“Populism, clientelism and corruption often work in sequence”

Dimitri Sotiropoulos, associate professor at the University of Athens and visiting professor at the Laboratory for Interdisciplinary Evaluation of Public Policies at Sciences Po, analyses the causes of the crisis of democracy in Greece.

In  your view, what are the main reasons for the crisis of democracy in Greece?

The causes of the crisis of democracy in Greece are intertwined with the causes of the Greek economic crisis. The latter resulted from the compounded effects of the global financial crisis, the exhaustion of the Greek “model of production” based on tourism, agriculture, outdated services and a costly public sector, and the mismanagement of Greece’s public finances which were completely derailed in 2007-2009.
 
The panicked and socially insensitive manner in which austerity measures have been implemented since 2010 deepened a pre-existing problem with Greek democracy, namely the glaring gaps in political representation. Before the onset of the crisis, governments systematically favoured selected business circles and strong groups of insiders, such as liberal professions and the relatively better-protected employees of the public sector. These groups were over-represented in parliament and the unions and consistently benefited from the favouritism of both the socialist (Pasok) and conservative (New Democracy) governments.
 
The same trend is visible today, under the odd government coalition of the radical left (Syriza) with the far right (the Anel party), which caters to the interests of public-sector employees at the expense of private-sector employees.
 
A recent example is the combination of the Syriza-Anel government’s re-hiring in 2015 of all the former public employees of the state TV and radio channel (‘ERT’, foolishly shut down by the conservatives in 2013) and this government’s decision to restrict the total number of private nationwide TV channels to four. 

Your recent research focuses on the association between populism, clientelism and corruption on the one hand, and a decrease in the quality of the democracy on the other. Could you explain this link?

Many people study populism as a political discourse but there has been less attention paid to how populism governs, that is, how populist parties formulate and implement policies after they win elections. The experience of Greece and of many other Eastern European countries shows that populism can undermine both the stability of the economy and democratic liberties.
 
The stability of the economy is undermined because populists often employ a misconceived Keynesian policy: the state’s intervention in the economy is not designed to revive the economy or to achieve income redistribution, but to selectively enhance the income of favoured groups, e.g., old-age pensioners, regardless of whether they are most needy or not. The economy is undermined when populists in power follow this very selective policy even when the state’s finances do not allow it or the international economic environment is adverse.
 
Democratic liberties are undermined because populists’ concept of democracy does not include the usual checks and balances between the parliament, the government, the judiciary and the independent authorities, as well as the mass media. Populists try to marginalise, if not fully control, all other democratic institutions outside the government.  
Clientelism also has negative economic effects and undermines democratic legitimacy. This is because clientelistic governments spend state resources in a completely irrational manner in order to increase public sector recruitments and to hand out subsidies and benefits to their voters. Clientelism also undermines democracy because the citizens who are excluded from the spoils system come to identify democratic institutions, such as public administration or the welfare state, with vehicles of political discrimination.
 
Populism, clientelism and corruption are analytically distinct but, in practice, often work in sequence to produce undesirable economic and political effects.

What part has Europe played in the management of the Greek crisis?

While the primary responsibility for the outbreak and mishandling of the crisis lies with Greece, the role of the EU has been problematic in more than one respect. Greece’s partners in the EU were slow to understand that the Greek crisis could spill over and threaten the Euro zone. So the first problem with the EU’s reaction was a delay in making decisions in response to the Greek crisis.
 
A second problem was the EU authorities’ long-term tolerance of successive Greek governments with regard to the fact that until 2010 Greek governments were piling up public debt, while Greek exports lagged far behind imports and the state was unable or unwilling to tax the population.
 
The third problem with the EU’s management of the crisis was that the EU formulated a front-loaded austerity programme requiring excessively heavy and numerous austerity measures in a very short time span. With the benefit of hindsight, we can say today that some austerity was necessary given the deplorable condition of Greek state finances in 2010. Yet a better balance between such an unavoidable austerity measures, some protection of the weaker strata of society and structural reforms of the Greek economy would have probably been a more efficient and less unjust strategy.
 
The final problem was that  the EU did not alter the mix of policies forced upon Greek society when poverty levels and unemployment rates soared.

What are the lessons that France should learn from Greece to avoid populism, particularly for the 2017 election?

Greece is not in a position to be giving France advice. However, as a citizen and in the spirit of camaraderie, I would suggest that French voters should be alert to the perils of populism, regardless of whether it comes from the left or the right.
 
Populists win points because they make things look simple; they diffuse a simplistic political discourse based on a simple opposition between the current bad situation and an idyllic future situation that will allegedly materialise when they bring down the domestic elite and push out foreigners.
 
All populists appear to talk and act in a way that revitalises democracy. In practice, they are masters of political exclusion, i.e., they systematically exclude whole political institutions, which is rarely perceived before they come to power but is bitterly understood once they have won.  
 
Interview by Juliette Seban, Administrative Director of LIEPP

Related links

Learn more about Dimitri Sotiropoulos

Learn more about the Laboratory for Interdisciplinary Evaluation of Public Policies at Sciences Po

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