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Journey to the end of Democracy – Interview with Professor Nikos Marantzidis

Journey to the end of Democracy – Interview with Professor Nikos Marantzidis

Nikos Marantzidis is Professor at the University of Macedonia (PAMAK) in Thessaloniki in the Department of Balkan, Slavic and Oriental studies. He is a political scientist specialized in contemporary European history. Following the dissolution of the neo-nazi party “Golden Dawn” (Χρυσή Αυγή) he gave Osservatorio Globalizzazione an interview to talk about the Hellenic political situation and the state of its democracy.

The trial on Golden Dawn went on for five years. After the conviction of its leader Nikos Michaloliakos and affiliates the Nazi-party is now dissolved, considered as a criminal organization. Nonetheless they managed to have few seats in the Hellenic Parliament. How did Greece get there?

The 2009 debt crisis, the Memorandum that followed, the recession that accompanied it and the feeling in a great piece of Greek society that the country was ruled by a corrupt political élite, incompetent and subjugated to the creditors, led to the collapse of the bipartisanism that had dominated the Greek political scene for about 30 years. In the elections of May 2012 everything collapsed. The consolidated party system was overtaken by the newly born anti-system or anti-establishment parties.

The case of Golden Dawn is explicatory. They attracted votes from far-right voters who had meanwhile been emancipated from the traditional center-right. The neo-Nazi party reached the highest percentage (9.39%) in the 2014 European elections, that is, when, Pavlos Fyssas had already been assassinated, therefore the criminal identity of the party was well known even to the most ignorant. 536’000 people voted for Golden Dawn in that election. It can be estimated that this represents more or less the highest support they received from 2012 to 2019.  In the national elections the maximum number of votes received was 440 thousand (6.97%) in May 2012.

Golden Dawn’s electoral base was initially made up of nostalgics for the monarchy and activists from the traditional far-right. To these were added impoverished citizens of the working-class districts of Athens, Piraeus and Thessaloniki. The 2009 crisis, poverty, unemployment and immigration allowed Golden Dawn to intercept an electoral base that is very evocative of that of the European far-right electorate. This is the case of the Golden Dawn vote in Piraeus district B (12.24% in 2014) or in the decaying center of Athens (10.38% in the whole district A of Athens, with a much higher peak in poor neighborhoods such as Kypseli, etc)

In 2013 Mr. Babis Papadimitriou, correspondent for SKAI tv and Kathimerini newspaper, asked a Syriza candidate: “If your party is seeking a vote of confidence from the communist party, why should Mr. Samaras’ New Democracy not seek the support of Golden Dawn?”. While far-right movements are stigmatized in the public debate of the European media, in Greece they have often been treated as a conventional political party, despite their anti-democratic procedures. Greece experienced a rather recent Civil War and subsequently a military junta. Is it possible that a good part of the Greek people harbor feelings of nostalgia for authoritarian regimes?

The demand for authoritarianism and strong leadership in Greece actually increased during the crisis years. In a part of Greek society, the feeling that the parliament was unqualified or even a place of corruption has consolidated. This perception has given rise to two tendencies: an authoritarian one («we need a strong leader who is not afraid of the Europeans and the IMF») and one of ‘direct democracy’ («people should make their own decisions»).

Indeed, the vast majority of Greek society has never radically distrusted either parliament or representative democracy. Golden Dawn’s results, despite the noise and the shock they caused, represented the usual percentages of the far-right in Greece, ie around 6-7%.

Greek journalist Dimitris Deliolanes told the Italian national channel Rai2 that Greece’s main problem was that “The Civil War gave birth to probably the worst bourgeoisie in Europe, made of former Nazi collaborators, bandits, speculators. For the cause of anticommunism, they have been reevaluated and they eventually replaced the old Constantinopolitan ruling class that existed before WWII. They are the curse of this country and those who currently rule in Greece”. Do you share this analysis? How did the Civil War influence the development of Greece as a Western Country?

I don’t know if it was the worst middle class in Europe and I doubt anyone would know. After all, what does “better” or “worse” mean for an analytical category such as a social class? Attributing anthropomorphic characteristics to such social categories is an unfortunate way to analyze reality.

