Radical Populism in Crisis-Era Greece: Examining the Impact of Populist Movements on Greek Democracy

By Tristan Smaldone
2015, Vol. 7 No. 07 | pg. 2/3 |

Informal and Extra-institutional Developments in Civil Society

Cuts in general government consumption expenditure have coincided with a severe drop in per capita income, having profound effects on the well being of people in Greece.

Table 2: Per Capita GDP in Greece (USD)

Table 2


Table 3: Government Spending (billions, USD)

Table 3

Source: World Bank, tables created by author.

Formal bodies of civil society have deteriorated or been abandoned, compromising the overall state of social protection. Prior to the crisis, the Greek government provided funding to NGO’s operating in the country, all of which has been withdrawn. At the same time, cynical attitudes towards this patronage-based relationship, based on an overall distrust of government spending and the inherent lack of transparency in these transactions, have further discredited formal NGO’s (Sotiropoulos, Bourikos, 2014).

While the vertical relationship between the government and formal bodies of civil society has been weakened, social solidarity movements, characterized by their informal and horizontal composition, have rose to the occasion to provide supplemental protections for a struggling population.

These extra-institutional and informal movements typically reject hierarchical structure and commercialization, depending instead on volunteerism and citizen action (Pantazidou, 2012, Sitiropoulos, Bourikos, 2014). The message conveyed by social solidarity movements, formed specifically within the framework of ‘austerity,’ is one of togetherness and equality as opposed to traditional acts of charity, which are still carried out by the Greek Church and a diminished number of NGO’s (Patazidou, 2012). Another distinction here is that formal organizations provide for specific groups, while the informal provide for the general population (Pantazidou, 2012, Sitiropoulos, Bourikos, 2014).

There are numerous instances of this type of citizen action to cite, all developing post-austerity. A study of social solidarity and volunteerism in Greece, carried out at the University of Athens in 2014, provides a multitude of cases. The ‘potato movement,’ in which potato farmers from Northern Greece refused to sell to commercial supermarkets, instead eluding the middlemen and selling their products directly to consumers, is one such example. Elsewhere, volunteer based ‘Social Medical Centers’ and ‘Social Pharmacies’ have sprung up in cities all across Greece, providing healthcare to all vulnerable sectors of society- with particular attention to foreign migrants. Organized bartering networks have even replaced normal currency exchange at street markets in several Greek cities (Sotiropoulos, Bourikos, 2014).

An important distinction made in this study is that volunteerism in Greece is still less prominent than in other countries in Europe, although accurate data is limited, particularly concerning informal volunteerism. A case study of volunteer activity, carried out by the European Commission, found that volunteerism is on the rise in Greece. However, this claim is based on anecdotal evidence provided by interviews with members of the National Agency for Volunteering (National Report, n.d.). The OECD reported that, between 2007 and 2013, Greece showed an increase of 9.2% in solidarity and engagement indicators such as volunteerism (OECD, 2014). The transient and spontaneous nature of informal acts of social solidarity and volunteerism explains the difficulty in providing precise statistical analyses, despite its tangibility at the ‘street level’ in Greece. This difficulty also pertains to tracking extra-legal forms of social solidarity.

Extra-legal Direct Action

Aside from the familiar images of exploding Molotov cocktails, rock-throwing anarchists, looted storefronts, and burned-out banks, less violent extra-legal forms of direct civil action have also been widely employed throughout Greece and throughout the crisis.

One such example is collective expropriation. Over fifty such acts took place in large supermarket chains throughout the country between 2008 and 2012. Typically, these instances involved denominated groups of 20-30 activists who would fill dozens of shopping carts with groceries, leave without paying, then proceed to redistribute the food to random people on the streets. Often times, pamphlets were handed out with the food, which attached a political message to the service being provided. From the tenor of these pamphlets, it’s clear that these were anarchist groups who equated social hardships to an overall failure of the capitalist system (Pautz, Kiminou, 2013).

It’s interesting to note that instances of supermarket expropriation began in 2008, months before the December riots. In this sense, different forms of expropriation, which have followed the disposition of the anarchist supermarket ‘Robinhoods,’ have transcended the counter-cultural ontology, and assumed a cross-cultural constituency.

An extensive campaign, referred to as either the ‘can’t pay won’t pay’ or ‘I am not paying’ movement, has evolved into a nation-wide expression of disobedience in reaction to increased road tolls and public transportation fees. All across Greece people lifted bars at tolls and obstructed ticketing machines for public transportation. Although there is a central website for the movement, which disseminates information and acts as an apologia, it’s tactics have been adopted by thousands of people, autonomously. More recently, members from the Electricians Union have joined in, either refusing to disconnect or illegally reconnecting electricity to households, which were unable to pay their utility bills (Douzinas, 2013, Pantazidou, 2012).

