"In Greece, a liberal is called a 'neoliberal' and is perceived as a 'neoconservative'," says Constantinos Alexacos, an architect who ran as a candidate with the Drasi party in the May 6 elections.
Big shocks change perceptions but the spectacular meltdown of Greece's two-party system, dominant since the end of the military dictatorship in 1974, has failed to shake off at least one: mainstream distrust in liberalism.
Socialist PASOK and the New Democracy conservatives suffered a drubbing on Sunday, seeing their combined share of the vote sink to an all-time low of 32 percent. Nevertheless, none of the country's liberal parties – Democratic Alliance, Drasi (which merged with Liberal Alliance ahead of the vote), or Dimiourgia Xana (Recreate Greece) – won enough votes to make it into Parliament. The three garnered a combined 6.5 percent, or 411,536 votes, as a huge chunk of support went to the anti-bailout parties away from the center of the political spectrum.
The poor showing has prompted a fair deal of frustration and soul-searching among self-described liberals in this debt-wracked nation. If there is one thing they all agree on it's that their doctrine is a perennial victim of bad publicity. For a wide range of reasons, liberalism is still a dirty word for many, particularly those on the left.
"Like capitalism, liberal ideologies in Greece have been defined by their opponents, not their supporters. We've allowed others to tell the Greek population what we are, what we believe, who we are aligned with," says Emmanuel Schizas, editor of the LOL Greece blog.
"Essentially, if you call yourself a liberal, the reasoning goes, you are pro-war, pro-monopolies, a corporatist, unfeeling and uncaring, and have a casual tolerance for corruption, inequality and the suppression of political rights," adds Schizas.
It's quite an exasperating situation for people who have traditionally espoused such values as individual freedom, rule of law, active but accountable government, free but responsible markets, and mutual toleration.
Most liberals have called for a smaller government, fewer civil servants, privatizations and further deregulation of closed professions. But the fact that liberal parties chose to back the deeply unpopular austerity policies attached to the EU-IMF bailout deal didn't do much to promote their ideas. Worse, some liberal commentators say, the parties paid the price of endorsing ideas that were not, in fact, related to their political religion.
"Most liberals around the world have strongly opposed policies like those included in the memorandum," says Tilemachos Chormovitis, a contributor for the liberal BleMilo (Blue Apple) blog. "You can't solve a debt crisis by accepting more loans. Instead of putting forward their own program against the tax-heavy policies of the memorandum and the stubborn statism of the left, liberals tagged along with the worn-out parties that backed the program," he says.
To be sure, allergy to liberal ideas goes further back and has systematically been fed by the system of nepotism, clientelism and corruption that took hold of Greek society after populist PASOK rose to power in 1981. Any attempts to contain the country's gigantic and profligate state ran against the interests of the ruling parties and their voters. Over time, liberal reforms were seen as coming together with a self-destruct button.
"There comes a point on the road to serfdom where so much of a country is dependent on government subsidies, government-sanctioned rents and government-upheld false economies, that liberalizing it will simply kill it," says Schizas with a mention of F.A. Hayek's 1944 classic.
Implementing liberal economic reforms, he says, was bound to take a hefty toll on the well-being of hundreds of thousands of people – at least in the medium term. "In an aged and inflexible society such as ours, people don't bounce back from such setbacks; they stay down," he says.
It's hard to miss the uncomfortable truth at the core of the liberal creed: "The liberal parties are in the business of pointing out trade-offs; telling people they can't have everything. That's been a widely unpopular way of thinking in Greece since the 'change' of 1981," says Schizas, referring to the late Andreas Papandreou's famous campaign slogan which heralded the massive, but often misguided, program of wealth redistribution which was to follow.
The trade-off idea is a far cry from the populist, pie-in-the-sky idealism that has animated Greek parties seeking to appease an audience that had grown increasingly spoiled during the past 30 years. Furthermore, this cold, instrumental approach to politics, observers say, is out of synch with the all-too-human qualities of politicking. "Politics is not engineering. It's chaotic, it does not follow a straight line. Just like life," Kathimerini commentator Nikos Xydakis says, acknowledging SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras's deft timing and political opportunism. "Politics requires Machiavellian 'virtue,' the ability to adapt to any given situation by doing whatever is necessary," he says.
