EYE ON THE WORLD

Make story of Greece an exception

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

The triumph of far-left Greek party Syriza may herald the meltdown of other established European parties that face assaults from extreme parties on the left and right. But European leaders can work to make Greece an exception, not the rule.

IT MAY seem odd that one of the first people to congratulate Mr Alexis Tsipras - the youthful, far-left Prime Minister of Greece who came literally out of nowhere to win power in his country - was Ms Marine Le Pen, the leader of France's extreme-right National Front.

But that is increasingly becoming the norm in Europe, where fringe movements surrender their old "left" or "right" political labels and join hands in an effort to overthrow the existing ruling class.

Seen from this perspective, the sudden collapse of the established political order in Greece concerns more than just the fate of one country, for it could herald the beginning of a broader European uprising which could ultimately melt down the continent's political institutions.

The last time something similar happened in Europe was during the 1930s, and it ended in a world war. No repeat of that tragedy is on the cards now. Still, unless the continent's current politicians wake up to the danger, the unfolding popular uprising could devour them all, and condemn Europeans to decades of economic and political mayhem.

The centre cannot hold

THE electoral shrinkage of the political centre is so clear throughout Europe that it can no longer be dismissed as just an isolated symptom. It has clearly affected badly governed and economically weak nations such as Greece or Italy.

But it has also transformed nations which otherwise don't seem to have a compelling reason to question the established order.

Britain has its UK Independence Party, once a collection of old disgruntled beer-loving voters fond of blaming all the world's ills on Europe, but now a mass movement projected to win about 17 per cent of votes in the British general election which will take place three months from now.

France has its National Front which recently trounced the country's historic parties in local and European elections, and may yet propel Ms Le Pen to the country's presidency.

There is also Beppe Grillo, the Italian TV comedian who won a quarter of the ballots in his country's national elections, and has pledged to "shake up the world".

And, while the True Finns in Finland and the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands successfully wave the populist flag in the northern part of the continent, the quasi-fascist Jobbik in Hungary is doing the same in the south, complete with its own private militia.

And then, of course, there is the far-left Syriza movement in Greece, founded only four years ago and now running the country. In Spain, there is the Podemos ("We Can") movement, a radical far-left party that also considers itself to be waging a similar war on German-sponsored economic austerity and, if current opinion polls are correct, is poised to win power in Spain when a general election is held later this year.

Even mighty Germany, the country which has adopted the words "stability" and "prosperity" as its middle names, is not immune from the process of political fragmentation.

Traditionally, the country's two major parties attracted around 80 per cent of the votes in elections, and there were only three parties in the German Parliament; today, there are five parties in Parliament, and the two big mainstream parties can barely muster two-thirds of the German votes between them.

The only apparent theme in this Europe-wide trend seems to be that in the southern part of the continent - Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal - extremist parties can be broadly classified as left- wing, while in the northern part of Europe, they tend to be right- wing.

But extremes usually meet and, as the current love affair between Greece's Syriza and France's National Front indicates, the division between left and right amount to a distinction without a difference.

There are many reasons for this broad electoral flight from established parties in Europe, including the powers which the Internet gives to those challenging the established order, the ability of hitherto unknown individuals to achieve almost instant electoral stardom through the use of social communication platforms, the disappearance of ideology as a mobilising idea, as well as the general decline in social deference, which means that old party loyalties are no longer binding on new generations of European voters.

But the most significant explanation for this European implosion is the fact that the consensus which underpinned the European political status quo since the end of World War II, based on the idea that open borders, free movement of people and trade globalisation works to everyone's benefit, is now breaking down.

Populists throughout Europe now see globalisation as a ruse by which Asia steals a march on the "old continent", free trade as a challenge to existing jobs, and immigration as a "polluting" element to the "purity" of European nations. Greece is merely the first wave in a tsunami of protests.

Obstacles to extremism

WHAT can be done to stem this poisonous flow? First, mainstream European leaders should not panic over what has just happened in Greece. For although Syriza came out of nowhere to win power, the reality is that it did so only because of the peculiarities of Greece's constitutional arrangements, which award the party which comes first in the ballots an automatic bonus of 50 parliamentary seats, so Syriza is able to dominate the government despite the fact that only one in three Greeks cast their vote for this fringe party.

The electoral arrangements elsewhere in Europe are far tougher to crack by extremists: France's unique two-round elections means that someone like the National Front's Ms Le Pen cannot become president, since in the second round of a ballot, all other political formations will come out against her, while Britain's first-past-the-post electoral procedures (similar to those in Singapore) mean that the UK Independence Party could get up to a quarter of the votes, but zero parliamentary seats.

Political circumstances are also different. Mr Tsipras and his Syriza won because the Greek political system melted down: the mainstream political parties tried to govern during the country's latest economic depression, and were discredited as a result.

Spain and Italy have had a similar experience, as have France, Ireland and Portugal, where support for all mainstream politicians is declining. Nevertheless, this is a question of degrees. The state institutions throughout Europe are far more robust than those in Greece, cynicism about politicians is rampant but not as bad as in Greece, and civil servants are far more competent in almost every other European country.

Combat the narrative

BUT ultimately, better-functioning state institutions and stronger political arrangements are not enough to defeat Europe's populists; what mainstream parties need to do is to combat the simplistic narrative which they offer.

It is simply not true that Greece was treated badly by the rest of Europe, or that the country is doing badly because Europeans, led by Germany, foolishly insist that it must repay its huge debts.

The reality is that Greece was given the biggest single financial bailout in the history of humanity, a cool €245 billion (S$375 billion) for a nation which otherwise accounts for less than 1 per cent of Europe's overall economy.

It is also untrue that Greece is ruined by the requirement to repay its debt. Only 2.6 per cent of the country's GDP goes to debt repayment currently, far less than what Italy or Spain have to repay each year, and about the same amount that France has to pay.

The reasons the Greeks have suffered - and they have suffered hugely - is because they were badly governed for over a century by a corrupt and incompetent political class, and there is no evidence that the populists who are now in power have any idea how to address these problems.

Prime Minister Tsipras' insistence on wiping the debt slate clean and reversing the sale of state industries only means that the Greek bureaucracy could be allowed to return to its old, rotten ways.

For these reasons - and not in order to be vindictive - European leaders should simply rebuff Greece's demands, and insist that the country should continue to face the consequences of its mismanagement; the story of Greece is not a morality tale, but it is a political tussle of first importance.

In short, the current leaders of Europe still have it in their power to keep Greece as an exception, rather than as a harbinger of a Europe-wide political meltdown.

But time is short, and the continent is still teetering on the edge of disaster.

jonathan.eyal@gmail.com