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Posts Tagged ‘Governments’

Point of no return

In News on May 14, 2012 at 10:53 pm

Last week, the Greek elections were at the centre of international attention. The first reason was that the election results saw a neo-nazi (yes, not far-right, neo-nazi) party, Golden Dawn, entering the parliament. The second reason was the rise of SYRIZA or the Coalition of the Radical Left. SYRIZA, which traditionally received 3-4% of the vote, reached 17% and became the second party, following New Democracy with 19% (full elections results here).

For those who are not familiar with the Greek political system, here is some background information: The country has been ruled by centre-left PASOK (Panhellenic Socialist Party) and centre-right New Democracy parties alternating in power since 1974 – the year when democracy was established in Greece, after the end of the dictatorship 1967-1974.

New Democarcy 1974 1977
New Democarcy 1977 1981
PASOK 1981 1985
PASOK 1985 1989
New Democracy-KKE coalition 1989 1990
New Democracy 1990 1993
PASOK 1993 1996
PASOK 1996 2000
PASOK 2000 2004
New Democracy 2004 2007
New Democracy 2007 2009
PASOK 2009 2012

The two mainstream parties have set the internal agenda for almost 40 years. They are the ones responsible for hiring public servants based on party politics, of not using EU funds efficiently and feeding them to their voters, of excessive borrowing in the decade which followed the introduction of the euro. The two large parties are the ones that have left their stamp on Greece’s political scene.

The latest elections were viewed by many spectators in Greece and abroad as surprising and many tried to understand the”angry” vote or the way voters shifted across the political spectrum. (here is a good analysis by BBC’s Paul Mason)

While the international media are trying to make sense of Greek politics and Greek politicians are trying to shuffle a new government of “personalities” which will lead the country out of the state of ungovernability (and chaos) (e.g. see here), the anger of Greeks is rising. This anger is reflected in the rise of SYRIZA. And this anger consists of three elements:

1. anger and despair by the economic reality that has hit most Greeks, which includes income reduction by 40%, abolishing labour laws, reducing pensions, unemployment at 21%.

2. cumulative anger at the bashing Greeks have received by foreign and domestic commentators over the past two years about the Greek statistics, working hours, laziness, spending more than producing etc.

3. a cumulative anger at the political system and the mainstream parties‘ politicians who have been repeatedly lied to citizens and have brought the country where it is today. All politicians lie and Greeks like their tales. But in the past two years the hypocrisy of the Greek mainstream parties has reached new levels, as PASOK has basically become a right-wing party and New Democracy is tiptoeing around it awkwardly (e.g. New Democracy voted in favour of the 1st Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) and opposed the 2nd).

With every political tactic followed by the mainstream political parties, with every article published by the Spiegel, with every comment expressed as a threat by Angela Merkel, these feelings of anger and despair are increasing.

Many Greeks no longer care for the country’s stability, Greece’s image abroad, the critique by international media and Europe’s politicians but instead want their lost dignity. SYRIZA seems to have realized this and expresses a new narrative and hope.

Increasingly, Greeks are reaching a point of no return.The sooner Europe’s political elites (and Greece’s pro-austerity political elites) realize this, the better for everyone.

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Europe’s elites and their democracy

In News on March 1, 2012 at 6:19 pm

The European Union (EU) was never famous for its democratic credentials. Discussion about the EU’s “democratic deficit” began in the 1970s two decades after the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) was established in 1951 and later expanded to the European Economic Community (EEC, 1957).

The argument in favour of more democracy at European level was that as (Western – we are still in Cold War, remember?) European elites were engaging in economic cooperation, the executive branch i.e. the governments were gradually being empowered at the expense of the legislative branch i.e. the parliaments. As Ministers and Prime ministers were meeting in Brussels to agree on reducing cross-border barriers, liberalizing trade and setting a common external tariff, parliaments back home were only asked to ratify the international agreement, post-negotiation.

Following calls in favour of more democracy and accountability at European level, it was decided that European Parliament (EP) members would be finally directly elected by European citizens. The first EP elections took place in 1979, almost three decades after European integration (i.e. this process of European economic cooperation) had begun. The small print was that the EP’s role was consultative.

Over the years, the EP’s powers grew, just like the EEC transformed itself to a European Union with increasing powers not just in trade and agriculture, but also in economic and social policies, capital movements, justice affairs and immigration policy, education and consumer rights to mention a few. The gap between Europe’s elites and peoples widened with every treaty.

The Treaty of Maastricht was voted down by the Danish in 1992, the Treaty of Nice was rejected by the Irish in 2001, the European Constitutional Treaty was rejected by the French and the Dutch in 2005 and the Treaty of Lisbon was voted down by the Irish in 2008. Each and every time the reading of the negative results was the same: citizens were poorly informed and the “against the treaty” campaign was better organized. Each and every time the response was the same: conduct the referendum again (so that voters get it right).

