Monday, 21 May 2012


On May 21, the excellent English version of Kathimerini ran an article on the flagging fortunes of liberal/libertarian parties in Greece. The author, Harry van Versendaal (@denk_ik), was kind enough to send me a set of questions in the run up to its publication. What follows is the full set of notes that I sent Harry. I am grateful that, as you will see, he has quoted both faithfully and liberally from the original. I am publishing the full set here because, with the Democratic Alliance joining forces with mothership New Democracy and Drassi and Dimiourgia Xana also joining forces, I feel it is more topical than even when it was originally written.

Be sure to check out Harry's follow-up article, Tweeting to the Converted, a very astute observation on the workings of the Greek Twittersphere.

What are the reasons behind the poor appeal of liberal parties in Greece?

I am not sure just short of 8% under these conditions is a sign of poor appeal in itself. It's fair to say there aren't many liberals or libertarians in Greece in the first place. When I last tried to take a stab at the total figure, it was about 17% of the electorate. There are many reasons I've heard as contributing to this but for me there are five major points.

First, the liberal parties are in the business of pointing out tradeoffs; telling people they can't have everything. That's been a wildly unpopular way of thinking in Greece since the Change of 1981 and increasing more so. In 2008, when asked by the European Values Survey to choose where they lay on the left/right spectrum and the freedom/equality spectrum (a kind of simplified Political Compass), nearly half of the representative Greek sample refused to make one or two of these choices. Liberal parties struggle to reach these people and indeed it's hard to reach them with a proposition that is not populist or clientelist.

Second, the liberal parties appeal to a sense of ownership and responsibility that much of Greek society has been losing for some time. It's hard to argue with 25-year olds about the need to uphold legitimacy because they've been sealed into disenfranchisement at the fringes of the two-party system and regulated out of the labour market by the unassailable voting bloc of their parents' generation. Remember, the median age in Greece is 42. The median voter is even older and will continue to become so.

Third, the liberal brain drain is even more intense than the overall Greek brain drain. By virtue of both their backgrounds and mindsets, liberal voters are more likely to immigrate, and have been doing so in droves even in the good old days. The once major parties never bothered to give expats the ability to vote in their country of abode, as the subsidised industry of election tourism gave them yet another clientelist selling point. Note that all of the liberal parties (though not all of their voters) have called for facilitating expat votes in their programmes.

Fourth, like capitalism, liberal ideologies in Greece have been defined by their opponents, not their supporters. We've allowed others to tell the Greek population what we are, what we believe, who we are aligned to. There is no Greek word for 'libertarian'. People don't even believe such an ideology exists, except perhaps as a front for corporatism. In fact, you are most likely to be called a 'neo-liberal' instead; a catch-all phrase that essentially encompasses everyone statists on the left and right dislike. Essentially, if you call yourself liberal, the reasoning goes, you are pro-war, pro-monopolies, corporatist, unfeeling and uncaring, and have a casual tolerance for corruption, inequality and the supression of political rights.

Finally, there comes a point on the road to serfdom (I guess) where so much of a country is dependent on government subsidies, government-sanctioned rents and government-upheld false economies, that liberalising it will simply kill it. If the entire patient is gangrenous, of course amputation doesn't work. I don't like to think that Greece has crossed that line yet, but it's closing on it. It is very hard to implement any liberal policies, at least in the economy, without materially worsening the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, at least in the medium term. In an aged and inflexible society such as ours, people don't bounce back from such setbacks; they stay down.

Would you say there's a problem with the ideas/policies put forward by those parties, or with the people who represent them?

There is certainly a major problem with the audiences they have chosen for themselves. Drassi, for instance, would probably see themselves as the 'orthodox' libertarian party in Greece and are denounced even by many in the liberal space as haughty and elitist - predictably, they tanked outside of the major cities and draw a disproportionate share of their supporters from the alumni of elite schools. Their allies, the Liberal Alliance, only register in many people's minds as a pressure group for gay and other minority rights (which even among some self-described liberals is a big no-no).

Dimiourgia, Xana! have, on the other hand, invested a great deal in the notion of 'politics without politicians', which is very attractive to voters everywhere but surely a self-defeating ideology once they get a handful of MPs into parliament, The immediate side-effect of this approach, however, is that they have drawn alongside traditional liberals a kind of pro-Europe, pro-business protest vote; the latter is made up of people who are hostile towards established liberal politicians. Don't get me wrong, creating a credible pro-business, pro-Europe outlet for the protest vote is an enormously important innovation that Greece really needs. But it makes it harder to form alliances.  I should add that Dim Xan have also alienated some liberal voters by taking positions on things such as immigration and education that are nationalist at best, as well as some corporatist positions on the economy. But if we cross out DimSim's clientelist reserves, they are in fact the largest of the liberal parties, despite never having been in politics before.

Then there is Dim.Sim., which is a more complex party to describe. Dimsim owes a very large share of its vote to the traditional voters of Dora Bakoyanis' family, including herself, her father and her late husband. If we're being charitable it would be best to say that not all of them care about liberal this and liberal that; they have a personal loyalty. In fairness, it's hard to argue Bakoyanis is not a liberal politician, or a worthy one. She is entirely formidable and did, after all, stake her political career on a principled and pragmatic pro-bailout vote back in 2010.

