Greece: When democracy is denied, people take to the streets

Lucas Papademos quickly expelled members of the government who opposed the austerity package

When democracy is denied, the people take to the streets

Yannis Behrakis/Reuters

Ancient Athenians made no distinction between themselves and their government. Official pronouncements attributed decisions to “the citizens of Athens” and left it at that. Such an inclusive sense of democracy is sadly absent in the modern city.

This week in Athens tens of thousands of protesters, angered by severe new austerity measures proposed by the unelected caretaker government of Prime Minister Lucas Papademos, set fire to scores of buildings and rampaged throughout town. They were met by riot police lobbing tear gas and stun grenades. And after the package passed, Papademos quickly expelled members of his government who voted against it. This is apparently no time for dissent or debate.

The turmoil in Greece is well earned. Many decades of lavish but unsupportable welfare state spending have left Greece impossibly burdened; its sovereign debt stands at 160 per cent of GDP. And yet the new austerity package could accelerate the already precipitous fall in living standards. The economy shrank by seven per cent last year and unemployment among the volatile 16-24 age group is 46 per cent.

Greece thus faces two stark choices. If it wishes further bailouts and to continue using the euro, it must carry on with the harsh measures demanded by other European countries (notably Germany—see “Achtung, baby!” page 36) and private sector lenders. This option may offer the greatest chance for stability, both in Greece and the rest of Europe.

Alternatively, Greece could decide it values its own sovereignty more than solidarity with neighbours. A default (which many consider inevitable regardless of further bailouts) and expulsion from the euro would likely lead to severe inflation, bank failures and an even more rapid decline in living standards over the short term. Over a longer period, however, it holds the possibility of a real recovery. Heavily indebted countries such as Mexico and Russia have defaulted, devalued and gone on to enjoy substantial growth.

So a difficult choice is in the offing. But who should choose? The basic precept of democracy is that the people must have the final word. And yet this imperative appears to have been forgotten throughout the euro crisis.

In November 2011, the previous—elected—prime minister of Greece, George Papandreou, proposed to hold a referendum on an earlier bailout agreement. It seemed a reasonable idea, given a properly worded question. Yet outrage from foreign leaders and financiers, aghast at what would happen if the country said no, forced Papandreou to retract his proposal. Days later he was gone as prime minister and in his place stood the unelected Papademos, former vice-president of the European Central Bank.

Rule by technocrat without coherent public input is becoming the preferred means of governing among Europe’s sick men. In Italy, former European commissioner Mario Monti, unelected as prime minister, is also running the show. While technocracies of this sort would have appealed to ancient Greek philosopher Plato—he considered government too important to be left to the masses and envisioned rule by an elite cadre of guardians raised from birth to lead—it is at direct odds with that other Greek innovation of democracy.

It is difficult to imagine a greater gap between what a government proposes and what the public wants than what is on display in Greece today. And when people find their ability to express themselves denied at the ballot box, they take to the streets, just as they have done in Athens, and look for others to blame.

From a distance, Canadians may consider that imposing strict austerity measures on Greece is the necessary thing to do, and an appropriate sanction for all those years of neglectful profligacy. But this is a choice the Greeks must make for themselves. A proper referendum on the way ahead, as former prime minister Papandreou once proposed, seems the only permanent solution to the Greek dilemma. Remember, there are no wrong answers in a democracy.

Trent Frayne, one of Canada’s greatest sports writers and a long-time Maclean’s writer, passed away last week at age 93. His first article for these pages appeared in 1941 (a profile of Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Turk Broda) and over the decades he held forth on sports and sports figures of every description. A master wordsmith, Frayne was particularly admired by colleagues and readers for opening lines that made it impossible not to read the story that followed. A few of our favourite Maclean’s ledes: “There was a time when college football was an excuse to drink outdoors without being arrested” (Dec. 4, 1989); “There’s nothing wrong with the Olympic Games that taking them to the Sahara Desert wouldn’t cure” (June 4, 1990); “Golf has its interesting moments, but is it really a sport?” (Aug. 7, 1995); and “In the days before he started stealing their money, hockey players sometimes called Alan Eagleson ‘Super Al.’ ” (June 19, 1998). His talent and wit enlivened every sport, for all Canadians.


Greece: When democracy is denied, people take to the streets

  1. I think it’s fair to say that when a nation-state loses its ability to finance its own affairs, it loses its right of self-governance.  

    Therefore, when Greek citizens are willing to accept their financial situation without bailouts from other nations, they will have the right to demand self-governance again.  Of course, this would mean that they would go completely bankrupt with an abrupt and total cessation of all welfare and social benefits.  

    You can’t demand to be responsible for your own affairs and at the same time demand not to face the consequences of your poor decisions.  It’s a contradiction in terms.

    •  You are assuming that the “people” want the bailouts…I know of no national elections that have been held on that question.  All of the financial maneuvering has been to protect the financial elite…just like in the U.S. All governments are now just pawns of corporate interests.  Any bailouts, tax exemptions, or human rights exemptions that are need to needed to protect the 1%, will be taken….just like in the U.S.A.

  2. A more nuanced reading of Plato renders your interpretation of his political philosophy an oversimplification. He would have abhorred any unquestioned authority. It cannot be said with any confidence, however, that he favoured democracy.

  3. Do you not see the contradiction in: “Many decades of lavish but unsupportable welfare state spending have
    left Greece impossibly burdened; its sovereign debt stands at 160 per
    cent of GDP. And yet the new austerity package could accelerate the
    already precipitous fall in living standards.”

    The living standards to which the Greeks have become used are unnatainable, and would be even if the debt slate were wiped clean.

  4. Bottom line is that Greek voters have shown themselves incapable of rational decisions and adult choices. Let’s look past Greek “politicians’ and “bankers”. Greek voters have voted themselves this “lavish, unsupportable welfare state” and enjoyed it’s fruits while the proverbial party lasted. People who have shown themselves incapable of adulthood, have no right complaining when the privileges of adulthood are stripped from them and they are treated like the unruly children they really are.
    What has made this such a prominent case is the fact that for the past 2 decades Greek voters have acted in such childish manner and voted themselves lavish expenses out of money coming in from other countries. Usually such nonsense is contained within a country, where a parasitic class is supported by confiscatory taxes on the so-called “rich” (people who work for a living), but who are citizens of the same sovereignty.  I can imagine the shock when all of the Germans (and all of the Dutch, and Finns, etcetera), found themselves considered as the “evil Rich” who were to be taxed to support all of the Greeks’ welfare state.

  5. “Remember, there are no wrong answers in a democracy”  That statement is based on the assumption that the voters have the greater good in mind.  But what if the voters have only self serving short term thinking foremost in their minds.  ie: I won’t give up my benefits, even if I can’t afford them – let the next generation pay.  In days gone by, when the general population didn’t act like self interested spoiled brats, but actually considered long term issues, we could count on the voter making at least a somewhat informed decision.  In this day and age, it seems that people think only of themselves and whats in it for them without thinking of the long term consequeneces.  Someone must have a longer term vision than what will happen to my meal next week.  That’s like butchering the goose that laid the golden eggs.  You get a few more eggs today, at risk of many eggs in the future

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