'Weimar Greece' and the Future of Europe

03/16/2015 08:53 am ET | Updated May 16, 2015

At least since the 2012 parliamentary elections, in both May and June, Greece has been the European country to invoke the most dire predictions for the future. Although far right parties have gained three to four times as much electoral support in other European countries, the roughly 6 percent of the vote for the, until then unknown, Golden Dawn (XA) party has unleashed hordes of journalists on the crisis-ridden country -- hopefully compensating at least for some of the lost tourism income -- and have put commentators into a frenzy. Mostly asking rhetorical questions, like "is fascism back in Europe?, (self-) proclaimed experts from all over the globe harked back to the inevitable trauma of Weimar Germany to 'explain' the current situation in Greece. Some even went as far as to claim that the "Weimar on the Aegean" is the future of all of Europe!

The idea is simple: economic crisis breeds frustration that leads to the support for anti-democratic parties. After all, wasn't it the Great Depression that created Adolf Hitler? Yes, to an extent it was, although Hitler never achieved more than one-third of the vote and his ascent to power was made possible by naïve and opportunistic behavior of the political establishment. More importantly, that same Great Depression did not lead to extreme right parties coming to power through elections in other countries. In other words, Weimar Germany was the exception, not the rule.

So, has the Great Recession created a Weimar Greece and, if so, is this the exception or the (future) in Europe? At first sight the answer seems an easy "no." Truly extremist parties of right and left received a total of about 12 percent of the vote: Golden Dawn got 6.3 percent and the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) 5.5 percent. That said, populist parties gained more than 40 percent in total: notably, the Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza) gained 36.6 percent and the Independent Greeks (ANEL) 4.8 percent. While populists oppose certain features of liberal democracy (e.g. minority rights and pluralism), they do accept the basic tenets of democracy (i.e. popular sovereignty and majority rule). In other words, the main parties supporting liberal democracy received a minority of the votes -- in fact, in the current parliament pro-liberal democracy parties hold just 106 of the 300 seats! Whereas Weimar Germany was a democracy without democrats, contemporary Greece is a liberal democracy without liberal democrats.

There is another similarity between Weimar Germany and contemporary ('Weimar') Greece: they are the exception, not the rule. Just as the Great Depression didn't lead to a continental rise of fascist parties, the Great Recession has not given way to a Europe-wide upsurge in support for far right parties. On top of that, Golden Dawn is the only clearly extreme right party to gain, albeit modestly. Strikingly, all four other 'bailout countries' have no significant far right party -- Golden Dawn's little Cypriot cousin, the National Popular Front (ELAM), is the most successful with a mere 1.1 percent in the 2011 parliamentary elections and 2.7 in the 2014 European elections. In fact, if the bailout countries have seen any broader electoral response, and even this is limited to a few countries, it is the implosion of the established parties, most notably of the center-left, and the rise of left-wing populist parties.

It is in this respect that Greece again stands out. Syriza shot from 4.6 percent in 2007 to 36.3 percent in 2015, while the mainstream left-wing Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) crashed from 43.9 percent in 2009 to a measly 4.7 percent in 2015. So far this is unique to Greece, but recent polls in Spain show that the left-wing populist party We Can (Podemos) could be set for a similar trajectory, although both the rise of Podemos and the implosion of the mainstream left-wing Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE) are less extreme. And while Italy has seen the meteoric rise of a more or less left-wing populist upstart, the Five Star Movement (M5S) of comedian Beppe Grillo, this has been accompanied by a rather modest decrease of the mainstream left-wing Democratic Party (PD). In fact, Italy has seen a more pronounced implosion of support for the mainstream and radical right populist parties, Forza Italia (FI) and the Lega Nord (LN).

In short, Greece isn't Europe and Europe isn't Greece. In a strict sense, contemporary Greece is also not the same as Weimar Germany, as the main challenge comes from anti-liberal democratic populists instead of anti-democratic extremists. That said, there are important similarities. Just as Weimar Germany was a democracy without democrats, Greece is a liberal democracy without liberal democrats. But while Weimar Germany was a state in perpetual crisis, Greece has gone through substantial periods of economic and political stability. But, as Greek political scientist Takis Pappas has forcefully argued, the political establishment never truly developed a liberal democratic regime in Greece. Andreas Papandreou made PASOK into a left-wing populist party, rather than a more traditional Western European social democratic one, and established a powerful clientelist party-state. Its main right-wing competitor, New Democracy (ND), has copied PASOK's clientelist approach to the state, but not its populist approach to politics.

In short, the Great Recession has not turned Greece into an illiberal democracy, or (more positively formulated) an ill-functioning liberal democracy; it has always been one. Similarly, the economic crisis has not strengthened political extremism, as Greece has always had a relatively strong extremist party in the pro-Soviet KKE. As far as Greek politics has been transformed, it is in the replacement of the establishment left-wing populist PASOK by the upstart left-wing populist Syriza. How significant that transformation is for Greek (liberal) democracy, will become clear in the coming months and years.

___________________

Cas Mudde is an associate professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia (USA). His books include Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe and Populism in Europe and the Americas: Corrective or Threat for Democracy?, which have been published in English by Cambridge University Press and in Greek by Epikentro.