The Disaster of Greek Austerity, Part 2

Evita Nolka

Evita Nolka is a Greek political scientist, holder of a MSc. in Strategic Studies and International Politics from the University of Macedonia. This is the concluding part of a two-part series. Part 1 is available here.

U-Turn by SYRIZA and Popular Disillusionment

Originally elected in January 2015 on a vehement anti-austerity platform, the Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has made an unprecedented U-turn. He has ignored the popular outcry against austerity – loudly expressed in a referendum on July 5 – and has given in to the creditors’ demands. In August a new bailout was signed and approved, including fresh austerity but also neo-colonial restrictions on national sovereignty giving the right to creditors to monitor the Greek government.

And yet, Tsipras won a new election on September 20, again forming a government. The result seemed to vindicate his capitulation. It appears that Greek voters, confronted with a narrative presenting the new agreement as inescapable, opted to give the governing party a second chance.

“This wasn’t a vote of hope but a vote for the “lesser evil” within the limits of a “nothing can really change” mentality,” says Costas from Patra.

Costas is even convinced that if there was another general election soon, the governing party would still emerge victorious. Greek voters appear to think that there is no credible alternative to austerity. “Ever since the PM marginalized any voices in SYRIZA that tried to show a different way and declared there was no alternative, the Greek society, having lost its morale, has come to accept its fate,” he says.

Truly to understand the popular mood, however, one should take a look at the abstention rates in the recent election. Turnout plummeted, with a record-high abstention rate of 45%. If we take into account the blank ballots that reached an extraordinary 2.5%, the message is quite clear: the Greek people’s disappointment has led to a massive rejection of the political process altogether.

18-year-old Victoria tells me that most of her friends either cast a blank ballot or didn’t bother to vote at all since “they didn’t believe any of the existing political parties could actually make a difference”.

Defeat Threatens Apathy

The low turnout of the elections was not an isolated incident. During the past few years, social unrest and frustration over the austerity measures gave rise to widespread discontent and large-scale demonstrations. But the decline of struggle as unemployment began to bite and especially the betrayal of hopes by SYRIZA have led to a wholesale rejection of politics by broad layers of the population. The sense of defeat and indifference is pronounced among workers, and especially the youth.

“Wishful thinking,” says Costas about SYRIZA’s hopes to overturn austerity by creating a domino effect in the countries of the European south. The balance of power has proven not that easy to change and now people feel that Greece is being penalized for questioning Europe’s neoliberal policies.

European Union officials have categorically ruled out any possibility of a debt write-down. Restructuring in the form of a lengthening of maturity or perhaps a lowering of interest rates is still on the table, but it would have very debatable long-term results.

As for the SYRIZA government’s current promise to implement a “parallel program” that would counteract the impact of the harsh new austerity policies, the country is still awaiting the announcement of concrete measures. It looks as if it is going to wait for long – “parallel” programs running alongside austerity measures are not what the EU has in mind, and nor would they be possible to implement.

The Prospect of Change

The only real question for Greece at the moment is: could there be an alternative path?

Not everyone is despondent. In a school building in central Athens I meet Georgia, a young teacher and mother of three, who offers extra classes to underprivileged students free of charge. She tells me that the economic crisis has made her more politically aware and that she now chooses to spend much of her time and energy in political and social movements and social solidarity structures, where she can actually feel useful.

“People would take to the streets because they hoped they could make an actual difference,” she says. “Now it is clear that our hopes were false.”

That said, so far the only coherent argument about how Greece could adopt an anti-bailout strategy has been presented by Popular Unity, a new political front that includes SYRIZA’s left wing that split from the party by refusing to accept the new bailout. However, Popular Unity has failed to convince Greek voters and did not gain parliamentary representation.

“People feel exhausted, defeated and betrayed”, continues Georgia, “but many refuse to give up”. This is just a period of reflection and finding alternative ways of resistance that could potentially be the basis for something new to emerge in the future. The hope is not lost that Greece would be able regain some economic stability and find a development policy in the interest of its people.

The ever-optimistic Victoria, is certain that Greek people are ready to believe in something new. They just need to be inspired. “Hopefully, after some time new political entities will emerge, new ideas will take form and people won’t hesitate to support them.”

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