• The Politics of Austerity: Democracy in Deficit

  • Loudovikos Kotsonopoulos | 05 Jun 12 | Posted under: Greece , Elections
  • In their attempt to harness state finances, EU austerity plans openly promoted the implementation of a clear-cut neoliberal agenda with enormous political implications.  Two years after these plans were set in motion, one can draw two safe conclusions: That economic recovery is still absent and that their implementation required a democratic “freeze” of the Southern European states, the weakest links in the state-debt chain. In fact, the Troika along with its political peers overtly tampered with the democratic regimes in order to secure high returns to their investments. This strategy was not deployed in an institutional void; rather it was well grounded in democratic deficiency tendencies already present in the European political systems, particularly in those of the South. 

    In the Greek case, the whole process of democratic “freezing”, so as to best accommodate austerity measures, was spurred by a double-faced insulation of the political system. On the one hand there was an insulation of social interests from democratic representation and on the other hand an insulation of the executive from parliamentary power – the latter taking place inside the political system.

    Regarding the former aspect of this insulation, Greece has closely followed a post-democratic trajectory. During the last decade, popular participation in the decision making process was scaled down to the minimum and it was actually contained solely to electoral participation. So long as the, once, incumbent parties (PASOK, ND) were delivering the goods to key social categories, the system worked well. However, when austerity came in, the whole edifice collapsed. Social reaction against the measures was ignored by the PASOK government on the grounds of parliamentary majority, which was acquired in a completely different political context where the electorate did not have a clue on the public debt problem. In view of this exclusion from the political system, people searched for alternative channels in order to defend their rights. At this point we have the emergence of the Syntagma square movement in Spring-Summer 2011. By the time the popular element rushed into the political arena, the argument of a legitimated government having the capacity to implement austerity measures single-handedly was neutralized.

    In the period from May to October 2011, PASOK was trying to engage ND in a coalition government in order to share the blame. At the same time an atmosphere of terror reigned in the streets with the riot police brutally quelling all demonstrations. Eventually P.M. George Papandreou pursued his goal by intimidating the European elites. On 31 October, he announced his intention to organize a referendum for the new loan agreement. Displeased with the prospect of popular participation in the decision process, Merkel and Sarkozy were outraged with this initiative and stated explicitly that a referendum or a national election was to take place under no circumstances. Instead, they pushed for the solution they had in store for Southern Europe: coalition governments headed by technocrats.

    Greece's coalition government was headed by the former Vice President of the ECB, Lucas Papademos, and was formed in 11 November with an initial plan of handing in its mandate in February. The job of the government was greatly facilitated by the second aspect of the insulation structure mentioned above, namely the insulation of the executive from the Parliament. This is well illustrated by the fact that PASOK, being initially the principal partner, held approximately 80% of cabinet positions with 153 seats. It retained this ratio well after the February reshuffle when its parliamentary power was reduced by 22 MPs. 

    This non-elected government passed a second Memorandum in February 2012, despite popular outcry. Once again terror spread around the streets with the riot police essentially banishing any form of protest by brutally beating up everybody irrespective of age, gender or political persuasion. Given the fact that this second Memorandum had to be accompanied by a series of new austerity measures, certain thoughts were expressed to prolong the coalition government's mandate. However, political elites succumbed to the widespread popular demands for elections.

    The latter took place on 6 May and positioned SYRIZA second. A large part of its success is attributed to the promise to make the people part of the decision making process again. This aspiration was well encapsulated in the party's principle electoral motto “They decided without us, we move on without them”.  It is exactly this call to revitalize democracy that petrifies both European elites and the Greek bourgeoisie. This is why they are both trying to scare the Greek electorate so as to vote against SYRIZA in the forthcoming elections. Mrs Merkel, who in October forbade even the very thought of a plebiscite, is now asking for one to be made along with the elections. The IMF and the European Commission urge the Greek people to vote for the “right” parties. The Greek media, mainly associated with construction capital and ship owners, present SYRIZA as nothing less than the Satan who is ready to annihilate the entire country.  All these crusaders who are summoned to rally against democracy under the flags of neo-liberalism are already running out of arguments and soon enough they will also run out of votes.


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