After Greece's second parliamentary election this year (June 2012), there was a collective sigh of relief in Europe. The political parties that negotiated the bailouts of Greece in 2010 and 2011 had secured a majority in the new parliament and formed a government that was committed to avoiding a Greek default. Europe's political leaders could now hasten to damp down the next brush fire in the Eurozone, the crisis of the Spanish banks. What those political leaders overlooked was that the Greek political scene has undergone a revolution.
To be precise, the conservative New Democracy party (ND) had narrowly defeated SYRIZA, the leftist alliance, and formed a government with the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK), its old rival, and the Democratic Left. By contrast, SYRIZA had campaigned for repudiation of what Greeks call "the memorandum" (to mnimonio), that is, the program of drastic financial measures to which the preceding Greek governments had agreed in exchange for the bailouts.
Against the memorandum were also the other parties in the new parliament: the veteran Greek Communist Party and, on the right, the chauvinist Independent Greeks and the New Dawn. This last is a party whose symbols and manifestations are unashamedly reminiscent of Nazism. In the elections of 2012, it succeeded in supplanting LAOS, a religious nationalist party.
So what is the revolution? Ever since the restoration of Greek democracy in 1974, ND and PASOK had dominated parliament and alternated in government. Between them, they regularly held over 80% of the seats. That constant of Greek politics has vanished. Now ND is challenged on the right and PASOK has been eclipsed by SYRIZA, which exemplifies the Trotskyite doctrine of permanent revolution.
SYRIZA sympathizers are prominent in violent and destructive demonstrations. Their baleful influence in Greek universities, which they have turned into a permanent base of operations, was recently documented in the Times Higher Education Supplement. Not surprisingly, the dedicated permanentrevolution.net website urged the Greeks to vote SYRIZA.
To put this in figures, compare the results of the Greek elections in October 2009 and in June 2012. (The election in May 2012, whose outcome can be seen as a transition between those two, has been discussed by me elsewhere.) Note that the Greek electoral law sets aside a number of the 300 seats in the parliament as a bonus for the party that polls highest. The remaining seats are divided in proportion to the votes cast among those parties which receive at least 3% of the total votes.
In October 2009 the result in seats and percentages was: PASOK 160 (43.92%, bonus of 40), ND 91 (33.47%), Communists 21 (7.54%), LAOS 15 (5.63%) and SYRIZA 13 (4.60%). By contrast, the election of June 2012 produced the result: ND 129 (29.66%, bonus of 50), SYRIZA 71 (26.89%), PASOK 33 (12.28%), Independent Greeks 20 (7.51%), Communists 12 (4.50%), Golden Dawn 18 (6.92) and Independent Left 17 (6.26%).
The figures speak for themselves. SYRIZA, coming from almost nowhere, has largely supplanted PASOK on the left. Considering that in the election of March 2007 ND won 152 seats (41.83%, bonus of 40), the right has also been seriously split. Indeed, ND "won" the latest election with a smaller percentage of votes than when it lost in 2009.
Most people will conclude that this is a purely Greek phenomenon, reflecting the dire situation of the Greek state and economy. They could not be more wrong. The Netherlands has one of the three strongest economies in the Eurozone, up along with Germany and Finland. Nevertheless, the same fundamental shift in the political landscape is underway there.
The Dutch parliament has two chambers; the more important second chamber has 150 seats. For decades, most of them were won by three parties: the conservative Christian Democrats (CDA), the Liberals (VVD) and the Labor Party (PvdA). In the election of June 2010, the CDA went down from 41 to 21 seats, losing out to its upstart rival on the right, the Party of Freedom (PVV) of Geert Wilders, which jumped from 15 to 24. Another election is scheduled for September 12, 2012. Recent opinion polls suggest that the CDA will drop further, to a humiliating 13. But the big surprise is that on the left the PvdA will drop from 30 to 15-17, while its rival, the Socialist Party (SP), will jump from 15 to 38.
Indeed, the SP is expected to become the largest party and the one first invited to form a government. There are also clear similarities between the political ethos of the Dutch SP and the Greek SYRIZA, including antipathy toward the State of Israel. SYRIZA wants to end defense cooperation between Greece and Israel, while the election manifesto of the SP calls for suspension of the economic association agreement between Israel and the EU. By contrast, good relations with Israel are eagerly pursued by both ND and PASOK. They just awarded (August 6) Israel's President Shimon Peres the Gold Medal of the Greek Parliament.
So, just like in Greece, the Dutch right is seriously split and the traditional Dutch left has been eclipsed by a radical rival. If the political traditions of Greece and the Netherlands are undergoing the same upheaval, it cannot just be due to economic distress.
The explanation is to be sought elsewhere. Basically, the main European political parties had sewn up the political system in ways that suited them all, despite their claimed differences. Only the voters grew weary of it and now they are beginning to revolt.
During the late twentieth century, the typical parliament in a Western country was dominated by a large center-right party and a large center-left party, which alternated in office in successive elections. In the US and the UK, the electoral system made it difficult for other parties to get a foothold. Elsewhere, the expense of electoral campaigns and maintaining party organizations meant that other parties had limited success. So the leading politicians in both major parties could be sure of enjoying the perks of office in their turn.
