By CHRISTOPHER TORCHIA
ATHENS, Greece — Elections are supposed to determine the will of the people, to set a nation on a new course with a government that enjoys the mandate of the majority. In splintered Greece, the vote on Sunday is shaping up as a challenge to this time-honored rule of democracy.
For Greeks are in a collective state of depression, burdened not just by the shriveling of their finances, but also political divisions with deep roots in history and confusion over their identity and the very concept of statehood. And yet an anxious world is looking to this tiny actor on the international stage for clues to whether the global economy will cling to a path of gradual recovery, or veer toward another destructive scenario like the one that followed the 2008 collapse of the Lehman Brothers investment bank in the United States.
A street scene in Athens on Saturday symbolized the sense of despair, tinged with defiance, which pervades a country battered by five years of recession after years of easy credit and consumption. A homeless man slept in a doorway, a cardboard box beside him, a slit cut in its top in hopes that passers-by would drop in a few coins. “We don’t need the euro,” read a slogan on the campaign posters of a small far-left party, plastered on an adjacent wall. Polls indicate that most Greeks want to stay in Europe’s monetary union, but years of austerity with few signs of improvement have deepened their sense of isolation.
“People are in agony about their savings; their jobs, their safety, their future (and their children’s future),” Stathis Psillos, a philosophy professor at the University of Athens, wrote in an email.
Sunday’s election is seen as pivotal in determining whether Greece pitches deeper into economic chaos, and is forced to return to its old currency, the drachma — an eventuality that amounts to, at least in the short term, a journey into an economic and social void — and whether Europe fragments or eventually becomes more unified. The frontrunners are a traditional party, New Democracy, that wants to modify an international bailout plan that has kept Greek finances afloat, and a left-wing party, Syriza, that surged in popularity because it opposes the old political order and wants to tear up the bailout deal in protest over the cutbacks it requires.
Abroad, there is concern that a victory for Syriza could trigger market panic and drag down other economically vulnerable countries such as Spain and Italy, and then ripple across other continents. The Greek outcome will be watched closely by leaders of the world’s 20 most important economies, who are meeting this weekend in Mexico. However, neither Syriza nor New Democracy are projected to win enough votes to form a government alone, meaning Greece will have to form a coalition if it wants to avoid another election.
Elena Athanassopoulou, a political science professor at the American College of Greece, predicted “painful negotiations” among parties that would lead to a government after the vote, and said political stability was vital to prevent Greece going “any further down the slope.”
An earlier round of elections in May failed to deliver a clear winner, and coalition talks collapsed. Even if New Democracy, led by Antonis Samaras, emerges on top, there is no guarantee that Greece’s creditors, including other European countries and the International Monetary Fund, will accede to his desire to dilute the multi-billion dollar bailout terms, or that Greece can stick to austerity measures imposed by creditors. Also, the strong showing in the last elections of a far-right party, Golden Dawn, and accusations that its supporters have attacked immigrants encapsulate the wider mood of alienation and uncertainty.
“Right now in Greece, everybody gets to say everything, you get to listen to many opinions,” said Paris Mexis, a designer for Beetroot, an award-winning firm based in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-biggest city. “We have a community that doesn’t work as a community. We have renegade units, we have random units, we have people who produce and the production doesn’t go anywhere. Everybody is alone. We need to go back to philosophy.”
He said Greeks need to recover the basic principles that hold a society together and help it flourish, including organization, creativity and communication. Right now, the reality defies such ideals. Unemployment is about 22 percent, crime is up and public services are failing. Greece is not in full-blown disintegration — that assessment might apply to the civil war between its Western-backed government and communists in the 1940s — but even the idea of a state, in which a social contract exists between a government and its citizenry, is under strain today.
Widespread tax evasion, for example, was one of the failings that got Greece into its current financial mess. The government has sought to tighten up on the crime, but many Greeks, once accustomed to generous state handouts and public sector salaries, bridle at the idea because their daily circumstances are deteriorating.
“People are losing faith in the institutions,” said Reto Foellmi, professor of international economicsat the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland. He said Greeks need to see a link between revenue collection and spending, and suggested that the decentralization of control over finances, whereby local authorities have more say in how funds are raised and spent in their districts, could benefit the country in the long term.
Psillos, the philosophy professor, said European leaders fail to see that Greece’s “real problem” is that the traditional parties, dominant for generations, are no longer capable of creating consensus. He noted that Syriza, while untainted by association with austerity measures and past policy failures, offers a somewhat contradictory narrative that seeks balance “between an old left tradition and a need to accommodate within it tens of thousands of new voters who pin their hopes on it.”
Many of Syriza’s new supporters are civil servants who lost benefits under the former socialist government, that struggled to impose wage cuts and structural reforms and suffered as a result at the May polls. At present, many Greeks, disillusioned with politics, think their society has reached a dead end, but feel they don’t have the tools to overhaul it, or recover what they once had. Psillos, who believes Syriza offers hope but needs time to hone its platform, summarized this ominous state of limbo by citing Alexander Herzen, a 19th century Russian intellectual.
“The death of the contemporary forms of social order ought to gladden rather than trouble the soul,” Herzen wrote after the failure of European revolutionary movements in 1848. “Yet what is frightening is that the departing world leaves behind it, not an heir, but a pregnant widow. Between the death of the one and the birth of the other, much water will flow by, a long night of chaos and desolation will pass.”