The civil war has affected the development of the country on many levels. It set up weak political institutions, legitimized the intervention of the army and the monarchy in political life, weakened the parliament and marginalized a part of Greek society (communists and the left in general) with a method typical of apartheid mentality.

Nonetheless, the Greek Civil War had very irrelevant role to what happened between the years 2009-2019. This is quite evident if one considers that between the years 2012-2019, parties that their legacies had sided against each other during the civil war, now ruled in coalition governments (PASOK, ND and LAOS in 2011-2012), (PASOS-ND-DIMAR in 2012-2015). Actually, the civil war as an analytical category of interpretation of current developments has a limited impact.

In 2011, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing declared in an interview with the French newspaper Le Monde: “When the Regime of the Colonels fell, I immediately placed a plane at the disposal of Konstantinos Karamanlis to Greece, to preside over the new government. The decision to include Greece in the European Economic Community (EEC) was basically a political signal. We had to help the country overcome dictatorship (…) many of my colleagues were doubtful: the country was disorganized, its democracy fragile and it did not share borders with other Member States”. Do you think that joining the EEC was the right decision, following an unstable historical period? How did this affect Greece’s political credibility?

Not only was it the right decision, but it can be said that it was the most right decision taken by a Greek government since the fall of the military junta. Thanks to its entry into the EU Greece has strengthened its democracy, improved the functioning of its institutions, developed its infrastructure and to a large extent achieved great economic growth for several years.

The partial Europeanization of Greek political life and of the country’s political institutions, has allowed democracy to resist the most difficult conditions of the years 2009-2015. Greece without the European Union would be in a much worse situation today. Isolated and poorer, with worse infrastructure and higher unemployment.

In 2012, in an interview with Helmut Schmidt, Giscard told ‘Der Spiegel’: “To be completely frank, it was a mistake to accept Greece. Greece was simply not ready. Greece is basically an oriental country.” Is there a truth in this statement about how Greece is perceived by other European states?

There is no doubt that Greece was significantly deficient in economy, as well as in its infrastructure and institutional framework. The decision to join the EEC in the late 70’s was political, just like the decision to join the Euro many years later.

But the birth of the EEC itself and the monetary union were indeed political decisions.

This was evident above all in the structural fragility of the Euro when the EU had to face the 2008 Crisis and the problems in countries such as Greece, Ireland, Spain, Portugal and Italy. There can be no totally technocratic decisions in politics. So, let’s not fool ourselves, Greece is an essential part of the European identity and heritage.  Membership of the EU and the Euro was the only option the country had to ensure the functioning of its democratic institutions, stability and prosperity.

In 2015 Greek people were called to vote the famous Consultative Referendum, where the ‘OXI’ (NO) at 61.32%, firmly rejected the bailout economic measures proposed by the Troika. The next day, however, Alexis Tsipras had to accept the infamous measures. How has this “Democratic trauma” affected people’s trust in representative democracy and politics?

The third Memorandum was definitely the Waterloo of public opinion and to some extent to Democracy as well. The defeat was deafening. Never since the fall of the dictatorial regime has public opinion felt, so quickly, such a discrepancy between expectations and results. This defeat resulted in the reappearance of feelings of anger and frustration, especially the latter.

What happened with the referendum and the signing of the third memorandum undoubtedly constituted a “democratic trauma” and fueled a cynicism that has characterized the political culture in Greece in recent years, that is, after the third memorandum. This cynicism results in the distancing of citizens from politics, and is associated with a lack of trust in institutions, rejection of public participation, distrust of the ability of the government and political elites to interpret the needs of society and citizens, and the inability to express or influence political affairs. Political cynicism indicates apathy, indifference, lack of citizens’ motivation, but also inefficiency, inadequacy and corruption of the political class.

Greek public opinion is dominated by a sense of ineluctability. For many citizens, particularly the youngers, it is not believed that anything can change for the better, and therefore the cost of democratic participation makes no sense because it is large and brings no benefit. Common expressions that often accompany the cliché of “there is no democracy today” are: “they’re all the same” or “What do you expect, you live in Greece where nothing changes”. As political cynicism grows, the distance between citizens and political institutions increases and, consequently, the risk of delegitimization of democratic institutions.

