No. 4: April-June 2012

Takis S. Pappas

Greek Democracy

Academic Foresights

How do you analyze the present state of Greek democracy?

Any answer to this question requires first a common understanding of what democracy is. This is a complex issue, which cannot of course be settled here. For the sake of argument, however, let us agree, following Joseph Schumpeter (1950 [1942]), that democracy is but a method used by societies for arriving at decisions. Let us furthermore, now partly following Robert Dahl (1972), stipulate six features that are necessary in any country worthy of being called a (full and unqualified) democracy: free and fair elections; inclusiveness; control of the agenda by elected officials; accountability of both civil servants and politicians; rule of law; and effective as well as responsible opposition. Unqualified democracies display, at various degrees, all of the foregoing features; and plural systems that lack one or more of those features present as imperfect democracies, or, as Levitsky and Collier (1997) have put it, as “democracies with adjectives.” We can now try to approach our original question concerning Greece’s contemporary democracy more systematically.

Free and fair elections are the first and foremost feature of democracy. Such contests should be held at regular intervals on the basis of universal, equal, and secret suffrage. At first sight, Greece, no doubt, seems to satisfy the foregoing criteria. Look a bit closer, though, and the picture becomes rather blurry, at least for fairness. Political fairness requires that every candidate for election and every political party have an equal opportunity of access to the media for putting forward their political views. And, furthermore, that the state should take all necessary measures to ensure the equality of opportunities among candidates, as well as among parties. Both requirements are however curbed by preferential treatment to major political players to the detriment of smaller ones. A case in point is the current electoral law of “reinforced proportionality,” which allows the largest party to achieve an absolute parliamentary majority if it tallies about 41 percent of the total vote. By reserving 50 parliamentary seats for the largest party, and by apportioning the remaining 250 seats to all parties proportionately, this law penalizes smaller parties and discourages aspiring candidates from competing in elections.

Democratic inclusiveness, secondly, must extend to all citizens within the state as everyone has a legitimate stake within the political process. This principle applies particularly to minority groups within states, such as ethnic, religious, or linguistic groups that should enjoy full state protection. In this respect, Greek democracy presents a deficit that grows bigger with time. According to the Greek Helsinki Monitor, for instance, not only does Greece continue to lack effective policy to promote the cultural diversity of minorities, but she also maintains a number of laws that fail to take into account cultural and other diversity within the Greek state. Greece has not yet ratified the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities or signed the European Charter of Minority Languages. A particularly sore point is the treatment of asylum seekers, refugees, and other migrants, which has recently become the focus of international attention. Absence of inclusiveness has led to increasing anti-immigrant violence in Athens and other Greek towns. In a particularly ugly episode in May 2011, ultra-nationalists assaulted migrants in a working-class district in Athens smashing foreign-owned shops. Similar episodes are not unknown elsewhere in the country.

In democracies, thirdly, elected officials are voted into office to materialize policy agendas that they have announced before elections; while in office, they should be in control of the agenda. To be sure, as it happens in several other democracies around the world, the mass media have played in Greece an increasingly important role in shaping the public agenda and, sometimes, even holding governments “hostage” to their most preferential policies. Even so, and even disregarding the fact that Mr. Lucas Papademos, Greece’s current head of government, is not directly elected by the Greek public, it is not difficult to understand that the Greek government has a very limited hold on policy agenda. Economic policy-making, in particular, has shifted from the Greek government to the so-called troika, a joint council consisting of non-Greek bureaucrats in the EU, the IMF, and the ECB, who, to a large extent, are now responsible for decisions in a large spectrum of policies ranging from wage cuts and pension reform to administrative changes and public sector accountability to the liberalization of domestic markets and the implementation of privatizations.

A fourth feature of democratic politics is that elected officials, as well as civil servants, are not immune to violations of the law, but are held accountable by citizens, who therefore have the capacity to cause sanctions to violators either through the court system or through other specifically set institutions (such as the parliament or administrative disciplinary committees). The outcomes of holding one politically accountable may range from civic (and penal) liability to political impeachment and forced resignation. In practice, however, this is nearly impossible in Greece. Parliamentarians enjoy immunity from persecution unless Parliament votes to lift it, which has reportedly occurred only 17 times out of the hundreds of such requests since 1974. Public servants are immune primarily because they cannot be fired; in addition, there are no effective watchdog units that are either willing (e.g., union-control-free administrative disciplinary committees) or able (e.g., the Ombudsman has no power to impose penalties) to enforce accountability. Lack of accountability and, therefore, transparency, is omnipresent in many aspects of politics, most infamously in party financing. This of course leads to corruption. According to the most recent report of Transparency International, in 2011 Greece, with a score of 3.4 (10 being least corrupt), was no less corrupt than Romania or Vanuatu.

