Greek Politics: Economic Crisis or Crisis of Democracy?

Greece’s economic instability has become the Western world’s longest-running monetary crisis. Will Germany allow the EU to keep propping up Greece’s unstable financial system? Will the country leave the eurozone? Will such a departure, if it occurs, unravel the idea of “Europe”? All valid questions. But behind them stands another equally profound social and political crisis that has made Greece the weak man of Europe.

Since the restoration of democracy in 1974, the country’s political system could be described as bipolar, with two parties, the center-right New Democracy and the center-left Pasok (Panhellenic Socialist Movement) dominating the political scene. However in 2012, during the first election that took place after the economic crisis, an upsurge of discontent fed an extremism that fundamentally altered the Greek party system and the country’s political life itself. The far-left Syriza (Coalition of the Radical Left) marked an electoral breakthrough, gaining 26.89 percent of the votes cast, only 3 percent behind New Democracy. On the opposite end of the political spectrum, the far-right Anel (Independent Greeks), a splinter party from New Democracy formed in 2012, received 7.5 percent. And most disturbing, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party moved from the fringes to receive almost 7 percent, translating into 18 seats in the Greek Parliament. 

This trend intensified in the parliamentary elections of January 2015, which resulted in the formation of a far left–far right coalition government between Syriza and Anel. Syriza attracted 36.34 percent of the Greek vote, gaining 149 seats, just two seats short of forming a majority government. Anel received 4.8 percent of the vote, translating into 13 seats. Golden Dawn came third with 6.28 percent of the vote, marginally lower than in 2012, but an indication that its support remains constant despite the fact that its leading members were imprisoned during the time of the election, facing indictment for the murder of an anti-fascist rapper, Pavlos Fyssas, and for “forming a criminal organization.” The party also did little campaigning. 

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During the July 2015 referendum on whether Greece should accept the terms and conditions of the international bailout package, these three extreme parties, all of them elected on an anti-austerity platform that emphasized the “independence, dignity, and sovereignty” of the Greek nation, supported the “No” position, helping it gain a landslide victory. It was clear that the traditional left-versus-right alignment of Greek politics had been altered and that the center could no longer hold. 


Since the eruption of the eurozone crisis in late 2009, Greece has plunged into deep recession. Austerity measures increased taxes on income and property, sales taxes rose from 19 percent to 23 percent, and the tax-free threshold for income was lowered significantly. All sectors of the population suffered, especially the middle class. Homeowners were targeted by large increases in property tax, causing many to lose their homes. Salaries, especially public-sector salaries and pensions, were significantly reduced, in some cases as much as 50 percent. The Greek government abolished the two extra monthly salaries given each year, known as the 13th and 14th salaries. Public investment was cut and subsidies for local government were reduced along with spending for education, health, and other welfare benefits. Unemployment, which stood at 9.6 percent in 2009, rose to 17.9 in 2011 and 27.5 in 2013. 

As the crisis progressed, Greek citizens increasingly lost their trust in the system. They saw the government as highly unstable as well as inefficient, doubting its ability to provide public services and to enforce law and order. As the state became increasingly perceived as unable to limit the socioeconomic impact of the crisis on individual citizens, the legitimacy of the system was called into question. What was discredited was not only the ability of the government to formulate sound economic policy, but the very foundation of Greece’s post-dictatorship era. 

Those who questioned the ability of the state to deliver on the basic social contract were not only the marginalized sectors of the population, but also the large middle class, which during the 1980s had ridden the growth of the public sector to expansion and prosperity. Its disaffiliation from the “system” showed the unplumbed depths of the crisis and resulted in the rise of anti-establishment parties of the right and the left. 

These parties gained support on their pledge of providing an alternative vision for Greece based on national pride and defiant antagonism against the status quo. To an extent, the left-right divide in Greek politics was replaced by a pro-anti memorandum divide, expressing itself in fierce argumentation over whether to resolve the crisis within the confines of the eurozone or whether to reject European membership in order to maintain national pride and national dignity. The far right and far left, so different in every other respect, collaborated in deepening this division through their common Euroskepticism and fervent nationalism. 


The most extreme of these extreme parties is Golden Dawn, a fascist and more specifically a neo-Nazi party. It is a pan-nationalist, authoritarian, statist, and militarist group that yearns to cleanse the nation of enemies both internal (political dissidents) and external (the EU, the IMF, immigrants, and foreigners). The party rejects liberalism and socialism and endorses an all-powerful state premised on “popular sovereignty.” In its manifesto, Golden Dawn states that membership in the party requires the acceptance of the following principles: a state whose only ideology and authentic revolutionary movement is nationalism; the rejection of any authority that perpetuates societal decline; the nationalization of all social and economic institutions; and the belief in the continuation of the “Greek race” from antiquity to the modern day.

The starting point for Golden Dawn is the social decay of “Hellenism.” The country is in “ruins” because of the incompetence of Greek politicians who have “destroyed the nation.” Golden Dawn sees itself at the helm of a movement to purify the Greek nation from social decadence associated with corruption, deception, partisan interests, and kleptocracy and to lead the country back to its ancient golden era. It is the party’s calling to lead the Greek people in a difficult struggle toward “Virtue and self-improvement.” This can only be materialized through a government with a “socio-political vision aligned with the principles of Nationalism and popular socialism.”

