A Crisis of Democracy

As the latest, controversial austerity measures were passed by Greek MPs on Sunday evening, Athens was in flames. With tens of thousands of protestors massing outside the parliament building during the crunch vote, long-running tensions over proposed cuts and declining standards of living burst forth into civil unrest. Stones clattered against police riot shields, petrol bombs were hurled through the air, and shouts of anger and frustration echoed through streets teeming with burning buildings.

In a speech delivered shortly before the vote, Prime Minister Lucas Papademos sounded a defiant note against the fury raging outside. “Vandalism, violence, and destruction have no place in a democratic society,” he claimed while urging support for measures that would “set the foundations for the reform and recovery of the economy.” But while many Eurozone leaders, relieved by parliament’s approval of the austerity measures, find themselves entirely in agreement with Papademos, the majority of Greeks are left asking whether the increasingly hopeless pursuit of economic recovery has done irreparable damage to Greek democracy. Has the management of the economy taken precedence over the representation of the people?

For Papademos and the majority of his cabinet colleagues, there is no trade-off between democracy and economic stabilisation. As Papademos’ predecessor, George Papandreou, frequently observed during his ill-fated premiership, the interests of the Greek people are best served by securing much-needed aid from the country’s European partners, and by attempting to lay the foundations for economic recovery. As representatives of the people, the Greek government has an obligation to work in their best interests in this most severe of crises.

The only problem is that not everyone shares this perspective. For a growing number of Greeks, the Eurozone’s demands for further cuts have overshadowed democratic representation.

It is not difficult to see why the conditions which Eurozone leaders laid down for the transfer of the next tranche of the bailout might appear to be inappropriate impositions foisted upon Greece by countries preoccupied with their own interests. Given the scale of Greece’s sovereign debt, it is far from clear that austerity measures actually can rescue the country from bankruptcy. And given that investment has already declined to the point that poverty has become rife, it is hard to believe that the public interest is best served by lowering the minimum wage and cutting 15,000 public-sector jobs in the vain hope of staving off Greece’s all-but-inevitable withdrawal from the Euro. One could certainly be forgiven for thinking that ordinary Greeks are being forced to suffer financial hardship by an unrealistic government in thrall to the troika.

Inevitably, this carries with it the sense that Papademos’ government has ceased to represent the people. Many Greeks – particularly small businessmen, blue collar workers, the unemployed, and trades unionists – believe that the immediate problem of jobs and the falling standard of living should be the priority. Rather than cutting off its nose to spite its face in attempting to salvage an increasingly unsalvageable debt, Greece should resign itself to an inevitable default and concentrate on taking care of its people as best it can in the short term. But if this is the will of many Greeks, Papademos is simply not listening. A poll published in the daily Kathimerini on February 8 revealed that a staggering 91% of Greeks believe that Papademos’ government is heading in the “wrong direction”, and that austerity measures are almost universally condemned. The 74 MPs who voted against the austerity package on Sunday notwithstanding, Greece’s parliamentarians do indeed seem to have overlooked their obligation to represent the wishes of ordinary voters.

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Perhaps Papademos would choose to represent this as a new manifestation of a classic problem: do the people really know where their best interests lie? But while it’s a tempting question to ask, the simple fact is that a representative democracy does not require elected representatives to judge the quality of the people’s wishes. They are simply required to represent the people, for better or for worse. Whether the austerity measures do indeed represent the best hope for Greece’s recovery or not, parliamentarians have an absolute obligation to respect the wishes of the people, even if this means throwing out the reform package and sacrificing the next tranche of the bailout. That, simply put, is democracy; and Greece, it seems, is experiencing a crisis of democracy.

But if Greece’s government have indeed prioritised (questionable) economic management over democratic representation, it is only reasonable to ask what course of action is open to Greeks frustrated to find themselves ignored by their own representatives. While Papademos is indeed correct to observe that vandalism, violence and destruction have no place in a democracy, what is the proper response when a democracy has ceased to function?

The elections scheduled for April offer some measure of hope, and it is to be anticipated that significant change in the composition of the Greek parliament will result. But given the pace at which Greece’s economic fortunes are deteriorating, April might seem to be too late. If Papademos and his parliamentary colleagues do not wake up to their responsibilities as representatives, they might just find that the Greek people may see fit to take matters into their own hands before going to the polls. While civil unrest in unequivocally to be deplored, unless something is done to arrest the crisis of democracy engulfing Greece’s political system, one could perhaps sympathise with protestors taking more affirmative action to restore effective representation. Should the popular will not be given priority over the troika’s demands, Sunday’s clashes could be just a taste of things to come.

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