In democracies, fifth, the rule of law is supreme and all citizens are equal before it. This however implies that governments are in a position to both inspire confidence in the rule of law and enforce it when it is violated. Although there has been in Greece a persisting lack of confidence in the rule of law, the current economic crisis has made the problem worse as it has caused the virtual breakdown of legal order. To explain by recent examples, the “I Won’t Pay Movement” refuses to pay highway tolls, public transportation fares, and other social fees; repeated attempts by the government to enforce a smoking ban have failed; most university rectors refuse to apply a new higher education law providing among others the establishment of committees to oversee academic recruitment, which is currently decided by faculty vote; and the list could unhappily go on and on. Instead of the rule of law, there is in Athens and other parts of Greece extensive anomie and the resurgence of extremist movements, whether of anarchist and far-left hues or of ultra-nationalist and far-right variants.

There is, finally, the issue of opposition, which, in democracy, should be both efficacious and responsible. As things stand in Greece at present, the opposition is for the first time since 1974 fragmented into too many small and difficult to reconcile parties; there are also significant oppositions within most parties with strong intimidation potential to respective leaderships. This opposition is no efficacious in that it has so far failed to present any valid, let alone viable, alternative to the austerity program imposed by the Troika upon Greece; nor is it a responsible opposition as long as it undermines the government’s efforts for its own short-term gains.

What the foregoing analysis suggests is that, at present, Greece’s is a democracy with several adjectives, which, to say the least, is an imperfect democracy. This brings us to the next question, which is about the prospects of the Greek democracy over the next few years..

In your opinion, how will the situation likely evolve over the next five years?

Certainly, a lot will depend on the outcome of the next elections in the country (most likely to be held by April 2012). Still, no matter what the electoral outcome might be, the range of future possibilities is rather limited. In my opinion, the possible scenarios for Greece are no more than three, which I will call the good, the bad, and the Hungarian.

According to the good scenario, first, the winner of the election, most probably the conservative New Democracy (ND) party, will be able to form a sufficiently strong government with a clear long-term program based upon a new contract with all social partners: the civil society in general, the organized interests, and the state administration. Along the process, democracy will be wounded by the many conflicts to ensue, but will eventually survive. It may even emerge stronger after some time.

In the bad scenario, which is not entirely alien to the recent Greek political history if one recalls the consecutive election of 1989-90 that produced stillborn administrations, no party is able to form a government, either autonomously or as a major coalition partner. Amidst repeated elections, and as no consensus exists in society, democracy deteriorates, anomie becomes widespread, and extremism thrives. Whether under this scenario Greece defaults or not, the political situation will look like a blind alley with high insecurity and unpleasant surprises.

The third scenario is the Hungarian one, in which a strong nationalist-populist government uses its power to curtail political and civil liberties, control the judiciary and the press, and enact new laws to the detriment of political opposition. This scenario, which implies a situation similar to the one currently developing in Hungary, points to a swift trajectory in Greece from economic chaos to political authoritarianism. Such a process might be hastened by the combination of increased polarization among the several parties to emerge from the forthcoming elections; the populism of both right and left that will continue reigning supreme; and the fruitless endeavors to produce a strong government able to tackle Greece’s very serious problems.

What are the structural long-term perspectives?

There is a general caveat: Is Greece to eventually remain in the Eurozone, or will it be forced out of it? As it should be clear, the prospects for the embattled Greek democracy improve as long as it stays in the European core, while they are going to deteriorate sharply once outside of it. But even if Greece remains in the Eurozone, her long term perspectives are still dependent on three factors: First, whether some new political leadership is going to emerge in Greece, able to forge a fresh, feasible social contract with the Greek society; second, whether the EU and the Eurozone resolve their own crises and create the conditions for relative political and economic stability; and, third, whether there will be a prolonged world economic recession, which is certain to hit Greece even harder than her own and her European partners own mistakes.

-     -     -


Robert A. Dahl 1972, Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press).

Steven Levitsky and David Collier 1997, “Democracy with Adjectives: Conceptual Innovation in Comparative Research,” World Politics 49:3, 430-451.

Joseph A. Schumpeter 1950 [1942[, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (New York: Harper & Row).

Takis S. Pappas is a Marie Curie Fellow at the Department of Political and Social Sciences of the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, and Associate Professor of comparative politics in the Department of Balkan, Slavic & Oriental Studies of the University of Macedonia, Greece (on leave). He is currently working on a book project under the tentative title Flawed Democracy: Populism and Crisis Politics in Greece.

© Copyright: click here                                       Join our discussion group on LinkedIn