Can Greece shake off its political passivity?

The apparent mood of passivity and disillusionment among the Greek public will likely increase the abstention rate in the next elections, and the latest wave of strikes and the mobilisation of trade unions may be early signs of mounting resentment against the government.

The public mood in Greece has gone through three stages since January 2015: optimism, agony, and passivity. The first stage, optimism, corresponds to the first months after Syriza’s victory in the elections of January 2015, when a positive turn for Greece seemed possible in spite of the critical situation in the country. The second stage, agony, was the period after the July 2015 referendum, when anxieties were high about a potential Grexit (if not Graccident), if the negotiations between Athens and the creditors were to end in a deadlock. The third stage refers to the state of widespread apathy that seems to characterise a considerable chunk of the Greek electorate after the compromise on a Third Memorandum and the victory of the coalition of Syriza and the Independent Greeks in the September 2015 elections.

The governing coalition: More sustainable than meets the eye

The current government of Syriza and the Independent Greeks seems to be more sustainable than one might think. On the one hand, the two partners’ different political origins have triggered occasional misunderstandings. For instance, the Independent Greeks may not be comfortable with the “open borders” outlook on the refugee question advocated by various Syriza affiliates. Furthermore, Migration Policy Minister Ioannis Mouzalas’s recent reference to Greece’s northern neighbour as “Macedonia” rather than “the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” infuriated the Independent Greeks’ leader, Panos Kammenos. But such frictions have not evolved into critical problems for the coalition, in part because the Independent Greeks, as the smaller partner, seem to be very “situationally adaptive” in their relations with Syriza.

The partners seem to be considering ways to consolidate their position in the halls of power. The government’s attitudes towards the media and the press reflect this desire. Minister of State Nikos Pappas has sponsored a new legal framework that would reduce the number of countrywide TV stations to approximately four. Moreover, last month, the Association of Greek Journalists banned a number of its members who had allegedly been scaremongering in favour of the “Yes” campaign during last July’s referendum on accepting the Troika’s terms. In this effort to weaken opposition voices in the private media, the government is aided by the European Union’s apparent neutrality in light of the necessity for the Third Memorandum to be implemented.

This does not mean that the picture is bright for Syriza. The party’s internal opposition (the so-called 53 MPs) continue to raise objections to the austerity package. Most importantly, several opinion polls hint that opposition party New Democracy has become increasingly popular since Kyriakos Mitsotakis took over its leadership. The new leader of Greece’s conservatives has vowed to lead a non-populist and more centrist alternative to Syriza. The latest polls also indicate widespread dissatisfaction with the party’s “capitulation” to the creditors. This means that the ruling party is likely to lose a non-negligible portion of its voters to more leftist options: mainly the Greek Communist Party (KKE), and to a lesser extent, the two smaller parties, Popular Unity (LAE) and Course of Freedom (PE), the new party founded in April 2016 by Zoe Konstantopoulou, former Speaker of the Hellenic Parliament. There may even be some grounds to assume that a certain percentage of Syriza’s more apolitical voters might opt for the far-right Golden Dawn in a gesture of protest.

The European dimension and its ramifications in domestic politics

Since September 2015, Athens has demonstrated commitment in the implementation of the Troika’s “prior actions” along the route towards a final agreement with the creditors. Throughout the last few months, the government has been proceeding with the privatisation of vital sectors of the economy. This includes the latest agreement with the China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO) on the Piraeus port, the ongoing privatisation of the Thessaloniki port, and the bids for foreign investors interested in buying shares in the state electricity company (DEI) or participating in the privatisation of the Hellenic Gas Transmission System Operator (DESFA).

The Syriza/Independent Greeks government has also endorsed cross-border energy projects such as the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) and the Gas Interconnector Greece-Bulgaria (IGB) pipeline. During its time as the opposition, Syriza objected to these schemes on ideological grounds and because of environmental concerns.

However, negotiations with the creditors have not been entirely without obstacles. In particular, tensions have frequently surfaced with the IMF due to its pressure to speed up the pace of reform. Nevertheless, the government has, so far, turned out to be quite effective at striking a balance of power with the two other partners in the Troika, the European Council and the ECB.

The Troika gives Athens the basic frame for the implementation of the reforms. However, it is essentially up to the government to specify the pattern and the roadmap according to which the reforms are implemented. For instance, EU Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis recently reiterated that the European Council thinks the acceleration of structural reforms is most important, which would include additional layoffs in the public sector. Instead, the government has been more inclined to pursue a “vertical” strategy and to increase taxation. Within the broader context of the governing coalition’s desire to consolidate power, this is an understandable tactical adjustment. According to the latest electoral demographics, public sector employees constitute the backbone of Syriza’s voters. However painful it might appear at first glance, increasing taxation might be a less perilous option for the government in comparison to massive layoffs and further privatisation in the public sector.

New Democracy’s Kyriakos Mitsotakis has spoken out against the government’s way of implementing the Third Memorandum. Greece’s largest opposition party has accused the government of obstructing start-up entrepreneurship and holding back growth with its insistence on high taxation. The new leader of Greece’s conservatives enjoys the support of key political actors from the centre-right in the core EU member-states (for instance, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel). Nevertheless, at the moment, the powerful European governments have clearly prioritised the implementation of the Third Memorandum and its terms. Under these circumstances, they seem happy to opt for a status quo approach, thereby understating the importance of other policy areas and granting “silent” assent to the government’s programme.

The apparent mood of passivity and disillusionment among the Greek public will likely increase the abstention rate in the next elections, and the latest wave of strikes and the mobilisation of trade unions may be early signs of mounting resentment against the government. Even so, it might still be premature to speak of a “calm before the storm” or to anticipate civil unrest in Greece. 

Vassilis Petsinis is Visiting Research Fellow at Tartu University.         

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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