The Third Hellenic Republic has seen a systematic alternation of left and right governments. Primarily New Democracy and PASOK first, now seemingly New Democracy and SYRIZA. After two serious crises in the last decade and severe constraints to economic policies due to the European framework, is this a sustainable path for coherent measures and reforms?

I have argued for years that bipartisanship, and specifically polarized Greek bipartisanship, is a completely inadequate system to bring about the necessary reforms and the consensus the country needs. We need majority alliances in government (grand coalitions) and coalition governments in general, and at the same time a proportional system, so that differences of three or four percentage points do not constitute electoral earthquakes. The idea of a strong government supported by a strong catch-all party leads to inertia and “polarization without content.”

In other words, we need to play down the elections and limit their relevance. If it were up to me, I would choose a decentralized system like the Swiss one with many direct democratic institutions but also with a proportional electoral system for the parliament.

In general I would say that nowadays, bipartisanship, all types of bipartisanship, seem like fossilized remnants of distant times. Why they are successful in our country today is a subject of great debate. Part of this responsibility falls on the electoral systems that insist on recycling typical Cold War arguments and fit them into the new political context.

During the Euro Crisis Professor Yanis Varoufakis referred to the “Kosovization of Greece” as: “the convergence of the Eurozone’s Periphery to the current state of Kossovo’s social economy. After all, Kosovo is an EU protectorate, where the major decisions (including privatisation, energy, security) are taken by a Brussels’ functionary, the euro is the country’s currency (without of course any Kosovar official playing any role in monetary policy decisions), the local government is monopolised by a local cleptocracy and, tragically, unemployment is so high that the country’s greatest export is its young people.” Will Greece be able to build its own democratic sovereignty or is the country navigating into the unknown?

Exaggerations! Of course, I understand that one tends to dramatize situations when his strategy as finance minister has completely failed and he has been fired from his own party. There is nothing strange or so unpredictable about what Greece experienced in those years on the economic sphere. Anyone who could currently read the European correlations in the years 2009-2015 would understand that the 2010 memorandum was the only alternative the Greek government had under those circumstances. I repeat, under those circumstances. Indeed, being a member of the Euro, Greece, like any other country, transfers its own sovereignty. Considering this, we must agree on one thing. We who support greater intensification of the European structure and, like myself, a future European federation, understand this dimension. The problem is not there. The problem lies in the policies that the EU is going to adopt in the near future to reduce North-South inequalities. This is obviously a difficult and complex issue.

Some countries of the Balkan area are in a state of negotiation for entry in the EU, such as the Republic of North Macedonia, Albania, Serbia, Montenegro… The city where you teach, Thessaloniki, is considered the Greek capital of the Balkans. Do you think Greece could play a leading role with some of these countries within the EU, or will they simply join the list of peripherical countries without any decision-making power?

Due to the crisis, Greece has lost agility and prestige, not only in the Balkans but on all fronts. While until 2009-2010 Greece was the reference point for all the Balkans as the “successful neighbor”, the crisis has completely changed the idea that these countries had about Greece and even that of Europe. Furthermore, since Greece had open issues such as the Macedonian until 2019, it couldn’t seriously aspire to a leading role in the region.

The historic agreement of 2019, known as the “Prespa Agreement”, represents a great step forward for Greece to gradually regain a prominent role in the region. This role can only be cooperative and obviously not neocolonial, nor can it imply military or other power. Greece can contribute to the promotion of the Western Balkans within the European institutions and to the improvement of the economy and democracy of neighboring peoples.

However, many things have to change. Greece’s  economic growth  first of all must speed up. Unfortunately, the pandemic has turned back many things. Nevertheless, I am moderately optimistic that Greece will be able to play a central role in the region again.

Mr. Marantzidis, to conclude, could you perhaps give us as a final remark, a glance at the status of Greek Democracy and some perspectives for the upcoming future?

I do not believe in predictions any more than I believe in auspices. But I would dare to say that the country will remain a member of the EU for many years, despite its “peculiarities”. That is, it will continue to be a liberal democracy, with weak institutions that will largely depend on the various governments in office. If I had to indicate two cardinal problems that we should immediately address, it would be the quality of information and the quality of education.

Greek version/Italian version

Laureato in Economia e Scienze Sociali presso Università Bocconi. Magistrale in Economics presso La Sapienza, Roma. Scrive articoli e interviste per Kritica Economica.

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