Greek election exposes the dilemmas of democracy in a globalised world

Greece voted for Tsipras but did Europe? EPA

The defining image of the Greek election will surely be the sight of jubilant Syriza supporters in the streets of Athens. In the wake of the far-left coalition’s victory, there is much talk of hope for an alternative future.

In his acceptance speech Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras spoke of “cohesion”, “solidarity”, an end to austerity and “dignity”, underlining that an aggressive negotiation with Europe would be needed to restore Greek national pride.

The far-left Syriza won this election by taking 600,000 votes from Pasok and Dimar – both parties in the governing coalition during the past two-and-a-half years. But this was not about ideological choices. Most voters would admit that, on balance and in spite of the euphoria, this election presented them with a choice that amounted to the lesser of two evils.

The call for an end to austerity seems unequivocal, but what happens next remains the source of great equivocation. In the immediate aftermath, Tsipras will have to work out how to provide what has been promised – the re-employment of public sector workers, electricity for those who have been cut off, re-starting investments and tax reductions.

By any stretch, this is a radical agenda and there is a sense even amongst ardent supporters that he will not be able to deliver. Critics argue his programme is unfundable and unworkable.

Modern democracy

When elections are about choosing the lesser of two evils, it shows how far from actual democracy we are when it comes to our existing electoral mechanisms. Structures of representation are thought to allow for a semblance of democracy in large, complex societies. Elections allow voters to authorise a representation to act (on their behalf, in their own interests, or instead of them) and hold them accountable for what they’ve done since they were last authorised.

On this view we might say that Greeks voted in order to punish former prime minister Antonis Samaras for his poor performance in government and to authorise Tsipras to pursue a different political agenda. The extent to which this is true is questionable though.

Jubilation in Athens. EPA

Though voters have ostensibly authorised Tsipras, they have done so because there is no alternative. The austerity programme has eroded middle class life and has been a matter of life or death for the poor.

The character of these elections was punitive but not in terms of linear accountability. Austerity was imposed by the Troika, not the governing parties. For the Greeks it was a political abnormality that social-democratic parties dedicated to social welfare agreed to such harsh austerity policies. For the same reason, Tsipras won’t be held to account for over-promising on a massive scale. Greece’s room for manoeuvre is limited.

Obeying the eurozone

Forces outside the Greek electoral framework are crucial as this situation unfolds. As soon as it became clear that Syriza was going to win the vote, a warning rippled out from the eurozone that Greece would still be required to meet the agreements that have already reached on reducing the deficit. Those doing the warning were clearly oblivious to the fact that this was an agreement made with a government that Greek voters held accountable by removing from office.

That parliaments cannot bind governments to fulfil promises made by their predecessors sits uneasily with the extra-parliamentary governance of the single currency. And yet, in turn, it exposes another democratic dilemma – paying for Tsipras’ proposed reforms will ultimately fall to taxpayers in other European member states – and they didn’t vote for Tsipras.

In any case, Syriza is reaping the benefits of reaching a point of no return on austerity and the punitive tendency towards abnormalities of the political tradition. Whether the new government will manage to satisfy expectations and be consistent to what people consider rational is a task so far untested in an era of universal realignment.

What happens now in Greece matters to the whole world for a number of reasons, not least because this curious state of affairs is a feature not only of all eurozone states but also any democratic state that exists in a situation of international interdependence – and these days, that’s all of them.

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