The Despots of Democracy

“Last night hope for real change brought the smiles back to Greek faces after five long years”: that was a fairly representative statement in the British left-wing press on the day following the Greek election. And the photos that usually accompanied such statements did indeed show numbers of Greeks full of joy at the results. Neither the statements nor the pictures were outright lies: rather they were partial truths, as are so many truths in the field of politics.

Nor was it uncommon to find the electoral victory of Syriza, led by Alexis Tsipras, described as a “sweep” to power. And in a sense, again, this was true: the party fell not far short of an absolute majority in the Greek parliament. But this was in large part because, under the Greek system, the party with the most votes gets 50 extra seats, irrespective of the actual number of votes received, presumably to obviate the deadlock that could so easily occur when a large number of political parties wins a small number of seats each. Better any government than none at all.

However, Syriza’s victory, though perfectly legitimate in the constitutional sense, was far from triumphant or overwhelming. It received only 36 percent of the votes cast, and only 64 percent of those eligible to vote did so. In other words, Syriza received an endorsement of 23 per cent of the adult Greek population. Even if the nonvoting part of the population had voted, Syriza might have received a slightly larger share, but by no means an overwhelming majority.

It’s most likely that the 36 percent who did not vote were thoroughly disillusioned with the whole process and refrained from what they saw as wasting their time. The Romanian peasants had a proverb which I love to quote: “A change of rulers is the joy of fools; in other words the next lot will be as bad as the last.” And it ought to be remembered that for two hundred years or more the Romanian peasants were ruled by Phanariot Greeks. They knew a thing or two about bad government, those Romanian peasants.

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