Based on that pattern in national parliaments, also in the European Parliament there formed large center-right and center-left blocks, calling themselves the European People's Party (EPP) and the Party of European Socialists (PES). The former includes ND along with both German conservative parties (CDU and CSU), the latter PASOK along with Germany's social democrats (SDP). Seemingly, a permanent united pattern of governance had established itself in the EU. And a cosy arrangement for all involved.
The only fly in the ointment was a little noticed phenomenon: fewer citizens were turning out to vote, least of all for the European Parliament. Voter turnout in Greece, for example, fell from 76.6% (2004) to 74.1% (2007), 70.9% (2009), 65.1% (May 2012) and 62.5% (June 2012). In the Netherlands, the phenomenon is less conspicuous: the turnout has been in the range 75-80% for two decades. Back in the 1960s, however, it was around 95%. In European elections, 40-45% is typical for many countries.
Among investigators of this phenomenon, there is no consensus about the reasons for it. For instance, when Ioannis Kolovos and Phil Harris asked why less than 60% of UK voters participated in the general election of 2001, they could list numerous current theories. Perhaps the best hint is in a study by José Ignacio Torreblanca of voter abstention in the European election of 2004. He pointed out that a survey of "Confidence in Institutions" showed that Europeans placed most trust in the police and the army, 65% and 63% respectively, and least in political parties – a mere 16%. Curiously, more Europeans trusted the European Union (41%) than trusted the national parliament (35%) or national government (30%), but a minority in all three cases.
So, just when the center-right and center-left blocks have got Europe sorted out to their convenience, the voters are overwhelmingly fed up with the lot of them. This makes Europe ripe for revolution, but only if political forces appear that satisfy two conditions. They must be seen to have a plausible chance of gaining power. And they must seem thoroughly different from the current European establishment. So SYRIZA's political rhetoric, which rightly appalls anyone with an inkling of economics and good sense, may well have tapped a rich seam of voter discontent.
All this suggests that the revolution taking place in Greece and the Netherlands could pop up elsewhere in Europe. For instance, "Pirate Parties" have recently appeared in most EU countries; they have already formed a Pirate International. Their parent, the Swedish Pirate Party, played a crucial role in WikiLeaks. Their initial demand was the virtual elimination of copyright, but now they have a broad range of controversial programs.
Within the last year, the German Pirate Party easily entered four provincial German parliaments. The next national German election is due in late 2013. There could be more surprises in store.
In Greece, therefore, the parties of the old European regime of center-right and center-left have been forced to band together against the newcomers. One might expect that their counterparts in the EPP and the PES, and especially in Germany, would do everything to help them.
On the contrary, hostility toward the new Greek government is widespread in Germany. "Patience with Athens Nearing an End in Germany" is a typical headline in the German press. Among more sober German voices, the respected weekly Die Zeit recently asked (July 24): "Precisely when Greece is cutting back like never before, why is Berlin sparking a debate about an exit of that country from the Euro?"
For all the talk of pan-European political parties, there is a grave lack of communication between their Greek and German counterparts. They truly do not speak the same language.
On the Greek side, for instance, both ND and PASOK felt obliged to promise to "renegotiate the memorandum" in their election campaigns of June 2012. Anything less would have been electoral suicide. The guidelines of their joint government likewise aimed at replacing some of the most painful details of the bailout terms with "equivalent measures." Such talk went down badly with Greece's creditors.
In the meantime, Greece had a visit of the "Troika" that monitors its compliance with the bailouts: the representatives of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. By all accounts, the long discussions between the Troika and the Greek government reached a satisfactory conclusion.
The Troika ruled out various "equivalent measures," but agreed to consider others. Before leaving on August 5, it also approved in principle the government's package of further cuts in the public sector for 2013-2014. If the details can be resolved to mutual satisfaction, in September the Troika will agree to the continuation of the bailout.
There should be a sympathetic welcome for a Greek government that risks domestic unpopularity in its resolve to deal with the grave flaws that have plagued the modern Greek state since its birth in the 1820s, as I have described elsewhere. But many leading German politicians refuse to believe it.
Thus the mass-circulation Bild am Sonntag published two articles on August 5. One described the agreement reached with the Troika as a glimmer of hope, noting the new list of sacrifices imposed upon the Greek public. The other was an interview with Markus Söder, a prominent German conservative, who demanded that Greece should be thrown out of the Eurozone forthwith. We recall that Söder's party (the CSU) is a member of the European People's Party along with ND – but no European solidarity here.
Germany's best-known magazine, Der Spiegel, responded on August 7 by placing Söder along with Alexis Tsipras, the leader of SYRIZA, upon its list of "the ten most dangerous politicians of Europe in the Euro Crisis." That verdict cannot be faulted. All those discussions in Germany, by the way, were immediately picked up and reprinted by the press in Greece.
The anti-Greek hysteria in Germany is shortsighted. German politicians should reflect that if the revolution against the old regime is not stopped in Greece, it may turn up on their own doorstep.