Golden Dawn envisages itself as the embodiment of the collective will: “The Nationalist Socialist leader does not stand above or beside the people, he is not part of the people, he is the People.” Such a leader incarnates the secret “calling of the blood,” and his ultimate goal is full control of state power in the name of the nation.

For Golden Dawn, representative democracy is “the child of capitalism,” an instrument through which capitalism dominates the masses. For this reason, the party condemns liberal democracy and its institutions, and glorifies fascist regimes and personalities, portraying them as heroes for purifying their nations and epitomizing the will of the people. The ideal regime for Greece, according to Golden Dawn, is the August 4th Regime, led by Ioannis Metaxas from 1936 to 1941, a time when “Greece became an anti-communist, anti-parliamentarian, and totalitarian state with an agricultural and working class base, and hence an anti-plutocratic state.”

Golden Dawn’s key goal is eliminating political divisions and cleansing the nation of outsiders. Communists are identified as internationalists who seek the annihilation of the Greek nation. Contributing to this ethnocide are also Greece’s other external enemies, which include immigrants as well as “foreign loan sharks, contractors, pimps, and media owners.”

Golden Dawn seeks to achieve regeneration through violence. Committed to “blood, struggle, and sacrifice,” the party’s members see themselves as “street soldiers” fighting for the nationalist cause. Violence is at the heart of Golden Dawn’s philosophy; democracy is a bourgeois construct useful only as a means for achieving its own abolition. Golden Dawn is also known for its paramilitary activities. Known as “battalions,” “Phalanx,” “Golden Eagles,” or “Protesilaus,” the party’s paramilitary groupings have a hierarchical structure, receive army-like training, and are in possession of various weapons. They also offer protection. This paramilitary activity came under investigation after the murder of Pavlos Fyssas and during the subsequent imprisonment of Golden Dawn members in late 2013 and their ongoing trial.

Golden Dawn promotes the superiority of Greek descent, Greece’s unique language and ancient heritage, and the glorification of struggle against outsiders whom it portrays as culturally inferior. But what makes Golden Dawn fascist, rather than merely a patriotic or nationalist group, is its commitment to “palingenesis,” or national rebirth. Like other fascist movements before it, Golden Dawn sees itself as having the unique mission to lead the nation into a phoenix-like transformation in which it will rise from the ashes of the old, degenerate social order. 


On the other side of the spectrum is Syriza, formed in 2004 as an alliance between Synaspismos and 11 other left-wing factions. The party entered the Greek political scene as a contender in 2012 exhibiting all features of a party in radical opposition. Previously marginalized, it put forward an anti-establishment agenda whose main goal was to renegotiate austerity at any cost. However, as the party came closer to power, it started to moderate its position in a bid to attract broader electoral support. According to 2015 exit poll data, the party managed to attract similar levels of support not only from the expected unemployed and public sector employees but also from a large number of private sector employees, the self-employed, and business owners. Similarly, the party’s base includes left-wing voters, as expected, but also voters from right-wing Anel and, to a lesser extent, from Golden Dawn. 

Syriza’s electoral campaign emphasized the de-humanizing effect of austerity and the need to restore public sector jobs, expand on welfare spending, and halt privatizations. Indeed, the growth of Syriza’s support basis has been explicitly linked to its ability to attract the middle class, whose position has been significantly affected by austerity. 

Syriza’s policies have been dictated by a fundamental antithesis: on the one hand its commitments to anti-austerity, and on the other the constraints facing a governing party. To this add the contradictory mandate of the Greek public, which overwhelmingly supports the euro while at the same time rejecting the bailout agreements and their austerity measures. A poll held in early July 2015 found that although the “no” camp was relatively strong, at the same time 74 percent of Greek people were in favor of remaining in the eurozone. These dilemmas are also reflected within the ranks of Syriza itself, with then Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and the more moderate sections of the party supporting further renegotiations with Greece’s lenders while the “rebel left” has adopted a more staunch position that would not be opposed to a potential return to the drachma. Post-referendum, these divisions within the party have been made increasingly apparent, threatening the stability of the government and potential party splits.

The results of the July 2015 referendum indicate the impact that austerity has had, and the appeal of a populist, nationalist anti-establishment rhetoric on large sections of Greece’s middle class. While the most obvious outcome of the referendum was to give the government a popular mandate to renegotiate a deal on terms more acceptable for Greeks, its more profound effect was to further polarize an already deeply divided society, with the danger of creating uncertain conditions that could serve to aid forces such as Golden Dawn. History has shown that societies that in the past opted for extreme measures during crises eventually found themselves plunged into economic disaster, isolation, dictatorship, and totalitarianism. What is especially portentous for Greece is that not only the dispossessed and socially isolated are voting on the basis of anger and vengeance, but that these dispossessed now contain large sections of a middle class that is willing to sip the toxic brew being distilled by the forces of extremism. 

Sofia Vasilopoulou is a lecturer in the Department of Politics at the University of York. Daphne Halikiopoulou is an associate professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Reading.


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