Political Party Engagement in Grassroots Action

Throughout the crisis the fascist radical right group Golden Dawn has been persistent in grassroots social activism and intervention.3 In blatant displays of welfare chauvinism, the party has organized numerous food donation drives for Greeks nationals only. A group of party members have also taken part in vigilante law enforcement campaigns aimed at protecting Greeks from the menace of foreigners, often violently targeting undocumented workers in public markets (Stamouli, 2014, Roushas, 2012). Violent direct action has been incorporated into the grassroots message of Golden Dawn, fueling hundreds of recorded racist attacks across Greece by its members (Profile, 2013).

During the occupations in front of the Hellenic Parliament building in Athens, Golden Dawn was blocked from Syntagma Square. They were too fascist for even the upper section of the square, where other right-wing nationalists and orthodox extremists would gather in partition from the lower section filled with left-wing radicals. This ideological divide created a persistent tension that engaged the majority of the crowd, the non-radical, in discussion and consensus building, rooted in an omnipresent appeal for direct democracy. (Douzinas, 2013).

SYRIZA, who not only organized many social solidarity networks previously mentioned, also had a major presence in many of the demonstrations and occupations.4 The party’s inclusive engagement with immigrant, feminist, green, gay and other social rights networks in Syntagma proved to be an effective technique in the inevitable constitution of a political body seen as capable of representing a viable alternative to the political center, which was clearly disconnected from social reality (Wainwright, 2012). As an elected party, substantiated by its breakthrough performance in the 2012 national elections, SYRIZA has even pledged 20% of their MP salaries to social solidarity networks (Katerini, 2012). A retrospective look at the election cycle preceding the crisis is key to understanding the significance of both SYRIZA’s and Golden Dawn’s political triumph.

Background to the 2012 Elections

The Hellenic parliament election of 2009 was unremarkable in the sense that it was an extension of long standing political legacies in Greece. The socialist PASOK party, led by George Papandreau, whose father and grandfather also served as prime ministers to Greece, won 43.94% of the vote. This was compared to 33.49% for center-right New Democracy, led by Constantinos Karamanlis who had already been serving as prime minister in the two previous parliamentary sessions. The radical left party, SYRIZA obtained only 4.59% of the vote (Ministry of Interior, n.d.). The conventional party structure would soon be forsaken by a converging hegemony of social antagonism.

Under pressure from unfaltering demonstrations in front of the Hellenic parliament building in Athens in November 2011, George Papandreau announced plans for a referendum on the bail out and austerity. At an emergency meeting in Cannes, France between German Chancellor Merkel, French president Sarkozy and Papandreou, it was decided on Greece’s behalf that the referendum should be modified to instead determine Greece’s exit from the Eurozone. Knowing that the majority of people in Greece wanted to vote on the bail out rather than on a departure from the Euro, the prime minister left France defeated and decided to resign several days later (Simons, 2011 Douzinas, 2013). A coalition government was formed by PASOK, New Democracy, and ultra-nationalist LAOS, under the premiership of former European Central Bank vice president, Lukas Papademos. By February, a second bail out and debt-restructuring program was implemented.

The results of the 2012 Hellenic parliament elections were a clear indicator that, above all else, voters had demonized the memorandum. Anti-austerity parties drew significant numbers of votes away from the conventional parties. Support for PASOK dropped 31.66% from the prior parliament election. Support for New Democracy also fell by 3.83%. The radical-left party SYRIZA gained 25.07 % from 2009, winning 26.89% of the total vote and making it the main opposition party in the Hellenic parliament. The radical-right Golden Dawn, won an unprecedented 6.92%, obtaining 18 parliamentary seats (Ministry of Interior, n.d.). Favorable results for SYRIZA and Golden Dawn were similarly obtained in the 2014 local and European parliament elections, which will be explained further on. First, the ideologies of the two break-through radical parties will be scrutinized in order to better understand their success within the context of the crisis.

Radical Ideology and the Inclusion of ‘a People’

The formation of an ‘equivalential chain,’ binding together diverse grievances and antagonistic demands, predated the rise of populist political parties in the 2012 elections. A ‘people,’ which clearly bifurcated itself from the elite foreign and domestic ruling class, had been constituted prior to the electoral success of either SYRIZA or Golden Dawn, as explained earlier. The formation of demand-side populism was responsible for the collapse of support that PASOK and New Democracy would face between 2008 and 2012. SYRIZA and Golden Dawn were able to occupy the political space that was left behind, in part, by publicly engaging in civic activism, but also by positioning themselves as euroskeptic, anti-memorandum parties, both with strong but distinct messages of nationalism.

