Op-eds | May 11, 2012

Way forward for Greece is unclear

But perhaps a new Greece - a new world - is being born

Parkland Institute

It is election night in Greece. Television stations are filled with talking heads examining the entrails of what has happened. In the Plaka, the capital's old tourist area, shops are closed, but the restaurants are open for the few tourists, though the mood subdued.

A few blocks away, in Syntagma square in front of the Greek parliament, the crowds are unusually small. Most times, the square is the hub of activity.

Conspicuous is a tree emblazoned with wreathes and written notes, homage to Dimitris Christoulas, a 77-year-old pensioner and social activist who committed suicide in early April to protest the austerity cuts and their impact on Greece.

The place is surrounded by (mainly) young people, drawn from all over Greece, the rest of Europe and beyond, camped in protest and solidarity with the Greek people.

My wife and I meet an older man and woman who have just come from voting.

"For the first time in my life, I am scared of what might happen," she says on this first Sunday of May.

Fear is only one emotion, however. There is also anger and confusion.

But also a strange calm; the calm of great expectations, that perhaps a new Greece - a new world - is being born.

I turn to two young women from Italy and France. They tell me, "We are all Greeks now." A young Spaniard has arrived from Madrid where thousands have also gathered to demand changes to the current economic and political structure.

For the moment, however, there is no clarity as to what that world will look like.

With the votes counted, New Democracy holds about 21 per cent of the vote, while PASOK, the Greek socialist party with which it has shared government for nearly 40 years, is in third place with about 13 per cent of the vote.

Splitting the duo is the Left Coalition party that opposes the bailout conditions that the two traditional parties supported. And then there are a host of other parties, including Golden Dawn, a neo-Nazi group that now will hold almost 20 seats in parliament. Greece faces a divided parliament, reflective of a divided country. The way forward is unclear.

The delegitimization of the traditional centrist parties is not peculiar to Greece.

Throughout much of the West, the middle way has disintegrated. The two-party systems at the centre of politics have given way to polarized parties on the right and left.

During the postwar years, brokerage parties of one form or another arose in various countries: Britain, Germany, France and - of course - Canada, where the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives once dominated.

For the last three decades, however, corporations and their allies have denounced consensual politics to free capital from state regulation.

The result has been the erosion of the postwar bargain between citizens and their governments and the discrediting of centrist parties. Not infrequently, the right has also insinuated that democracy is a failure. We reap what we sow.

Of course, these middle parties often did much to aid in their own demise. In Greece, both New Democracy and PASOK have done much to earn their public rebuke, the former by its past corruption, the latter by a combination of incompetence, and both by their support of the harsh austerity measures, blood offerings to the European Bank, that are killing this country. Neither party offered realistic hope. Things fall apart; the centre does not hold.

In country after country, parties of the middle are in trouble. Technocrats, or at least politicians speaking as technocrats, rule. On the right, parties have acceded to the austerity demands of bankers because they want to; on the left, they do so because they have lost faith in the socialist project and have capitulated. In both cases, their governments declare their powerlessness to act for the people. They tell their citizens to fend for themselves, that the state - and thus elections - are meaningless.

Thus, what was an economic crisis is increasingly a political crisis. Afraid and angry, citizens throughout Europe are turning even further to the right, often venting their anger against immigrants, to wit, Golden Dawn.

The crisis is particularly acute for the traditional parties of the left. After 1945, they staked their political reputations on taming capital; the welfare state was the result. But now, left parties look more often as handmaidens or apologists for global finance. The result is that, in many countries, old left parties are in disrepute, Greece's PASOK among them. But the same description fits also the socialist party of Spain and the Labour party in Britain, holding a warning to the New Democrats in Canada. Where "left" parties are not (yet) in crisis, it is only because they have ceased to exist altogether, as in the U.S.

Is there a new left in the offing? Judging only by the youth in Syntagma square, the times seem auspicious, but the precise path still obscure.


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