Despite the noise generated by fringe parties, Europe's political establishment is more resilient than assumed
LONDON • It was hailed as the start of a Europe-wide revolution: when a far-left government unexpectedly came to power in Greece exactly one year ago, quite a number of seasoned political commentators predicted that the rest of Europe would follow suit by rejecting traditional politics, as well as capitalism and economic austerity.
Mr Alexis Tsipras, the boyish new Greek Prime Minister who elevated his refusal to wear a necktie to just as big a principle as his refusal to pay his country's debts, and his Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, who zoomed around on a motorcycle leaving a trail of swooning women behind him, instantly became role models.
And anti-establishment parties across Europe rushed to copy Greece's lead: from left-wing groups such as Spain's Podemos, a movement which barely existed a year ago, to right-wing movements such as France's National Front and Britain's UK Independence Party, populists sought to present events in Greece as the revenge of Europe's ordinary citizens against their out-of-touch mainstream parties. "The end has begun for the era of the all-powerful arrogance of the neoliberals in Europe," proclaimed Mr Jean-Luc Melenchon, a noted French left-winger.
A year on, however, Greece has an even higher debt repayment burden and an even worse economic situation. Meanwhile, both far-left and far-right parties flopped elsewhere; Greece's supposed revolution is already consigned to the scrap heap of history.
Yet understanding why the Greek example of revolt against authority and against the forces of the market economy failed is not just a matter of niche academic interest. For it is an indication of broader political trends throughout the industrialised world, a reminder that, notwithstanding the noise generated by fringe parties, Europe's political establishment is far more resilient than often assumed.
Europe always had a curiously selective approach to dealing with its political fringes. Right-wing extremists are invariably classified as particularly dangerous and sinister, while left-wing extremists are often tolerated as just incurable romantics; a T-shirt with a swastika, the emblem of the Nazis, can land its wearer in jail, while one sporting the hammer-and-sickle emblem of the Soviet regime, which was responsible for just as many mass murders as the Nazis, attracts no comment.
But in today's Europe, the distinction between the political fringes of the left and right is practically meaningless. For both extremes view the European Union as a "conspiracy" of big business, and both agree that capitalism lies at the heart of the continent's problems; the only distinction between them is that the extreme left believes that there is too much capitalism, while the extreme right believes that there is too little.
And notwithstanding their historic hatred of each other, Europe's fringes actually get along quite well when it comes to sharing power, as Greece indicates: while Prime Minister Tsipras talked a year ago about the creation of a prosperous and "tolerant" Greece, the right-wing Independent Greeks fringe party which he co-opted into his government demanded the imposition of "an Orthodox Christian education".
Since Europe's ideologues are so easy on their ideology when this suits them, the real surprise is not that Greece was won over by this combination of political extremes, but more in the fact that the Greek model has not proved to be for export.
One explanation for this is the peculiarity of Greece itself. The country has been badly run for decades, if not centuries, and its political system is largely dysfunctional. As Professor Kevin Featherstone, an expert at London's School of Economics, points out in a recently published book, the Greek government contains virtually no permanent civil servant in its ranks, with all members of staff being political appointees; the country is not only incapable of delivering good governance, but also largely resistant to core European Union policies.
It is therefore easy to see how a Greek population, whose standards of living were pulverised by five years of recession and austerity imposed by outsiders in order to avoid national bankruptcy, rebelled against its entire political class. And it is also understandable how Greek voters could be hoodwinked by Prime Minister Tsipras' claim that he was able to both squeeze extra cash from other European nations and refuse to abide by any conditions which the creditors imposed.
This was, of course, intellectually dishonest, and the Greek government's fiercest battle over those past 12 months was the struggle against reality, against the economic, political and social restrictions imposed on the country. But it was also a peculiarly Greek event, for it is hard to see any other European nations falling in love with such reckless politicians; when far-left communists joined the coalition government in Portugal recently, the country's President insisted they sign a pledge which obliges them to pursue responsible economic policies.
Electoral systems also matter a great deal in preventing extreme politicians from coming to power. And on this, again, Greece is unique, for it has a bizarre system which automatically grants the party which comes first in electoral preferences 50 additional parliamentary seats. Mr Tsipras' far-left party never polled more than 36 per cent of the votes in the two general elections held in Greece last year; it is in control only because of this strange electoral provision.
But in all other European countries, electoral systems act as barriers against populist experiments. France's two-round process means that the far-right National Front can lead in the first round when any candidate can compete but gets invariably defeated in the second round when only the two best-placed candidates are allowed on the ballot papers; that's precisely what happened recently in France's regional elections.
And Britain's first-past-the-post electoral system punishes those who cannot concentrate their votes in key constituencies: the UK Independence Party polled 12.7 per cent of the votes in Britain's general election last year, but because these were spread throughout the country, the party got only one parliamentary seat. Europe's political map is resilient, and fiendishly difficult to overturn.
But the key reason the extremists are still far from gaining power in Europe is that they have failed to offer a credible new ideological framework which is either convincing or enticing.
To all intents and purposes, what these fringe parties want is to preserve an imaginary past, whether this is one in which Europe was a continent of nation-states each homogenously white and Christian as far-right wingers dream of, or when Europe was a big welfare continent where financial benefits were paid to everyone by borrowing against the wealth of future generations, which is what far-left politicians advocate.
But in both cases, the emphasis is on going backward, rather than forward; as Maria Katsounaki, a columnist for Ekathimerini, Greece's top daily newspaper, brilliantly put it in her verdict on the first anniversary of her country's far-left government, "in Greece, the present was cast aside, and the past has replaced the future".
That does not mean, of course, that Europe's political future can be taken for granted. Established, mainstream political parties are losing votes everywhere. Electorates are now more volatile than ever. If European governments continue to remain impotent in confronting the large numbers of refugees now streaming across their borders, it is possible that electorates will turn to extreme right-wing politicians. And if Europe's economies continue to stagnate, desperate voters may well turn to the far-left.
Still, the monumental failure of Greece's current government will continue to offer a salutary lesson to others. For what Mr Tsipras and his lot have done, apart from rendering Greece poorer by about €50 billion (S$76 billion) as a result of their policies, is to remind the rest of Europe of the perils in such fringe political experiments.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 01, 2016, with the headline 'How Europe stands up to fringe politics'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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