In this NYT Op-Ed, Nikos Kostandaras draws the full circle of political conduct from Ancient Greece to the 21st century. "We are unique in that we consider any man who takes no part in public affairs not just uninvolved but useless", Kostandaras quotes Pericles and adds: "Since the founding of the modern Greek state nearly two centuries ago, Pericles’s exhortation has been remembered only in speeches on national holidays. Politics has been dominated by a professional caste whose credibility depended on keeping voters happy. This led to rising demands by interest groups at the expense of the whole society".
Yes, the sad state of Greek political affairs is well known. After all, it has been broadcast throughout the world in recent years with particular emphasis on the expression of a 'failed state'. Yes, Greek politics seem to be a mess but, no, Greece is not alone in this. Like so often, Greece is just so much more extreme than other countries but similar trends can be observed in many other countries. Notably my own country of Austria.
Like Greece, Austria's politics after WW2 were dominated by two large parties: the Conservatives and the Social Democrats; ÖVP and SPÖ. Or, as they are called: the Blacks and the Reds. In the early years, ÖVP/SPÖ garnered over 80% of the vote on a combined basis. They differed from ND/PASOK in 3 important ways.
First, instead of competing with one another which wastes energy, they decided to team up and form grand coalitions, recognizing that it is a lot more fun to run a democracy with a two-third majority than without it. There was a common objective: always make sure that both parties share equally and fairly in the gravy of the state and a huge public sector.
Secondly, ÖVP/SPÖ realized that there has to be gravy before it can be distributed; that one should nurture the cow if one wants to distribute milk. In short, they both had an interest in a strong private sector.
Thirdly, preferential treatment and corruption, which cannot be avoided in a system like that, never went to individual politicians privately. Instead, the beneficiaries were always the parties and whatever is good for parties is good for the country. So the reasoning went.
A system like the above cannot be replaced because that would require the beneficiaries of the system to amputate themselves. Fat chance of that ever happening! However, the system can be allowed to erode over time. That can be a very, very long time.
Austria's erosion process began over 25 years ago and was evidenced by the continous decline in the combined share of the vote of ÖVP/SPÖ. Voters still knew that, whoever they voted for, they would still get the same government after the election but they started 'sending signals'. A new right-wing party (FPÖ under Jörg Haider) moved from 5% in the mid-1980s to over 30% in the late 1990s, becoming temporarily the largest party in opinion polls. The power behind this new party was not so much its right-wing position but, instead, the fact that 'it declared war on the corrupt ÖVP/SPÖ dictatorship which pursued party politics at the expense of all Austrians'. That struck a theme with the voters. Still, the ÖVP/SPÖ survived that challenge which only goes to show how hard it is to remove a system which has been entrenched for decades.
"You can fool some of the people all of the time; all of the people some of the time; but you can't fool all of the people all of the time!" --- Any hope for significant political change must rest on this premise coined by Abraham Lincoln. A very interesting development took place in Austrian politics during 2013, and this may give some hope to Greeks.
In the September 2013 national election, ÖVP/SPÖ barely came over 50% of the vote while 2 parties which had not existed a year earlier scraped the 4% hurdle for parliament. One of them ("Frank", named after its founder, the Austro-Canadian billionaire Frank Stronach) focused on rhethoric and emotions and has meanwhile lost all of its support. For all practical purposes, it no longer exists (except for the seats in parliament which they can hold on to). The other party ("NEOS", standing for 'New Austria') garnered just over 4% at the elections but is now running in double-digits according to polls. NEOS focused on rational argument and serious conduct.
Even though I was very impressed by NEOS from the start (I voted for them), I am now overwhelmed to see how receptive a society which has been permeated by ÖVP/SPÖ party politics and interest groups for decades with entrenched infrastructures, how receptive so many Austrians are to rational argument and serious conduct. I am reminded of the many Greeks I have met, particularly from the younger generation, who also seemed to be receptive to rational argument and serious conduct.
"The economic crisis of the past four years is opening the way, after decades of stagnation, for radical change in Greek politics. New people — from business, sports, academia and various professions — are entering politics; new parties are pushing for a place in a field where for generations two parties and a handful of political dynasties controlled developments", writes Nikos Kostandaras. That, dear Greeks, is the prerequesite for the realistic hope for change!
There is no way of telling upfront which new party, which new politician will strike the right theme in order to set in motion an avalanche. Vanessa Andris, a Greek-American, wrote in the HuffingtonPost 3 years ago that "What Greece needs now is a new hero". One of my readers has been arguing for a long time that Greece needs its own Lech Walesa. Again, one can't tell upfront who is the right person and which is the right party but the more the alternatives which present themselves, the greater the likelihood that one of them will set off the avalanche.
One piece of advice for Mr. Theodorakis of To Potami: a nice TV persona and a vague idea of what one has in mind may be enough to start a small fire. But if he wants to start a blaze, he should take a copy from NEOS. In order to convert a small fire into a blaze, there has to be a grassroots, bottom-up organization of motivated people (many volunteers!). Soft facts may suffice to start the small fire. The blaze requires that soft facts are supported by hard facts such as specific policy positions, shared value structures and a clear vision of what kind of a country one would like to see in a generation from now.