A look at SYRIZA’s 40-point program shows the party inextricably linking the ‘Troika’ and complicit elite ruling class in Greece, with the collapse of the welfare state and loss of popular sovereignty. Here, traditional Marxist class antagonism is equated to supranational infringements on self-determination (Halikiopoulou, Nanou, Vasilopoulou, 2012). In direct response, the party offers a clear strategy for the exit from the crisis. This includes negotiations for debt cancellation, income redistribution, special taxation on the rich, the nationalization of banks, and the deepening of democratic political and social rights (Links, n.d.). While SYRIZA labors on the point of reclaiming popular sovereignty, the loss of which it attributed to the policies of the former PASOK government, the party does not strongly oppose remaining in the European Union or staying in the Eurozone. In this respect, SYRIZA is able to juxtapose itself with the KKE (communist) party in Greece, who staunchly oppose both forms of integration (Gemenis, Kostas, Triga, 2013).

The party’s moderate euroskepticism seems to be in-line with popular sentiments in Greece. According to Eurobarometer public opinion poll taken in the spring 2014, out of the 28 EU member-states, Greece has the highest levels of distrust for the European Parliament, the European Commission, and the European Central Bank. However, in another Euroborometer poll taken later in the year, 59% of surveyed Greeks expressed a positive view of the Euro, this being even slightly higher than the EU average. Interestingly, positive opinions of the Euro have averaged much higher since 2008 than prior to. Trust in the European Institutions listed above, on the other hand, has diminished steadily from 2001 (Euroborometer).

While SYRIZA challenges the favoring of neo-liberal policies in European integration, Golden Dawn’s skepticism is based on the belief that integration is a threat to ethno-national identity (Halikiopoulou, Nanou, Vasilopoulou, 2012). While both radical parties have polarized their message against the elite political order, drawing on people’s fear of foreign imposition, Golden Dawn has taken their nativism to a much more pointed level, targeting foreign workers and immigrants. Their rendering of nationalism is rooted in a belief in the supremacy of the Greek nation. Immigrant groups are seen as a threat to the fixed notion of a mono-cultural Greece (Halikiopoulou, Nanou, Vasilopoulou, 2012). Furthermore, these ‘outgroups’ are blamed for the current unemployment crisis, a notion that has resonated with many voters (Roushas, 2014).

The ‘politics of fear’ often play an important role in the disposition of radical-right parties in Europe. (Mudde, 2007) Fear certainly functions as a dominant trait in the ideology of Golden Dawn. A study on party positions by Choose4Greece, an online voting advice forum, shows that of the 13 parties that competed in the May 2012 elections, Golden Dawn were among the strongest supporters of increased policing, the use of closed circuit cameras in public places, and the rejection of reduced defense spending (Gemenis, Triga, 2013).

The rhetoric found in Golden Dawn’s official election manifesto, although assumed to be moderated to avoid alienating potential voters, positions the party within the ‘third major ideology of history,’ in contrast to communism and capitalism.

The right and left solutions supposedly fighting each other, are just a fake theater of two partners who perpetuate the dominance of cosmopolitan internationalists, anti-national and anti-social forces (Xaamerike, n.d.)

The alternative ideology rests on the direct democratic participation of a people of common origin. The self-rule of a homogenous, ethnically ‘pure’ group, would constitute a social state, a ‘spiritual entity,’ rejecting economic stratification, the use of money, and private property. An emphasis on individualism would be replaced by the dominance of a cohesive community, where egalitarianism and equal opportunities would prevail while leaving the space for meritocracy to shape natural social divisions (Xaameriki, n.d.).

In the ideology of Golden Dawn, the ‘spiritual entity,’ which comprises the Greek nation, has lost its political sovereignty under the imposing laws of supranational institutions such as those in the ‘Troika’. The cosmopolitan nature of European integration is viewed as being destructive to Greek national identity, and specific EU mandates such as the ‘Dublin II Treaty’ are seen as exasperating the problem of foreign migration into the country.

The element of fear has played an important roll, both in the psyche of voters and the agenda of radical parties in Greece. There’s a conspiratorial tone in much of the rhetoric surrounding the crisis. An explication of the cultural-historical effect on this underlying fear is beyond the scope of this study. However, recent developments in the condition of the media landscape in Greece, and the possible impact on the quality of arguments surrounding popular sentiment, demands a place in this discourse.

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