Nations fail for a variety of reasons. These include geographical hindrances, harmful cultural inclinations, downward economic spirals, exclusionary institutions, or, indeed, the lack of institutions. Some especially unlucky nations fail for all those reasons at once. Take Greece over the past decade.
2009 was Greece’s last ordinary year. After general elections in October of that year, the center-left PASOK succeeded center-right New Democracy in office, in what at the time everybody considered just another act of power alternation in a long-established two-party system. Then, in early 2010, came what the world labeled “the Greek crisis.”
All possible reasons were used to explain Greece’s failure: Greeks were lazy and irresponsible, their economy a bottomless pit, their institutions unworkable and rather beyond repair.
Whatever the reasons, Greece had failed big. During the crisis years, the country saw the size of its economy cut by around a quarter and more than half a million of its people emigrate. Unemployment skyrocketed and poverty rose sharply while the already defective social safety nets deteriorated further. The old two-party system collapsed, political trust evaporated, social polarization surged. In July 2015, Greece came to the brink of financial collapse and a forced exit from the eurozone and, as many feared, the European Union itself.
To get an even better understanding of Greece’s failure, think of all the ill-omened historical firsts it experienced in just one decade. First, the Greek economy suffered the longest recession of any advanced capitalist economy to date, outstripping among others the US Great Depression and the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s. Second, lest it default on its debts, Greece became the recipient of the biggest bailout program on record, totaling $360 billion. Third, it became the first country in postwar Europe to see a left-wing populist party, SYRIZA, win national elections and rise to power, albeit not with an absolute majority; in need of a coalition partner, SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras chose a right-wing populist party. And so, fourth, Greece also became the first country in the democratic world to be ruled by a coalition of populists from the left and right. Fifth, Greece was the first country to experience the massive entry of neo-Nazi MPs into its Parliament after 2012.
And yet, not only did Greece survive such inauspicious firsts; it now looks set to start afresh and attempt to return to normality. And it is doing it in great political style – by showing the world how populism can be defeated.
Witness the case. After the May elections for the European Parliament, in which governing SYRIZA was resoundingly defeated, there followed the recent national election in which Tsipras’ party suffered a new defeat while his erstwhile right-wing populist partner vanished into thin air. Neo-Nazi Golden Dawn failed to make it into Parliament. The winner was ND, led by Kyriakos Mitsotakis – a solid liberal centrist politician promising nothing less than an overhaul of Greece’s overall political system.
This could not have happened, and Greece would have remained an irredeemably failed state, without two interrelated preconditions. The first was the inability of the populist government to consolidate broad legitimacy for either its deeds or ethos. Its few successes apart, the voters went to the polls remembering mostly the near-Grexit of 2015, the mismanagement of and loss of life in recent crisis situations involving wildfires and floods, the arrogance of many a cabinet member, and Tsipras himself enjoying a free family holiday on a magnate’s luxury yacht. In short, the people were angry and went to the polls determined to give populists the boot.
The second factor that led to a change of fortunes in Greece was the emergence of anti-populist leadership in the person of Mitsotakis. He pursued a strategy that was the exact opposite of what the populist government had opted for. While Tsipras insisted on portraying Greek society as being divided between “the people” and “the elite,” Mitsotakis addressed the middle classes with a positive developmental message. When Tsipras stepped up social polarization and rejected political cooperation, Mitsotakis used a moderate and compromising discourse. And where the populist government had often approved of anomic behaviors, the opposition leader spoke resolutely in the name of law and the institutions of liberal democracy.
With all its drama, Greece’s last decade represents a cautionary tale. But one filled with optimism, too. For if a small nation like Greece could weather such a stormy decade and even beat populism, why can’t other bigger and more prosperous countries currently under illiberal rulers do the same?
Takis S. Pappas is a political scientist at the University of Helsinki, Finland, and author of “Populism and Liberal Democracy” (Oxford University Press, 2019).