Tuesday, June 12, 2012

For Greece and Germany a democratic trial looms

by Mark Mazower


June 11, 2012

In past weeks and months Greek institutions have taken a battering in the eyes of the world. An election produced no firm results; a far-right party gained an unprecedented share of the vote; uncertainty reigns as the last opinion polls before next Sunday's re-run election suggest a further surge for Syriza – a coalition of Leftist groups that has never governed before.

Talk about Greek democracy, and most people imagine you are referring to ancient Athens. Yet the modern country has respectable democratic credentials, having introduced universal male suffrage decades before Britain, or indeed most European states. Of course, from early on the combination of a strong populace and a weak state had unpredictable and often undesirable consequences. While small bands of armed patriots easily dragged the country into military adventures, civil servants in Athens found it hard to impose direct taxes. They could not even draw up a comprehensive land register.

It is tempting to read back many of Greece's present problems into this distant past. Yet until recently the general view inside the country was that the bad old days had been left behind. Thanks in no small part to Europe's support, the wounds of the Nazi occupation and civil war healed. After the collapse of the junta in 1974, integration into the European Community, with its ample subsidies and access to a flourishing continental economy, had knock-on political benefits. A two-party system emerged, loosely revolving around the centre-left Pasok and the centre-right New Democracy. Pasok's charismatic leader, Andreas Papandreou, buried his pipe-smoking past as head of the Berkeley economics department and remade himself as a fiery leather-jacketed opponent of American imperialism; his long-time rival, the soberly uncharismatic conservative Konstantine Karamanlis, led the country out of the dictatorship and into Europe in a political career that spanned more than 40 years.


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