Greek liberals are keen to advertise their pragmatism, yet liberal parties failed to cooperate ahead of elections. What were the reasons for this, in your opinion? Would you like to see them work together in the future?

The three (four, counting the Liberal Alliance) liberal parties have approached the matter of coalitions in a manner that is frankly insulting and doomed to failure. Their reasoning is: 'we three (+1) have our love of Europe, reforms, enterprise and fiscal discipline in common; we must pool our voters under one leader and ensure this perspective is represented in parliament. Now, let's find a leader.'

Except of course the voters are not theirs to pool, and the supposed 'common ground' is trivial: Pasok, ND, Dem Left and a whole bunch of other parties guaranteed to stay in Parliament also claim to be pro-Europe, pro-reform, pro-fiscal discipline, even pro-business in some cases. The liberal parties have never tried to develop a potential common policy platform and are instead focusing on horse-trading among themselves. It's not a coincidence that while everyone speaks of a liberal political 'space' (i.e. captive voters), they have not attempted to put the question of collaboration to this constituency.

If they can change course now and call on their supporters to discuss and approve a common platform (Dim Xan has shown some remarkable skill at managing this process) then there is hope for the liberal parties. In fact, I think their 8% could grow substantially as the two major parties, especially PaSoK, continue to disintegrate. Of course I worry about the quality of new voters we will attract but that's mostly my prejudice.

But if they insist on horse-trading, I will be hard-pressed to vote for whichever coalition of liberal parties emerges. Think about it this way - the point should be representation, not the election to the house of a set of 'tribal' MPs. If an MP owes their job to a cobbled-together coalition of liberal parties which in turn owes their toehold on government to a cobbled-together coalition of pro-European parties their need to represent their voters is minimised because it's not them that got them into power. The balance of power in the voter-MP relationship becomes hopelessly skewed. Syriza managed this well with their own constituent groups, but then again they managed it well for as long as they were in opposition. It's not a structure that remains very democratic once one is in power.

Some critics say liberalism is a deeply misunderstood notion in Greece. Do you agree?

I think it's fairly misunderstood everywhere. Statism is a powerful narrative; when bad things happen, a hero must swoop in and save the day. But in Greece in particular, liberalism is defined by connotation and association more than by its actual programme, because it's never had one overarching programme. As long as we're the pro-banker people, the pro-gay people, the pro-bailout people, the pro-privatisation people, the anti-minimum-wage people, we are easy prey


  1. The Leftist elites who have dominated Greek politics for over a century
    shamelessly drove their Trojan Horse into Brusselles and are now
    incredulous they have been
    caught. Click
    and read this
    to see how 1893 and 1453 were very similar.

  2. Very well written, agree to most of what you express.
    This crises could have been solved a long time ago if the Greek politicians hadn't used the situatin to work on their popularity.

    And now - it's too late.

  3. A fast and sudden attitude change among the Grrek politicians and a growth strategy for Europe are needed if we want to keep Greece in the EMU.

  4. Liberalism in Greece is not misunderstood - it is malpracticed. People who wear the label "liberal" fail to understand (sadly, despite the wealth of historical data) that civil liberties are the base for economic liberty, not the other way around. Thatcher's vision has managed to get deep, deep roots in our society.

    Liberals (I must leave libertarians out because they're a perk which just can't adapt in the Greek ecosystem) should focus 100% on the process of democracy, meaning how courts work, how we give people *due process*, how people should fight for their rights. Remember, Manos: ου μπλέξεις. (wordplay on the 10 commandments that says "don't get in trouble".)

    We talk about crony capitalism, we talk about how we've grown a society that lives off subsidies, we talk about the nature of the greek economy, but we *don't* talk about the violent suppression of free speech and expression, not just by the police, but also by citizens themselves. We have become cannibals, a prime example for historians to show how to drive an entire nation to display systematically its collective irrationality.

    With all due respect to Manos, and every economist reading this blog, our *real* problem is not the economy. It's the lack of basic civil liberties. We should stop blaming the politicians for screwing the economy, we should blame them for not constituting our civil liberties.


  5. I can't recall a greek word for trade-off either. To most greeks a liberal or a libertarian are respectively, timid fake americanized sellout leftists, and subversive servants of the evil capitalist bank oppressors and soros's paid shills.

    In addition it's not just that pointing out the trade offs that greeks find inconvenient, just "appealing to reason" as liberals libertarians etc. often like to do, it will invariably lead to some form of the "fuck your mom capitalist pig" mantra or some long essay (one that is proffesionally written by people that have honed their skills in copying and pasting lectures about evil capitalists for the last 30 years) that uses 5000 synonyms of the words "naive" "sellout" "crooked" and of course "neoliberal". Greeks pretty much don't even psychologically like reasonable people, they think they are not bold enough, which supposedly proves they are serving the interests of the evil elite or some other conspiracy theory that ends up sounding legit amidst the whole paranoia.

    As for the naivety of the liberal worldview, the way they put it, they basicaly openly hint that the complexity of things liberals don't get is the complexity of being the kind of person that like some kind of crazy lawsuit lawyer knowingly refuses to accept the obvious until his creditors are deceived coerced or scared enough that he gets what he wants, all while the zealotry and the convenient "they are all fascist neoliberals" eventually squash any feelings of guilt responsibility integrity etc


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