The Reality of Greece’s Elections: A Double-edged Sword

The new Greek government must craft a comprehensive policy – one that tackles the menace of economic collapse, Islamophobia, xenophobia, and their social consequences.

Greek national elections sparked a wave of hope across southern Europe as left-wing party Syriza took first place in the polls with 36 percent of the vote. For many fatigued citizens, Syriza’s win symbolizes a move away from harsh Western-imposed austerity policies, which failed to live up to economic promises. For others, the win also confirms the triumph of Greek youth, struggling middle class, and vulnerable populations against the country’s corrupt oligarchs. After all, this is the first time in modern history that a leftist party has proven victorious in Greek national elections. Yet hidden behind this atmosphere of optimism is a lingering threat, one that often goes hand-in-hand with economic deprivation. The Greek neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn is also celebrating this election, coming in third place with 6.3 percent of the vote, earning 17 seats in parliament. Therefore, alongside many election victories comes a warning: Greek society requires more than just economic healing; it demands a campaign against the biggest product of economic crisis – xenophobia.

Reasons to Hope: Economic Rescue?

On one hand, the election has already distanced Greece from past economic disasters. Although the IMF predicted that Greece would grow following its aid package in 2010, the economy instead shrunk by 25 percent, wages plummeted, and youth unemployment rose to 60 percent. As Greece sunk deeper into societal ruin, Western Europe showed little mercy. Greek elites, in the meantime, continued to avert taxes and ignored the plight of the majority of the workforce. Thus, while Syriza’s anti-debt repayment platform may threaten the stability of the European Union and its biggest players, this platform is exactly what many Greeks need to hear after years of unending corruption, oligarchic policies, crippling social sacrifices, and zero improvements. In a symbolic act of solidarity, Syriza has already removed the iron barricades surrounding the Greek Parliament, which served to protect Greek lawmakers from angry anti-austerity protests since 2010.

Syriza is promising more radical change, although many doubt its financial ability to deliver. The party aims to generate 300,000 new jobs, catered to young workers and the long-term unemployed. It also plans to boost the minimum monthly wage, bring back more generous pensions, provide food and energy subsidies to struggling families, and offer free, need-based health insurance. These programs will be funded partly through efforts to minimize tax evasion, although some newly-established taxes, including the property tax, may soon be eliminated for the poor and middle classes. Most importantly, Syriza is pushing for dramatic relief of Greece’s colossal debt burden. Aside from its controversial moratorium on debt payment, the party demands that long-run debt repayment be linked to Greek economic growth, not just the national budget. In the long-run, Syriza wants the Troika to ease up on Greece – hopefully by writing off large portions of its debt, similarly to what the West did for post-World War II Germany. Regardless of the harsh realities of implementation, many Greek citizens desperately agree and eagerly await these policy changes.

Reasons to Worry: Racism is here to stay

Unfortunately, the results of the recent election aren’t all progressive or hopeful. Xenophobic political leaders have returned, taking advantage of the bleak economic situation and desperate citizenry within Greece. Right now, unemployment soars at over 25 percent, public health services are on the verse of collapse, suicide rates are high, infant mortality is rising, and over a million people have no access to healthcare. Such socio-economic trends may begin to explain why a fringe ultra-nationalist party such as Golden Dawn rose from 0.29 percent of the electorate in the 2009 national elections to 7 percent in the June 2012 elections. Somehow, even with many of its top officials in prison or pending trial for affiliations with criminal gangs, Golden Dawn managed to gain over 6 percent of the national vote this election. By now, the party no longer represents mere protest votes or a few angry citizens – it embodies a solid segment of the electorate characterized by an extreme, racist ideology. This level of continued support spells danger for Greek social dynamics, as it is nested within increasingly nationalistic demands throughout all of Europe.

Anti-Islamic sentiments were especially evident during a recent Golden Dawn party rally, further echoing Europe’s rising tide of Islamophobia. “We vote Golden Dawn so that there will be no mosques, not in Athens, not anywhere,” said parliamentary candidate Ilias Panagiotaros during the rally. He then declared that Islamists in Greece “steal, kill and rape and have built hundreds of mosques in our neighborhoods and no one does anything about it.” Islam, however, isn’t the party’s only target. Golden Dawn has consistently been accused of carrying out deadly attacks on immigrants and political opponents, and its manifesto pledges to detain illegal immigrants and have them deported. Party members often partake in Nazi-style salutes, and they also demands tax breaks to increase Greece’s low birth rate, fearing that they are “becoming a minority in [their] own country.” Similar to the Nazi party, they wish to become a “one-race nation” in the heart of classical Europe.

The neo-fascist party gained followers in Greece by riding waves of anti-immigration sentiments. Today, these sentiments are magnified by a seemingly never-ending economic downturn and lack of jobs. It is bad enough that all of Greek society is suffering from economic tragedy, but the situation may get much worse for Greece’s immigrant minorities, such as the large number of Albanians, who don’t even have official minority recognition in law. Focusing merely on the economic dimensions of the crisis will not help these minorities; it will not directly address the spread of anti-immigrant, racist views across Greece and Europe. Ultimately, a blind focus on the economy may open the door to xenophobic policymaking. Moreover, a rise in support for Golden Dawn will further distance Greece from Western nations, as party followers despise both the EU and the United States.

Hence, the new Greek government must craft a comprehensive national policy – one that tackles both the menace of economic collapse and its social consequences. The sustained electoral success of Golden Dawn confirms the existence of serious anti-immigration and anti-Islam hostilities among the Greek populace. Now it’s time to address these concerns before they spiral out of control on a continent struggling to craft a pluralist future. 

 

Cover photo credit: bluto blutarski/flickr/some rights reserved.

 

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Sidita Kushi

Sidita Kushi is a Doctoral Candidate in Political Science at Northeastern University. Her research focuses on political economy, identity, and security within Eastern Europe and the Balkans. She has recently published on the threat of Greater Albania in New Eastern Europe and on the origins of Albanian-Serbian relations in TransConflict. Sidita has also previously published on transatlantic relations and the functionalities of NATO within the Balkans. Follow her @SiditaKushi.