Greece: Yet another example of political extreme going mainstream

Greece: Yet another example of political extreme going mainstream

Sam Fearnley looks at the rise of far-right and far-left parties, in the wake of the Greek elections

Since the end of the Second World War, Europe has been a rather nice place in which to live. In spite of a few spats over a wall or a curtain or something it’s been a stable place to be, and such stability manifests itself in strong economies, a lack of social unrest, and very little war.

A number of factors have been important in allowing Europe to enjoy these past decades. Strong trade links to former colonies boosted the economy; countries formerly in the Soviet Union offered bountiful natural resources; the manufacturing industries of Germany, France and Scandinavia allowed for remarkable infrastructure projects. More recently, tech start-ups in the Nordic and Baltic countries have allowed Europe to progress into the 21st century with relative ease.

However it is obvious that that underlying stability, in light of recent events, looks increasingly precarious. Countries change hugely every year, it would be naïve to think that our cultural and social structures would not change too.

These changes have been perhaps most evident in Greece, especially over the past few years. Since the global recession in 2008, Greece has, economically, been in quite an undesirable position. In fact, the government’s deficit relative to GDP was second highest in the world (after Iceland).

For years the Greek government had been using a number of large financial institutions (such as Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase) to hide their debts. The banks supplied certain funds to keep the government ticking over in return for future pay-outs, which meant that the country’s own liabilities were kept ‘off the books’. To cut a long and jargon-filled story short, the ensuing financial meltdown in Greece was cataclysmic.

The EU and IMF developed a bailout plan, which, over the course of a number of years, allowed funds totalling £179bn to flow into the Greek economy.

This money, however, was obviously not free. Stipulated in the contract was the clause that Greece had to cut public spending. The ensuing austerity measures consisted of cutting public services and public sector jobs, and the unemployment rate in Greece is now at a painful 25%.

For six years, Greece has been in recession, and feeling the full effects of it. This general election was a chance to change that, and unsurprisingly the people took action. Syriza, a far-left party, began to pick up support at local and national levels.

The official name for Syriza – ‘The Coalition of the Radical Left’ – sounds fairly daunting to political conservatives. Originally formed in 2004 as an alliance, the group has been an official party for less than three years. The party’s leader, Alexis Tsipras, is now the Prime Minister of Greece.

After a rapid rise to power, Tsipras was elected to become the Prime Minister of Greece on January 25th 2015. He has promised to reverse the previous conservative government’s policies on privatisation, and negotiate with the EU on Greece’s debt. Tsipras promised the people of Greece that he would negotiate a contract so only half of the debt would ever need to be re-paid.

The EU, however, is in no mood to negotiate. Angela Merkel has ruled out any cancellation of Greece’s debt. As Europe’s most powerful woman, and a great supporter of the European Union, she does not appreciate the lacklustre approach Tsipras seems to have with Greece’s budget.

Equally however, in her own country, she publically despises and condemns the very right wing PEGIDA movement, both in Germany and around Europe. Support for populist, far-right politics is propagating around Europe. No more so than in France, where Marine Le Pen and ‘Front Nationale’ gained 24.86% of the votes in the 2014 European Parliament elections, the first time the party had won in its four decades of existence. The result shocked many in France, as well as the EU. Politicians across the continent are no doubt wondering which country will be the first to ever leave the European Union.

This political split, this new dichotomy of support for far-right anti-immigration parties, and far-left anti-austerity parties is more obvious than ever. In Austria, Denmark, France and the Netherlands, nationalist anti-EU parties are right at the top of public polls. However, in Spain and Greece, we can see that radical left parties, who increase public spending and cut austerity, are becoming the political parties in vogue. You could cut the political tension with a teaspoon.

Britain, despite the rise of UKIP, is in a unique position. Our ‘first-past-the-post’ system means that it is incredibly difficult to break apart a single party majority. Despite this, both the Green party and UKIP have seen meteoric rises in support, and are making it incredibly difficult for either Labour or the Conservatives to establish an outright majority.

There are two main solutions to this problem. One answer is for a country to carry on with a minority government. Denmark and Sweden have taken this route, but it is far from ideal. In December 2014, Sweden suffered a massive cabinet crisis, after the far-right Sweden Democrats stopped the centre-left from passing a budget. The situation, though sorted for now, presents a very real problem that future minority governments will have to face.

The second solution, seen in Germany, the Netherlands and Austria, would be for the two centrist – yet ever dwindling – parties to form a Grand coalition. In Austria, the two major centrist parties have formed a coalition just to keep out the far-right.

For Greece, having a new Prime Minister who has previously been a supporter of communism is significant. However, despite this and the headlines around the world, what is happening in Greece is not the start of a political revolution in Europe. Yet to think that people across the continent are passive to the situation would be idiocy. People want to see change in their own country, and sometimes they see extreme politics as the only way to do that. Whether that’s the right way to vote is still yet to be seen. Many are worried, but the public is voting for what it wants and, frankly, isn’t that what democracy is all about?

Featured image: Lorenzo Gaudenzi/Wikipedia

Sam Fearnley