeper subordination of the popular will to broader political and economic forces. It is perhaps difficult to speculate about how the Scottish people would have voted lacking any outside interference. But while a Syriza loss in the general elections might mean a win for the ‘New Democracy’ party, it will also testify to the growing prevalence of a ‘neo’ – and largely distorted – version of democracy. Hopefully, this fact might at least give pause to those Greeks who still put their faith in the Greek elite and dissuade them from voting the ‘right way’ in January.
Eva Nanopoulos is a College Lecturer in Law at King's College, University of Cambridge.