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

By Tristan Smaldone
2015, Vol. 7 No. 07 | pg. 1/3 |


This study looks at populist movements in Greece that formed in reaction to the failures of elite statist politicians. Beginning with the 2008 student uprisings in Athens, this narrative follows the escalation of social and political activism as the country entered a period of economic crisis. The impact of austerity measures, imposed in 2010 and 2012 by the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission, and the European Central Bank, is examined in relation to the prevalence of social indignation and the development of nation-wide social solidarity networks. The role of the deficient Greek media in the formation of a popular movement and the success of radical populist parties is also explored. Through social surveys and reports, the interaction of deprivation and indignation is analyzed to answer the question, how has radical populism affected the quality of democracy in Greece?

Nearly every aspect of political, social and economic life in Greece has been uprooted by an austerity program that was first implemented by the government in 2010, following an initial signing of the ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ on May 3rd of that year. The ‘memorandum’ was an Economic Adjustment Program designed to help the country avoid defaulting on its loans and entering bankruptcy. Accompanying these measures was imposed austerity, overseen by three supranational institutions: The International Monetary Fund, the European Commission, and the European Central Bank, commonly known as the ‘Troika’. The significance of these measures will be analyzed in this study with particular sensibility towards its effect on social cohesion and the national party system.

Austerity has had a substantial impact on economic and social conditions in Greece. A majority of the country’s citizens believe that the agreement between the Hellenic Republic and the Troika represents a violation of their constitution and a painful loss of national sovereignty. This is coupled with staggering levels of institutional distrust, exasperated by statist politics embedded in a culture of corruption, clientelism, and opaqueness.

A division between the ‘people’ of Greece, and the imposition of power has come to define the social ethos in the country, inevitably leading to an increase in extra-institutional, political and social activism (Sakellaropoulos, 2012). Formal bodies of civil society like NGO’s, public media providers, and labor unions have been underfunded, defunded, or refuted under austerity. Extra-institutional bodies have occupied the space left by obsolescent institutions with a grassroots pragmatism. This may at times blur the lines of legality and even challenge the normative perception of what democracy has come to mean in a modern Europe.

A dystopic mass consciousness has formed, within which a diversity of grievances has coalesced into a hegemonic identity- the creation of ‘a people,’ standing in binary opposition to foreign and domestic imposition, to ‘otherness,’ and to immorality.1

The creation of this ‘hegemonic identity’ and subsequent awakening of civil engagement is essential to Ernesto Laclau’s view of populism. Through Laclau’s distinction between ‘democratic’ and ‘popular’ demands, the current and precarious political situation in Greece can be better understood.

Radical populist parties on both sides of the political spectrum have successfully arrogated the popular sentiments of Greek citizens, gaining official political standing as elected members of government, at local, national, and European levels, all through democratically held elections. However, their nonconformist ideologies and direct engagement with grassroots civil society has been treated as a spectacle in international media and mainstream discourse.

The argument presented in this paper is that Greece is now emerging from the crisis with a re-moralized vision of what will constitute their social and political spheres. Laclau’s work will be utilized as a theoretical framework around which the development of popular demand and populist-party success in the country will be explained. This study will highlight positive developments within the context of the crisis by analyzing the increase in social solidarity. Special attention will be paid to the underlying ideologies of activists and radical political parties who have critically engaged with the dominant powers in Greece. The social impact of austerity on the Greek ethos, along with that of a morally decaying media environment, will also be scrutinized. From this perspective, the overarching question of how radical populism has affected democracy in Greece will be addressed.

The Fractious Relationship Between Populism and Democracy

The manner in which populist movements engage or disengage with democratic principles depends on the adjectives attached to each term. An objective evaluation of particular popular demands within the context of an already established democratic order needs to consider both the quality of the demand and the quality of the democracy under scrutiny. Furthermore, when looking at populist political parties, it’s important to distinguish between their political message and their political strategy, which may be at odds (Mudde, Kaltwasser 2012).