In this light, it should come as no surprise that over the past few months a number of European officials and politicians have stated their preferences on the timing of the Greek elections. What shouldn’t they? European elites never thought much of their citizens and Europe has a tradition of placing markets above people.

For more on how democracy is currently re-invented in Greece, click here.

Europe’s democracy

In News on November 14, 2011 at 10:42 pm

European integration has always been an elite affair. From the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1951, which established the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) to the negotiation of the Treaty of Lisbon in 2009, the governments of the European Union member states have been clear in their message: European integration is a process to be nourished and protected by national governments and not to be endangered by grass-root politics and citizens’ unpredictable voting in referendums.

As European integration was primarily controlled by member states’ governments, their role has been empowered. Over the past thirty years, the ministers’ council meetings multiplied, the Heads of State gathered more often than not, in scheduled (four times a year) and extraordinary meetings (see recent Eurozone meetings) and effectively, national parliaments were gradually by-sided. At the same time, as interdependence between countries increases in a globalized world, European cooperation is strengthened and nowadays, more often than not, the important decisions are taken at European level rather than the national level, despite what the British political class and media insist on telling the Brits.

These developments combined have ultimately led to a situation whereby governments are empowered vis-à-vis national parliamentary procedures, and ultimately vis-à-vis their voters.[1] This means that the extent to which  European voters’ policy preferences (or part of them) reaches the final policy outcomes at European level effectively lies first, in the ability of the citizens to transmit their interests to governments and second, in the ability of the governments to negotiate these effectively in Europe. However, what happens if a government decides to U-turn on the political platform it was elected on, does not heed public opinion at home, and has a weak negotiating position among its European counterparts? Well, in a nutshell this country’s voters are in a gutter.

This is no other than the case of Greece at the moment. The current Socialist government (PASOK) came to power on an anti-corruption and economic reform platform, claiming that it would fight tax evasion and thus regain lost government revenues to implement reforms in the economy. It would promote transparency and public deliberation. Two years later, the government’s policies are so right-wing, that even the centre-right opposition party is reluctant to support them: under the EU-IMF bail-out package auspices, PASOK has implemented harsh austerity measures, has not fought tax evasion and has thrown the economy into a -5% recession. The debt is higher than it used to be in October 2009 when PASOK came to power, while the country’s target year for reaching a debt of 120% of GDP is 2020. It should be noted that the target is close to the original debt levels in October 2009, which was 128%.

In addition, over the past two years, the government gradually lost all of its negotiating cards (e.g. instead of threatening it would leave the euro two years ago, if no assistance was provided by Brussels, it is now being threatened by the EU that Greece will be thrown out of the eurozone), it missed the opportunity to be viewed as a reliable partner by its European counterparts (many measures of the first bail-out package have not yet been implemented) and in the end lost all of its credibility in Brussels. What is worse, at the moment, the Prime Minister is negotiating a “national unity” government, demanded by the EU to ensure that the second bail-out package (which includes a 50% haircut of the Greek debt) will be approved by Greece’s politicians.

The Greek people have been demonstrating since June (see Athens’ Indignant) and the polls show that the majority of Greeks are against a second bail-out, which in effect will plunge the country into a deeper recession with an uncertain end date. Unemployment is currently 15%, reaching 20% in the 18-30 age group, and as rich Greeks buy houses in London, the country’s youth migrates to greener pastures abroad.

Politics is a game and all parties involved realize this to a certain degree. All political parties tend to exaggerate their platforms prior to elections to some extent and often promise more than they deliver; all politicians change their positions following the elections, even if it is simply because of changes around them; Just like politicians change their policies after being elected, so will citizens bash them for doing so, even if they realize that a government cannot lower taxes and increase welfare benefits and improve the economy, all at the same.

However, what happens when a government departs so greatly from its original pre-election positions that legitimacy issues are raised? In any other part of the world, the answer would be, elections. However, what happens when this country is part of a European monetary system, like the Eurozone, that in effect blackmails the current government to a “government of national unity”, in return for a second bail-out, in an unprecedented breach of national sovereignty? And what happens when in addition, this second bail-out will force a whole nation to implement harsh measures imposed by elites, to remedy a grave economic situation that was created by the national elites’ decisions over the past thirty years? What are the options of such a people in this kind of Europe?

The European project was about peace and prosperity. In a divided Europe, it was about the freedom of the West, juxtaposed against the oppression of the East. In the post-communist Europe, and as East European countries joined the club, it became about political and economic freedom, about free-market economies and liberal democracies. When did democracy stop being part of the equation?

 


[1] This power shift from parliaments to governments in the national level would have been tolerable, were it matched by a respective power shift from governments to the European Parliament (EP) at the European level. However, despite MEPs’ laborious efforts, the EP remains often by-passed (see recent Eurozone deliberations), while citizens view European Parliaments as secondary.