Post-Election Reflections

Media around the world are calling Greece’s election results “historic.” A big day, indeed, for Greece and interesting times for an expat to live here. The possibility of change is exciting but a few concerns about the near future come to mind:

  • “Hope is coming” is Syriza’s slogan, but can the new government bring about meaningful change given the intense pressure from the troika to stick to the terms of the loan agreements or adios Greece, from the Eurozone?
  • As Syriza has made clear, the crushing austerity program imposed by the troika has caused a humanitarian disaster in Greece that must be addressed. But does Syriza have any concrete plans for how to deal with the intractable structural problems in Greece, e.g.:
    • The fact that almost no one in the country actually pays the taxes they are legally required to pay because they don’t trust the government to use them wisely? This lack of trust in government creates a vicious cycle in which everyone cheats on taxes so the government raises them, which causes even more tax cheating… If Syriza has a plan to deal with this fundamental problem of Greek society, I’d love to see it.
    • The deeply entrenched problems of almost unbelievably inefficient government bureaucracy. How a country can employ so many people in the public sector who appear to accomplish so little is a real mystery that may take decades to resolve.
    • Corruption at many levels of government and society.
  • How can Syriza realistically expect to raise the funds needed to pay for the much-needed repairs to the social safety net that they advocate?
  • Does the new government have any meaningful leverage in debt negotiations? If the Germans and the troika refuse to consider significant debt relief for Greece, would Syriza resort to the nuclear option of leaving the Eurozone? They say that option is off the table, but without it, they don’t have any leverage to speak of. If it were to come to that, what would be the consequences for the Greek people? Nobody knows really.

I am hopeful that, in fact, “hope is coming.” But I fear that the obstacles that Syriza faces may be overwhelming.

 

A nice post-election summary from the Guardian of the UK:

Syriza’s success is an astonishing electoral triumph. In postwar Europe it is highly unusual for a genuinely new electoral force – as opposed to a refit – to move from nowhere to government in the few years that it has taken Syriza. Other insurgent parties – such as France’s Front National, Germany’s Greens or Italy’s Lega Nord – can hardly compare with either the momentum or the achievement, never mind the programme. Such parties may have succeeded in inserting themselves into their national political calculus; none has swept to such a dizzying election win as Syriza managed on Sunday.”

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3 comments

  1. I’m very curious about the answers to your questions, particularly around establishing trust in government which is the only way to begin to remedy the taxation problem. We were in Crete during the European elections last May, and one person who engaged us about the state of Greek politics was a young guy from a left party/coalition whose name he told us translated as “Mutiny”. He felt Syriza was insufficiently radical and was quite critical of the CP as concerned mainly with maintaining its membership. Mutiny’s program sounded much like a de-linking stance, somewhat anarchist based on local governance and local economic development. He described a crisis of rural unemployment caused by growth of agribusiness and importation of immigrant farm labor from Asia and the Middle East while Cretans were kicked off the land. He also reflected something we heard from other English speaking Greeks, the only ones we could communicate with, that the “crisis” was not something ordinary Greeks were responsible for, citing things like the debt from the Olympics that was incurred by the elites and paid for by the people.

    Lots of these positions seem far from the realities of the Eurozone and global economics, but it is hard to see Syriza doing anything substantial without a pretty serious break from politics as usual. Their victory alone is great symbolically and it will be interesting to see its impact on the other Mediterranean countries. But translating this into real progress for ordinary Greeks remains a huge challenge.

    One other element about the public sector that I’m curious about. I know in some situations like this the public employees are about the only ones who actually pay real taxes because the authorities know what they earn and can withhold the taxes. This leads to resentment on their part of what businesses and professionals get away with and can partially explain why public services are so awful. Any idea if this dynamic operates in Greece?

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    1. Thanks much for sharing these observations and questions, Steve. I think the comments you heard in Crete are very typical of what we have heard here around Athens. And I think you are spot-on that somehow restoring trust in government is the only way for Greece to move forward and that it is a very big challenge for any administration, no matter what their ideology. How do you convert a population that is deeply cynical about government and politicians into one that believes in the possibility of a better administered public sector and therefore, agrees to pay their share of taxes? A hell of a challenge.

      Re: tension between public and private sector employees–yes, this very much exists here. Maybe bigger though is tension now between regular employees and freelancers (many of whom are involuntarily working as independents after having been laid off. The regular employees, whether public or private, have a huge proportion of their salaries withheld for taxes and they often feel that the freelancers are getting off easy (though they also pay huge sums for social security each month, regardless of whether they actually make any income or not.

      So, yes, a lot of challenges…

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  2. I wish I knew more than my brief fall visit allowed. What we found talking to people echoes what Tom and Steve are saying. A key issue internally is the disconnect people feel between the painful economic problems caused by elite actions and people’s ability (and Syriza’s ability) to move toward economic justice in place of trickle-up austerity. I wish I knew more about comparative tax compliance and political-economic culture and power. But I do believe that, other than neofascist force, the only way to achieve participation and tax compliance is to organize, perhaps in confederation with the autonomous efforts Steve describes. Maybe Greece’s problems (and possible responses) seem more comprehensible to me than those of the US only because I know less about them. Thanks for starting this, Tom. I am eager for more.

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