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July 05, 2012, Thursday

Greek elections take two: as the middle classes disappear…

When five academics speak their mind about present day Greek economic and political affairs, discuss the future of Europe as well as the European Union and try to establish the link between economic prosperity and democratic stability, one thing is certain: An open debate comprising differing viewpoints becomes the order of the day, or early evening in our case!

 I shall draw on the immense expertise represented by these five scholars to later on suggest a few issues that may be of political relevance for Turkey, too.

A few days ago Professor Hakan Yılmaz of İstanbul’s Boğaziçi University (director of the Center for European Studies) invited an audience interested in all things Greek politics for a meeting about the aftermath of the Greek elections. According to him, the outcome of the two recent public votes implies “the end of political romanticism for Europe.” What Dr. Yılmaz apparently had in mind was that a more realistic version of the EU -- of course with Greece as a full member state -- is about to emerge. But what exactly will this entail?

Would this result in Greece leaving the eurozone anyways regardless of asked-for or forced-upon bailout packages, could this lead to Athens’s pondering the costs and benefits of EU membership as such or did he rather refer to a structural EU crisis that doesn’t just impact Greece but affects all EU member states?

Let us first consider Greek domestic issues. Dr. Vangelis Kechriotis, a department of history colleague of Dr. Yılmaz, aimed to put the Greek economic crisis into perspective.

According to Dr. Kechriotis, we are witnessing the end of the previous bi-party political structure of Greece. Although New Democracy and PASOK survived, Greek voters continue to send a clear message in so far as they no longer wish to only see these two parties in power but begin to opt for political diversity instead. Many commentators argue that the fact that in particular Syriza (the Coalition of the Radical Left) was able to garner an ever increasing share of the vote -- though this time around not having won a majority -- would one day soon mean the complete break-up of Greece’s political system. Not only this, but according to him, the current coalition government would not even survive its first year! Hailing from Democritus University of Thrace, Dr. Yannis Ktistakis (faculty of law) then stressed that Greek voters demand reform. He gave an example: When a Greek citizen asks the central government about an official document, it takes at least 10 days before the first reply is issued.

Although, perhaps, to be considered a rather minuscule issue, the speaker used it in order to underline Greek citizens’ general dissatisfaction with how central as well as local government is run. Hence, Greek voters were dissatisfied with government performance per se and not just unhappy about the state of the domestic economy. Similar to Turkey, where economic prosperity as witnessed under the successful management of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) allowed Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to embark on an ambitious non-economic-related-reform-package path, too, economic instability in Greece no longer allows the Greek government to implement any reforms whatsoever as there is a) no money left in the coffers and b) voters refrain from handing a clear mandate to a single party to start implementing new policies.

‘Today, I speak as a voter of the radical left, not as an academic’

Haris Rigas, currently working on his Ph.D. thesis concerning Greek politics at Boğaziçi University’s department of political science and international relations, began his reflections by stating he would today speak as a Greek voter who opted for Syriza and less so as an academic.

He was most surprised that the Greek people once again handed a vote of confidence to exactly the same people who are, in principle, responsible for the state of economic affairs negatively impacting today’s Greece. He stressed his surprise as well as uneasiness about the fact that the radical left was blamed for past and present crises as if they had already been in government. He detected a coalition against the radical left. Professor Dimitrios Triantaphyllou, director of the Center of International and European Studies (CIES) at Kadir Has University, followed in Rigas’ analytical approach and began his elaborations by stating firstly that he is as frustrated a Greek voter as the previous panelist yet contradicted Rigas’ view on the demonizing of Syriza by declaring the radical left as the actual election winners all but in name.

Dr. Triantaphyllou expressed his concerns about the fact that due to the economic freefall street politics had taken over from government and that apparently the Greek state has lost its power monopoly.

Dr. Triantaphyllou then went on to say that as the Greek middle classes get poorer a dangerous scenario emerges. If what is commonly perceived as the middle class (implying, for example, access to home ownership, at least one car per family, a savings account, one domestic or international holiday per year) would lose substantial parts of previously guaranteed (or perceived as guaranteed and constantly increasing, too) income and related prestige and welfare, various unwanted political scenarios may become reality. First, radical fringe parties may garner more votes at the ballot box. Second, stable government becomes impossible. Third, a non-democratic alliance leading to authoritarian rule often by non-elected officials as the world has witnessed far too often in the past will destroy whatever had been established in the name of civil democracy.

Turkey only recently witnessed the emergence of a strong middle class. Originating from other locations than the previously “more established” İstanbul upper echelons of Turkish society, most of Turkey’s new backbone of democracy hails from Eastern and Central Anatolia! It is a very healthy development similar to the rise of sustainable small and medium-sized enterprises (SME); a powerful middle class will become the guarantor for not only economic stability and prosperity but democracy as such, too. As the middle classes have not inherited their wealth but rolled up their sleeves in order to achieve their new status in society, the last thing they want to see is their moderate yet sufficient wealth erode by returning to authoritarian rule by means of military-inspired coups or by any other illegal interventions in civil society.

Yet, what has happened in neighboring Greece is not automatically ruled out to never happen ever again in Turkey, economically speaking. Although highly unlikely from today’s stronghold position, there could be another economic crisis sometime in the future. There may be rising unemployment figures making unwanted headlines once again. One ingredient to stay afloat is of course democracy, but this is what Greece has had for a fair number of decades, too. Hence, an irrevocably established Turkish civil society and a new civilian-inspired constitution are only one necessity to weather even harsher economic storms should they ever again reach these shores. Hence, only as long as Turkey’s economy learns from Greece’s apparent mistakes and carefully aims at avoiding them will democracy manage to overcome a serious economic crisis.

First, do not automatically jump on the euro bandwagon even if Commission President Manuel Barroso asks all new EU member states to at once drop their national currencies. Second, erase all remaining traces of corruption on all levels, including local government. Third, further support SMEs so that a strong economic backbone keeps the domestic economy afloat even if multinationals continue to crumble elsewhere. Fourth, invest even more in primary and secondary school education so as to establish a much better skilled and educated workforce. Fifth, embrace the concept of the knowledge-based economy whilst continuing to upgrade more traditional industry sectors as well as modernizing agriculture (think going organic). In a nutshell: Embrace the value-adding chain on all levels, including how local and national government is run as well as how an entire economy works.

As the conference came to a close we all went home with not just “Greek political food for thought” but many items to discuss over here in Turkey, too.

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