“Where there is an economic crisis, a political crisis follows” Dr. Stella Ladi of Panteion University in Athens recently told me, and one look at the current state of affairs in Greece would seem to affirm that statement. Unable to form a government after their inconclusive election, the people of Greece will hold another round of elections on June 17th in attempt to find a leader for their crisis-stricken nation. At stake in this vote will be the country’s place in the Eurozone, as well as perhaps the fate of the Eurozone itself.
At the present many polls show the front-runner is Alexis Tsirpas of the far-left Syriza party, a once minor coalition of the socialist left that has seen its support swell recently. Their sudden rise in popularity is due mostly to widespread opposition to the harsh austerity measures implemented to avoid default. But while many Greek voters are enamoured with the thought of a break from the lean times of austerity, the international community has serious fears over whether a Syriza victory could mean Greece’s exit from the Eurozone. If that were to happen, the result would bring down markets, and threaten to devastate the already fragile state of the Euro.
“They’re playing with fire,” said Stella Ladi in regards to Syriza’s declarations of reneging or renegotiating the harsh terms of the Greek bailout. A former public policy expert for the ministry of the interior, she explained that while most people in Greece “understand the political and economic reasons for staying in the Eurozone,” they also want an end to the current terms of austerity. However, after the ramshackle results of the last election, it may be fair to say that Greeks don’t really know what they want.
“In modern Greek history, there is a close relationship between national humiliation and political radicalization” Christopher Hitchens wrote in the late 1980s, and his words have proved woefully true. In addition to Syriza, another formerly fringe party with surprising gains was Golden Dawn, a party that is at best ultra-nationalist, and at worst out-and-out neo-Nazis. Complete with black-shirted thugs who have taken to beating up immigrants, as well as a holocaust-denying leader of the party, Golden Dawn received 7 per cent of the vote. While their polling numbers are down by a few points since then, they are nevertheless a frightening reminder of the poisonous ideologies that can begin to corrupt democracy during times of economic strife. In a country that was a dictatorship as recently as 1974, it is even more worrisome.
These startling election results and the downward economic spiral of Greece was a focal topic of concern at the G8 summit this weekend, as leaders pledged their support for the embattled nation. Their backing has seemed to quell market fears, at least in the short term, but the true test of stability will come during the election. If the Greeks can form a functional government they can begin to plot a way forward, but in order to do so successfully, they must reject both ignorant radicalism and the quick-fix clientelism that sparked the crisis in the first place.
“We have to make changes at a slow pace” Stella Ladi explained, “maybe renegotiate some of the strictest [austerity] measures.” If Greece was to accomplish that task, by voting with reason instead of “just out of frustration,” and by pushing Syriza to “water down expectations” (as the party has seemingly already begun to do), they could move back towards the Eurozone and stability. “Anything else” she says, “would be catastrophic.”
Nick Robins-Early is a freelance journalist currently based in Washington, D.C. Follow him @nickrobinsearly.