Wrong leaders, wrong audience
Analysts also voice reservations over whether Drasi leader, veteran politician and ex-minister Stefanos Manos and former New Democracy heavyweight Dora Bakoyannis, who now heads Democratic Alliance, are the right people for the job.
The biggest handicap, journalist and urban activist Dimitris Rigopoulos suggests, is that the vast majority of voters see them as part of the problem, not the solution. "Manos and Bakoyannis are both associated in the collective consciousness with Greece's discredited political establishment," he says.
Parallel to this, experts say, there's an issue with the audiences that these parties have chosen for themselves. Drasi, which likes to see itself as the 'orthodox' libertarian party, tanked outside the main urban centers while drawing a disproportionate share of the vote from the alumni of elite schools. One of the most common criticisms against liberals is that they are haughty and elitist.
"You get the impression that many of these people feel unfortunate to have been born in Greece and often treat their compatriots with disdain. Naturally, they have failed to identify with the masses and the biggest chunk of support comes from posh districts like Filothei or Kolonaki," Chormovitis says.
Meanwhile, most of the support for Democratic Alliance appears to come from the reservoir of voters connected to Dora Bakoyannis's family — which includes her father and ex-Premier Constantine Mitsotakis and her late politician husband Pavlos. "If we're being charitable, it would be best to say that not all of them care about liberal this and liberal that; they have personal loyalties," says Schizas.
Still far from tipping point, but…
Some observers are rather reserved about the future of Greece's liberal movement. "Greeks — at least those who did not vote for the leftovers of the old system and those who didn't abstain — voted for sterile reaction and conservatism," says journalist and blogger Thodoris Georgakopoulos.
The ballot, he says, shows that Greece's creative minority — those who find solutions to the challenges, which others then follow — is still far from reaching what writer Malcolm Gladwell calls "the tipping point" – "that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire," bringing about disproportionate change in society.
"If Greece's creative minority had really reached the tipping point, the country wouldn't have gone bankrupt in the first place," Georgakopoulos says.
But true to their creed, liberals remain optimistic about the future. For Rigopoulos, a journalist with Kathimerini and founding member of the Atenistas citizens' group, Greece is for the first time witnessing the conditions for the emergence of a genuinely liberal, reformist movement.
"Until five years ago, the so-called liberal front was reduced to a mostly isolated, demonized faction inside New Democracy plus a few scattered voices inside PASOK – the legacy of Costas Simitis, as it were," he says in reference to the former modernist-minded premier. As intense polarization fades, new forces are being unleashed – "for better or for worse," he says.
But unless they decide to join forces, liberals will find it hard to reach the tipping point. Ironically, although they are proud of their pragmatism and consensual habits, Greek liberals were in these elections represented with three distinct groupings. While bigger parties are struggling to form a unity government, liberal party officials have over the past few days been in talks to cooperate ahead of possible new elections. "Working with other people and parties has always been part of the solution as far as Drasi is concerned," says Alexacos.
Others are less sure about the prospect. Chormovitis, for one, questions whether a liberal coalition would in fact succeed in even amassing the combined 6.5 percent won by the three parties on May 6.
"I am not so sure that Bakoyiannis's election base in Crete or Evrytania would vote for a liberal coalition party that would not feature herself as leader, or that the fans of Manos and Tzimeros would throw their weight behind one of the most worn-out politicians of the post-1974 period," says Chormovitis in reference to Thanos Tzimeros, the young advertiser who led Dimiourgia Xana, the surprise package among smaller parties.
Schizas insists parties should call on their supporters to discuss and approve a common platform first. "The liberal parties have never tried to develop a potential common policy platform and are instead focusing on horse-trading among themselves," he says.
But whether they choose to cooperate or not, Schizas says, Greece's liberals must above all reach a point where they are defined not by association, but by their actual program. "As long as we are the pro-banker people, the pro-gay people, the pro-bailout people, the pro-privatization people, the anti-minimum-wage people, we are easy prey."