Laclau’s rationale behind the formation of populism begins with equivalential and differential logics. This is applicable when a heterogeneous group assumes a position of alterity from the dominant or elite echelon in society. Their bisected position is made cohesive by an ‘equivalential chain’ of unmet demands or grievances. The linking of an indignant multiplicity is what Laclau refers to as a ‘hegemonic identity’. This identity relies neither on a singular ideology or any particular social grouping and cannot be universally contained outside of its oppositional stance. Its identity becomes an ‘empty signifier’ for ‘a people’. The emergence of a hegemonic identity in Greece, present in diverse examples of social and political antagonism, will be traced in the pages to follow. First, the theoretical structure that connects such an identity to the democratic process at large needs to be developed.

In the comparative study, Populism in Europe and the Americas, Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser elaborate on the interaction of populism and varying forms of democracy. They begin with a minimalist definition of populism, which is derived in part from Laclau’s work. Next, they provide a typology of democracies and theorize about the interaction of populist movements with each instance (Mudde, Kaltwasser, 2012).

In theory, the authors argue that populism tends to support popular sovereignty and majority rule. Furthermore, it re-engages neglected or marginalized people and re-politicizes issues that have been undervalued in the mainstream establishment. However, the favoring of a plebiscitary order may upstage constitutional principles and overshadow pluralistic minority rights (Mudde, Kaltwasser, 2012). In other words, there is a strong emancipatory potential in populist movements that conflicts with normative understandings of liberal democracy. This potential will be explored further in the pages to follow. First, a background to the current crisis is in order.

The Beginning

Greece entered a period of audacious and experimental modernization when Costas Simitis assumed leadership of the PASOK government in 1996 following the death of prime minister Andreas Papandreou. The political agenda rapidly gravitated towards the integration of neo-liberal economics and the privatization of social services. The escalation of financial capitalism during this period was responsible for a massive transfer of wealth and exasperation of inequality (Douzinas, 2013). Under the Simitis premiership people borrowed heavily from banks and saved less. The percentage of household income being applied to savings dropped from 14.1% to 8.9% during this period. Concurrently, bank-lending rates, which were lowered to meet EMU standards, doubled household debt in the first six years of Greece’s membership (Sakellaropoulos, 2012).

The same time period was also marked with high levels of economic growth and an endemic ‘false consciousness’ developing in its shadow. People were awarded spurious purchasing power under the imprudent guidance of the banking system while the national government struggled to mask its own delinquency and failure. The ephemeral sense of well being positively affected a shift towards post-materialist values in Greek society (Diakoumakos, 2012). It was this paradigmatic shift, which underscored the eruption of social indignation, as the luster of modernity corroded and the truth of systemic depravity surfaced.

A Brief Sketch of the Social Impact

The social impact of austerity measures in Greece is staggering. As part of an imposed internal devaluation by the ‘Troika’ in February of 2012, to boost the countries trade competitiveness and relieve the high unemployment rate, the minimum wage in Greece was reduced by 22% for people over the age 25 and 32% for people under. Unfortunately, this has had an inverted effect on unemployment as rates continued to rise (Mastiganis, 2013). In fact, since 2008 the unemployment rate has gone up more than 20%. From the beginning of the austerity measures in 2010 the unemployment rate has increased each year from 12.6% to over 27% (Eurostat, a.).

Not surprisingly, unemployment has negatively affected people’s subjective well being in the country, which according to the ‘life satisfaction’ variable in the OECD Better Life Index, has declined more than 36% between 2007 and 2013 (OECD). Homelessness has increased 25 percent between 2009 and 2013 (Mastiganis, 2013). The level of severe material deprivation for Greeks 18 years and older has been increasing since 2008 and was over six times higher than the EU average in 2012 (Eurostat, b.). It’s also important to consider the high numbers of undocumented people living in the country who are equally, if not asymmetrically, affected by austerity but may not be represented in these figures. From the people bearing the brunt of social degeneration in Greece, it’s impossible to expect political docility.

Table 1: Severe Material Deprivation Rate (Age 18-65)

Table 1

Source: Eurostat [ilc_mddd15] table created by author.

