The Greek election could be the start of a European spring

Sunday may be the first day of a European spring. In the French election a victory for François Hollande, a socialist who has rejected the fiscal pact, would be the first challenge to the policies Angela Merkel and EU technocrats have imposed on Europe. B ut the result of the Greek elections may have even greater symbolic significance.

The first act of the ongoing Greek tragedy ended last November, with the resignation of the Papandreou government. Popular opposition to austerity – along with Merkel’s and Nicolas Sarkozy’s fear of a Greek referendum on euro membership – brought him down. The Greek elections will mark the end of the second act, with a cast of dominant parties and politicians exiting, stage right.

The caretaker government, led by Lucas Papademos, is a coalition of Pasok and New Democracy, the dynastic parties which have ruled Greece for 40 years and brought it to its present predicament. Their election campaigns have brought surrealism to the hustings. The overwhelming rejection by the Greek people of the IMF-EU measures has forced the two governing parties to argue against the very policies they themselves ushered in and are still implementing. Imagine if not a few but every Lib-Dem and Tory politician were to campaign against coalition policies.

The opinion polls are disastrous for both parties (New Democracy has about 20% of the vote while Pasok has fallen from 44% in 2009 to about 15% at the last count). Despite the fact that the electoral system offers an astounding 50-seat bonus to the party with the most votes, it seems that no single party will have a working majority in the next parliament.

The only way the two formerly great parties can continue their austerity measures, as commanded by Berlin and Brussels, will be to form another coalition government – if they can manage to scrape together the requisite 151 seats between them. The campaign has been characterised by a desperate attempts to promote nonexistent differences and by vitriolic attacks on each other; but the reality is that these two formerly great parties are more dependent on one another than ever.

Part of this picture – its most worrying aspect – is the rush to the right by mainstream politicians who, imitating Sarkozy, compete to display their nationalist credentials. Coalition ministers Michalis Chrysochoidis and Andreas Loverdos have spread panic about immigrants as criminals and carriers of infectious diseases, and have set up detention camps in order to contain this «threat». Amnesty International has called the idea deeply alarming and discriminatory». Meanwhile Athens’ Mayor Kaminis has, with Chrysochoidis, organised campaigns to «cleanse» the city of migrants, while the coalition plans an anti-immigration wall on the Greco-Turkish border.

This attempt to mobilise the politics of fear is risky. It plays into the hands of the far right and might well see the openly extremist Golden Dawn party, which organises violent attacks on migrants, entering parliament – a bitter irony for the country that had the most successful resistance against Nazi occupation in Europe.

The entire system of power in Greece is on the edge of nervous breakdown, and the dangers from the far right are all too evident. But the fall of the Greek elites could yet be the beginning of a quite different third act, one which would bring the Greek tragedy to a cathartic close.

The New Democracy party is likely to come first on Sunday, scooping up the 50-seat bonus; Pasok will probably come second. However, the radical left party, Syriza, expects to come third. This could make things interesting. Under Greece’s constitution, Syriza, as the third party, will be asked to form a government if the first two parties can’t because they have fewer than 150 MPs between them.

The charismatic young leader of Syriza, Alexis Tsipras, has promised to cancel the austerity package and negotiate a debt reduction programme, placing growth and EU reform at the heart of the party’s manifesto. He also proposes a coalition government of left parties, supported by popular mobilisation.

This is possible. Taken as a whole, the anti-austerity vote is the largest, with the three left parties – Syriza, the Communists and the Democratic Left – jointly polling at about 40%. If the winning parties cannot form a government, Tsipras will invite them, along with the greens and anti-austerity elements on the centre right, to join forces to ensure that austerity is mitigated. This is the first time a radical left government has been seriously on the cards in Europe. However, Tsipras has a problem: both the Communists and the Democratic Left reject such a proposal. Indeed, the Communist leadership has turned Syriza into its main target. The Democratic Left, meanwhile, supports the EU uncritically.

But the tectonic plates of society and politics are shifting. The many thousands who filled Syntagma and other squares last year were a leaderless movement without party or common ideology. Seasoned trade unionists and militants acted alongside first-time dissidents and protesters to change politics. They now have the chance to supplement their version of direct democracy and social solidarity with parliamentary representation. The election on Sunday could see not only the collapse of the political elite but also a redrawing of the political map, with the left replacing Pasok.

Post-civil war Greece exiled, imprisoned and persecuted the left, confining its parties to symbolic and ineffective opposition. This period is now coming to an end. A new hegemonic bloc combining the defence of life, democracy and independence is bringing together people who historically found themselves on opposing sides.

As the popular anti-austerity feeling turns from the negation of «enough» to a radical governmental proposal, a new democratic model is emerging, and with it a historic opportunity. If 6 May leads to a French socialist president and a strong result for the Greek left, the scent of spring will travel from Paris to Athens. This weekend, the French and the Greeks are voting not just for their own countries but for the future of Europe.

Costas Douzinas is a law professor at Birkbeck, University of London.

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