Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Greece has told Papandreou he has no mandate

Greece has told Papandreou he has no mandate

Greek voters have resisted the neoliberal austerity measures by
abstaining and spoiling their ballot papers

Costas Douzinas and Petros Papaconstantinou, Monday 8 November 2010 19.00 GMT

Sunday's local elections in Greece were an unusual affair. Important
as they are for the running of local authorities, council elections
have never been seen as critical to the survival of a government. But
on this occasion, the Greek prime minister issued a rather strange
ultimatum to the electorate: vote for Pasok regional and mayoral
candidates or I will resign, call general elections and as a result
people will lose their hard-earned faith in Greece with dire
consequences for ordinary people.

Was this extraordinary gambit a genuine request for a renewed
democratic mandate or the desperate bluff of a gambler down on his
chips? George Papandreou's gesture indicates the febrile nature of
Greek politics in the wake of the austerity and restructuring measures
imposed upon the country by the IMF and the EU in return for a €110bn
(£95bn) loan. Reductions in civil service salaries and pensions of up
to 30%, and the increase of direct taxes and VAT, have led the fragile
economy to a deep depression. Youth unemployment at around 30% will
only increase as the private sector uses the measures as a model to
shed jobs and further undermine long-standing labour protections.

Papandreou's gambit can be explained by the country's unprecedented
economic and political volatility. The Greeks have been bombarded over
the past two months with optimistic messages that the measures are
succeeding in reducing the deficit, increasing tax revenues, changing
decades of civil service under-performance and releasing private
initiative. The support offered by the print and electronic media has
been so unstinting as to make Silvio Berlusconi envious. Papandreou
has taken his penitent message to major capitals while a bunch of IMF-
EU emissaries have been installed in Athens, behaving in every respect
as administrators of a mandated territory.

But the reality is very different from the projected rosy image. Over
the past month the spreads between German and Greek sovereign bonds
have increased to levels not seen since before the IMF-EU loan was
approved. The hike in the price of insuring Greek bonds means that the
markets expect the country to default. The idea of defaulting,
restructuring the debt, even leaving the eurozone was until recently
denounced as extremist and catastrophic. But after Angela Merkel's
amendments to the support mechanism, debt restructuring seems more
likely, and senior government ministers have started preparing the
public for the eventuality.

The intense demonstrations and strikes of this spring subsided over
the summer holidays. But the climate has been hotting up again since
September as people start feeling the effect of the measures on their
pay packets. Opinion polls consistently show large majorities opposed
to the measures and wide disenchantment with the alternating centre-
left and centre-right parties that have ruled the country since 1974
and have led to the spiralling deficits and debt. While the decimation
of the public sector has reduced the deficit, tax revenues are lagging
behind IMF demands and the expected upwards recalculation of the 2009
deficit means that even more stringent austerity measures will have to
be imposed next year. Behind the trumpeted "success", the economy is
faltering, social problems mushrooming and the political elite unable
to manage the crisis. The postwar social contract has been declared
dead and the country's sovereignty is not doing much better.

Against this background, Papandreou's ultimatum can be understood. His
government was elected in October 2009 on a social democratic platform
and had no mandate to impose the most extensive neoliberal measures
seen in Europe. Whether Greece defaults and asks for a severe
"haircut" of the debt or whether it imposes new and more severe
measures, Papandreou's soothing statements will be seen again as not
worth the paper they are written on. This is why the government turned
the local elections into a referendum, blackmailing the electorate and
seeking a carte blanche for further cuts and privatisation of the
country's silver (energy, communications and transport) as the IMF
demands. But yesterday's elections decidedly failed to give such a

In a country where the turnout is usually up to 80%, some 45% of the
electorate abstained and another 10% spoilt their ballots. Pasok
received approximately 34% of the vote, the opposition New Democracy
32% and the Communists 11%. The three radical left parties that had
not managed to field common candidates polled about 12%. If the wider
left had created a united front against the measures, it would have
emerged as the hegemonic bloc confronting the neoliberal logic of the
ruling elites. In view of these results, Papandreou, looking gaunt and
exhausted, announced that he will not call an election but continue
with the implementation of these measures.

How can we explain the unprecedented low turnout and the spoilt
ballots? They bring to mind Nobel winner José Saramago's wonderful
political parable Seeing. Citizens of an unnamed capital city cast
massively blank ballots in two consecutive national elections. The
rightwing government considers this an act of high treason and
declares a state of emergency. Eventually the government leaves the
capital expecting that the resulting disorder will make voters see
sense. Life, however, continues peacefully.

In Greece, too, ordinary citizens resisted the measures by staying
away. Abstaining or spoiling the ballot in a highly politicised
country is a political act of great consequence which leaves the
government with no mandate to continue with its measures. It is the
Greek equivalent to the Argentinian chant "que sa vayan todos" ("you
should all go") addressed to the elites that had led the country to
bankruptcy in December 2001.

The IMF-EU authored chronicle of an economic death foretold will move
to its end game with the banks' plenipotentiaries signing the death
certificate of the welfare state, but popular resistance is now likely
to move up a gear. Strikes, demonstrations and social unrest will
decide the future of the country in the coming months. The Greeks have
a proud record of resistance against foreign and local dominations.
They now need new ideas, people and convergences, if a new politics is
to rise from the current debacle. In this direction the wider left,
the only political group not involved in the debt and corruption
crises, has a major role to play.

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