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Nostalgia for the Past Won't Cure Greece's Ills

02/21/2014 02:01 pm ET | Updated Apr 23, 2014

With just a few months until the upcoming double elections in Greece, the political system has never been more in a state of flux across the political spectrum. The past 5 years of economic distress and austerity have put pressure on the country's political dynamics while prompting many Greeks to reevaluate their basic values. The result has been general revulsion at the status quo, prompting a rise in the popularity of far right political parties.

Greece used to have a well-established bipolar political system in which no third party that could play a meaningful role in forming a government, as the ruling party had a built-in ability to get reelected, making the opposition obsolete. The tendency of large blocks of voters to follow the ruling party rather than individual MPs meant that three to five other parties typically made it to parliament by receiving less than 10 percent of the vote, and had no real ability to block legislation put forward by the ruling party.

This created a strong client culture in which 70-80 percent of the population where split into two major groups - many voting for one party only to prevent the other from coming to power, and a system catering to nepotism, favoritism, corruption, influence peddling, and vote buying. Everything from parliamentary seats to the number of public sector employees that were to be hired could be bought. Fueling this was a culture that flourished over the past 40 years, where minimum effort, the absence of risk and entitlements from the state became the rule. Private sector initiative, entrepreneurialism and risk taking became ever rarer.

This cauldron of self-preservation turned out to be a breeding ground for the rise of extremist political parties. The extremist Golden Dawn has placed third in virtually every poll since 2012, despite the government's effort to declare it a criminal organization, having imprisoned virtually the entire party leadership, who await trial. This is the first time that active MPs -- including the leader of a parliamentary political party -- have been imprisoned in the political history of Greece.

Despite this, and in spite of Golden Dawn's numerous provocative and objectionable policy positions - ranging from public harassment of actors, homosexuals, and immigrants to gathering armed supporters to display their shooting abilities, and Nazi-style night marches -- the Party's popularity remains high. The unprecedentedly sudden rise of Golden Dawn, which captured 7 percent of the vote in the 2012 elections, is unique in the western European political spectrum, and has left journalists, analysts and the general public wondering why the Party has staying power.

Many Greeks agree that Golden Dawn continues to receive these high percentages because its supporters are disappointed by the political establishment as a whole, and want revenge. They hope Golden Dawn will do to the political system what they cannot do on their own, and once in power, severely punish current politicians and the people that financially benefited from the status quo, while forcing immigrants out of Greece and reestablishing the 'lost pride' of the country and its people.

A recent comparative analysis of all polls conducted by the prominent GPO opinion poll company for the mainstream MEGA TV network showed that Golden Dawn's popularity ranged from about 10 percent in 2012 to 7 percent today. Some 73 percent of the public agree with the government and believe Golden Dawn is a threat to the Republic, while 62 percent agree that it is a criminal organization. Opinion polls over the past two years determined that Golden Dawn's supporters are mainly young and middle-aged males (67 percent) aged 25 to 54, with 63 percent self-described as low income and 33 percent as medium income.

In other words, the vast majority of Golden Dawn's supporters are working age men who were harmed the most from the ongoing crisis. It is interesting to note that 38 percent of its supporters describe themselves center-left, 35 percent as center-right, and only 27 percent as far-right. This implies that they identify with Golden Dawn's policy position more than its politics.

Nostalgia for the past is rising along with the popularity of far right movements. Rhetoric reminding Greeks of their civil war and the Cold War has been resurfacing on television, among politicians, and people more generally. Yet rhetoric cannot replace today's economic and political realities. Five years after the onset of the Great Recession, Greece remains an economic basket case, with no end in sight. Voting in extremist political parties may make them feel better, but is likely to do little to improve the lot of the average Greek.

Greeks need to become more mature politically, so as to be able to choose new candidates, parties, and party affiliations, with no links to the past. They would do well to trust a younger generation of politicians and select moderate political movements with realistic plans for both exiting the crisis and crafting a path toward the future. This is the only way that the client-based system - and all that it stands for and implies -- can gradually disappear. Rather than longing for a restoration of Greek pride, its citizens would be better advised to focus on how the country can dig itself out of its hole.

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Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions, Senior Advisor with Gnarus Advisors, and author of the book "Managing Country Risk." Alexis Giannoulis is a CRS research analyst and a freelance diligence and political risk analyst.

Reprinted with permission from International Policy Digest.