Indignation in a Time of Crisis

Youth movements in Greece are not a phenomenon limited to the timeframe of the current crisis. It was an uprising by students at the Polytechnic University in Athens that initiated the collapse of a military junta, which ruled the country from 1967-74 (Diakoumakos, 2012). When a 15-year old student named Alexandros Grigoropoulos was shot and killed by police in early December 2008, it was the youth that took to the streets with purposeful vengeance, occupying hundreds of schools, dozens of radio stations, television studios, and town halls. They fought against the police in the streets of Athens, looting shops and destroying banks (Sakellaropoulos, 2012).

One aspect that differentiated the 2008 insurrection from the 1973 events at the Polytechnic University was the heterogeneous composition of the participants. Not only did students from all social strata participate, but also young members of the workforce, including foreign workers, all acting out against a multiplicity of grievances. These ranged from police brutality to accusations of systemic corruption, social inequality and economic uncertainty (Diakoumakos, Sakellaropoulos, 2012). The lack of particularity in the instigation of this uprising indicates a cohesive shift in values, shared across the youth population in Greece. As Christmas of 2008 approached, the street violence calmed down. However, the occupations and demonstration continued with an imminence of volatility.

Prime minister George Papandreou announced in late 2009 that Greece’s economy was spiraling into debt and that large-scale loans would be needed in order to avoid default. The International Monetary Fund, along with the European Commission and Central Bank, was to provide this loan with strict conditions of austerity. Giorgos Kasimatis, one of the countries foremost constitutional scholars, has spoken out about the illegality of this agreement.2 He points to the fact that both in the Greek constitution and in European and international laws, it’s stipulated that any and all international agreements require national legislative approval. Neither of the memorandum agreements passed through the Hellenic parliament for ratification (Nevradakis, 2012). Not only were the austerity measures perceived as a considerable loss of national sovereignty and an undermining of the Greek constitution but they also had a harsh and negative social impact, which would be felt across Greek society.

The announcement of the imposed austerity immediately triggered strikes across Greece even before its consequence had manifested socially. General strikes in the public and private sectors broke out in early February 2010 as the first economic measures were announced, with large demonstrations in Athens and Thessaloniki drawing violent clashes with riot police. In early March, a twenty-four hour strike was instigated by the Greek Communist Party and the Coalition of Radical Left with the help of the two largest trade unions, GGCL and ADEDY. Nationwide strikes and demonstrations would continue through March and April (Psimitis, 2011).

As the Hellenic Parliament deliberated over new austerity measures on the 5th and 6th of May, a massive general strike swept over the country and hundreds of thousands demonstrated in Syntagma square in Athens. The new measures clearly delineated cuts to salaries and pensions in the public sector, changes in the legal structure of the private sector to allow for more firings and less unemployment benefits, and an overall increase in taxes along with massive cuts to state expenditure. From this point on, protestation in Greece was no longer confined to a youth movement or anarchist subculture, but had now become a heterogeneous popular movement embodied by the young and old, the rich and poor, men and women, both Greek nationalists and immigrants alike, and people from opposing ideological backgrounds (Psimitis, 2011).

A study on new participants in the anti-austerity protests, based on a survey conducted by Kappa Research in December 2010, provides an empirical backdrop to some of the dynamics involved in the increased heterogenic constitution of protest in Greece. The study found that new demonstrators were significantly less inclined to identify with left-wing ideology than seasoned demonstrators, although strangely the reverse was true for new strikers. Furthermore, union membership, along with levels of material deprivation, was not correlated to new participation in demonstrations or strikes (Rüdig, Karyotis, 2013). What this study indicates is that anti-austerity protest in Greece attracted a diverse group of participants, many of whom were novice strikers and demonstrators.

The fact that much of the protest during the crisis involved non-seasoned strikers and demonstrators, not necessarily driven by ideology or representing any individual demographic group, reflects the presence of an indignant ‘popular’ demand, as opposed to a particularistic democratic demand. This incarnation satisfies the preconditions for Laclau’s approach to the notion of populism, namely:

  1. The formation of an internal antagonistic frontier separating the ‘people’ from power.
  2. An equivalential articulation of demands making the emergence of the ‘people’ possible (Laclau, 2007, p. 74).

Similar circumstances can be observed both in the rise of collective, horizontally structured, social solidarity groups in crisis-time Greece, along with citizen participation in extra-legal protestation.

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