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Greek Snap Election Suggests an Ambiguous Path for Austerity in Europe

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

CIES hosted a panel discussion entitled “Decision Europe: Assessing the Greek Election and what it Means for Austerity in Europe” on Thursday, October 15, in the AD White House.  The panel was moderated by CIES Director and Associate Professor of Government, Christopher Way, and featured contributions from Robin Best (Political Science, SUNY Binghamton), Mona Krewel (Government, Cornell), and Kenneth Roberts (Government, Cornell).

Alexis Tsipras’ gamble has paid off, at least for the time being.  Greece’s Prime Minister called for a snap election on September 20, which resulted in his solidifying a narrow majority coalition between his party Syriza, and the right-leaning Independent Greeks.  Still, although the short-term result is undoubtedly a positive one for Prime Minister Tsipras and Syriza, the path forward for both Greece and other European countries such as Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Ireland hit hard by the economic crisis, is far from clear.

Placing the Greek elections in the larger context of European politics, Prof. Christopher Way affirmed, “[The elections in Greece, Portugal, Spain, and Ireland] provide us with a great test of what’s called the Juncker-rule, named after Jean-Claude Juncker, former President of the European Commission. The Juncker rule refers to the observation that we all know what to do when in government; we just don’t know how to do it and win an election. […] The question is can these governments break the Juncker rule and win an election?”

Professor Way structured the discussion by asking the panelists to assess the elections and specifically the Greek election, in terms of what it means for the path of austerity in Europe.  Specifically, at the moment, two paths seem feasible.  The first path dictates that the established path of austerity is sustainable, and there exists adequate public support to weather the difficult economic reforms that lie ahead.  The second signifies that continued support for Syriza in Greece indicates that voters are clearly rejecting austerity programs, and that they expect debt relief to play a key role in any reform package moving forward. 

At this point it is unclear which Prime Minister Tsipras Greek voters are expecting: the one who won this snap election while supporting the most restrictive of bailout agreements from the European Union and its partners, or the one who considers the reduction of debt to be one of the new governments’ three policy priorities.  In addition, there is no clear consensus on the extent to which the Greece case in Europe is a unique one, or whether there are lessons to be learned from Greece that can inform the upcoming our understanding of the upcoming Spanish and Irish elections.

While debating the merits of these two interpretations of the Greek election, the panelists highlighted numerous concrete takeaways from the survival of Prime Minister Tsipras and Syriza.

First, according to Professor Krewel, although the snap election was a calculated gamble by Prime Minister Tsipras, running on a platform of support for a restrictive bailout agreement enabled him to purge the most radical elements of Syriza from the government.  This makes clear that popular support for Syriza is tied to Prime Minister Tsipras, and he will utilize that support in an effort to enact wide ranging economic reforms.

Second, Professor Best focused her comments on the record low turnout amongst Greeks during the September 20 election.  Nearly 44% of Greeks abstained from voting, which is a particularly surprising result given that voting in Greece is compulsory (although compulsory voting is only very loosely enforced).  Non-votes received more support than any single party during the election.  This could indicate voter fatigue from numerous recent elections, frustration with the political and economic climate in Greece, a lack of support for the political system, or some combination of those factors.  Regardless, though Prime Minister clearly benefitted from his gamble of calling for a snap election, his support amongst Greeks is enough to govern but far from unanimous.

Third, all three panelists remarked that with this victory, for the first time during his tenure as Prime Minister, Tsipras will be evaluated on how he governs, rather than on his opposition to the political status quo in Greece.  Prime Minister Tsipras has leveraged his outsider status to galvanize support for his regime.  But, having solidified his power in parliament utilizing a platform of support of economic reform, Prime Minister Tsipras will from now on largely be judged on how he enacts those reforms, as well as on the consequences of those reforms on Greece’s economy and society.

Fourth, and finally, Professor Roberts compared the situation in Greece and other crisis-ridden European countries to that of Latin America in the 1980s.  Professor Roberts noted that the 1980s are considered a “lost decade” for Latin America, and one cannot help but wonder whether Europe is in the midst of its own lost decade right now.

Only time will tell if we are witnessing a similar story unfolding in Europe, and in particular Southern Europe, today.  However, as the panelists made clear, while Prime Minister Tsipras emerged from September’s election as the clear victor, his future, Greece’s future, and that of struggling economies across Europe could not be harder to predict.