A Minute With...

Kostas Kourtikakis, expert on the EU and Greek politics

6/19/2012  8:00 am

Many world leaders and economists seemed to be holding their collective breath June 17 as debt-burdened Greece held its second parliamentary election in as many months. Would the Greeks choose the established center-right party that supports international bailout agreements? Or would they choose the upstart leftist party that vowed to tear up the agreements and the austerity measures that went with them? How serious would be the consequences if they did? Political scientist Kostas Kourtikakis, a native of Greece and lecturer at the University of Illinois, is an expert on the European Union and its institutions, as well as on the politics of Greece and the region. Kourtikakis (pronounced kor-tee-KAH-kihs) was interviewed by News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.

The center-right New Democracy party won the most seats on Sunday (June 17), but not a majority, and only about 30 percent of the vote. What might it mean for Greece? For the EU?

image of professor kostas kourtikakisIt means that voters are split on the question of whether austerity and the euro are beneficial for Greece, but for the time being the pro-euro camp seems to be winning. If a coalition government is formed under the leadership of New Democracy, as looks likely right now, the country will continue to abide by the terms of assistance from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. This means that austerity policies will continue.

But the two recent votes have registered a strong opposition to austerity, and therefore I expect that a new Greek government will seek to amend some of those terms and soften austerity policies. Although the EU and the IMF officially oppose any changes in the bailout terms, the new political climate that has emerged after the recent French and the two Greek elections make some changes possible.

Why was this election even necessary?

The first election, which took place on May 6, did not produce a government, which is highly unusual in recent Greek politics. Under Greece’s parliamentary system, one political party or a coalition of parties must assemble a majority of seats in the legislature before they have the right to nominate a prime minister and a cabinet. Since no single party or coalition was able to do that, a new election was called. Things look a lot better this time around. Although no single party has won outright majority in Parliament, the potential for coalition exists.

What has made Greek politics so difficult during this period?

Greek politics has a weak tradition of coalition government. Unlike other countries in Europe, Greek political parties have been very suspicious of each other and have found it difficult to join forces. But from the 1980s until recently this was not a problem because two parties, the center-left PASOK and the center-right New Democracy, alternated in power by securing single-party majorities in Parliament. So, coalitions were not necessary.

The crisis has discredited PASOK and New Democracy, which have seen their voters flee to newer, smaller parties. This fragmentation of the popular vote means that party coalitions are now necessary, but the traditional suspicion among party leaders persists, making the formation of a new government a very tumultuous affair.

As the country has struggled over the past couple years, many have suggested the Greeks have only themselves to blame – for overspending, running up debt, depending on government jobs, not paying taxes. Should we feel any sympathy? Is it right to blame the country as a whole?

Indeed many members of the government and citizens have exploited the Greek state in the worst possible way. But it is important to also keep in mind that many did not. There are many Greeks who work hard, pay their taxes and are frugal about their finances. This seems like a rather simple point, and yet it is a point that many people outside Greece seem to ignore. I am often shocked when I hear oversimplified descriptions of “the Greeks” as lazy tax-evaders who overspend on the easy life.

The big challenge is, in fact, how to empower those citizens who have contributed positively to the society. I have had many conversations with fellow Greeks who are desperate because they feel that their entire life’s work was in vain. The worst is that those citizens don’t feel there is a political force that represents them. “I don’t know who to vote for anymore” is a phrase I hear often.

One additional important point is that Greece’s endemic problems were magnified after the country adopted the euro. The easy credit that accompanied euro membership made a corrupt political system even worse. It is doubtful that the level of Greece’s economic problems would be of this magnitude if it had stayed out of the euro.

The country has been plunging economically under austerity measures, and news reports suggest much of the populace is despondent about the present and future. What hope, if any, do they have of controlling their own situation?

For the last 40 years Greece has been suffering from an irresponsible political elite. Many citizens suspected this even before the crisis, but I believe they – just like the rest of the world – were shocked by the massive extent of corruption and cronyism. Now they have evidence. As a result, they scrutinize their politicians more closely and are much more eager to keep them accountable. Hopefully, this is a trend that will continue.

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