The Problem with Democracy in Greece

By Faris Nejad, M.A.

An expensive tropical plant I had bought myself for my birthday, gradually died in front of my eyes recently. I had made sure that I followed the instructions for the care of the plant precisely. I measured the watering carefully and placed the plant at a spot suggested so it got the exact amount of sunshine required. It was only after my relative emotional recovery from the loss that I could finally analyze what had happened. The truth is that a plant does not only need the right amount of water and sunshine to survive, it is its entire environment that needs to be cared for. If it finds itself in an unsuitable surrounding, it does not grow and will eventually die. This is something that plant shop owners do not tell you at the time of purchase.

We often think that by voting once every few years, and in the case of Greece more often than that, we have successfully safeguarded democracy. We choose our candidates, close the schools to use as voting stations, vote and then go home and complain about the people we have voted for until the next election. During this period we forget our obligations to our democracies all together, just like what I did to my plant during the watering intervals.

A healthy democracy can only survive in the correct and fair political, social and economic environment and we as citizens are obliged to promote and protect this environment at all times. Similar to the strategy of the plant shop keeper, do not expect to hear this from a political candidate.

You would expect and wish to believe that Greece is perhaps the most deserving country on earth to have the right economic, political and social environment to nurture democracy, but unfortunately a civilization can't assume that it has the right environment for democracy just because it invented democracy.

The correct economic environment for democracy dictates a healthy interaction between the government and the people, neither of which should be independent from the other. The government must depend on the public for the collection of taxes which makes the provision of services possible, and the public must depend on the government for those vital services and in return pay taxes. When authorities have access to funds which are sourced from outside this two way interaction the government's dependence on the public is reduced and the environment becomes more susceptible to corruption and abuse eventually leading to the demise of the entire democratic system.

Similar to some Middle Eastern countries (Like my own, Iran) where thanks to petroleum exports, the governments are economically independent from the public, Greece's access to European funds in the form of grants and loans had made the governments of Greece economically independent from their people. In such cases the government functions more as a distributor of wealth rather than an administrator of fair taxation and a trusted authority to provide services. In an unhealthy environment, as such, political favoritism, tribalism, corruption and worst of all unaccountability of the authorities towards their people becomes rampant making the condition for the survival of democracy impossible. In these nightmares, since the source of wealth is entirely in the control of the authorities, the public makes its political choices based on what it can financially or in the form of services, gain from the government. Unfortunately, these choices are often for opportunistic and short term gains and are not wise decisions for the progress and functionality of the system and the society as a whole. A citizen, in these cases, votes for a party or a candidate in exchange for the favors which are promised. This is how a citizen's right becomes a promised favor with no accountability for the distributors of wealth. The equation is very simple, if someone else pays for your groceries at the market you are less likely to count the change that you receive back from the shopkeeper. In this way, without knowing, you encourage and promote corruption. And at the end of your shopping it is you who thanks the shopkeeper and not the other way around.

This disastrous formula is especially true with the huge public sector in Greece where the enormous body of the government employees has their taxes directly deducted from their salaries. The government in this case, instead of collecting taxes fairly and efficiently, in fact, takes money from one pocket and puts it in another pocket and calls it tax collection. In Greece and with these tax policies, it is logical to expect that a public servant is more likely and finds it easier and more direct to focus on getting a salary rise, more benefits and bonuses rather than hold the authorities accountable for the deductions already made. This encourages even more corruption and again makes a mockery of the citizen's right to examine the authority's financial activities.

If for a government to have access to sources of wealth distorts its relationship with its citizens then how is it possible that a country like Norway with access to a great source of petroleum wealth, can accommodate democracy? The truth is, as mentioned above, it is not just the economic but also the right social environment that contributes to democratic practice and survival. Even though, my tropical plant would probably not survive in Norway either, but democracy thrives there. The elected authorities in Norway have passed laws forbidding the country to use a large percentage of its income from petroleum exports for the provision of services. Instead of using their petroleum Krone bribing this generation of Norwegians in order to stay in power they have passed laws that forces the authorities to invest the money generated from natural resources for future generations. This is possible in Norway for two main reasons. Firstly, the current generation of Norwegians trust their authorities with the available wealth and secondly it is because a common Norwegian is not forced to vote for his uncle to become a mayor in order to have the dirt road in front of his house asphalted; the road in front of his house is already asphalted!

It is the same lack of trust of the authorities by the public in Greece that leads to a chain of problems and results in the election of a series of incompetent governments. The truth is that very few trust the system enough to be capable of investing in the future of the nation. Therefore, we always vote for candidates that promise immediate benefit and not long term plans for progress. To put it simply, Greeks do not want their money in the hands of their authorities for too long. This is so clear in the case of the pensioners who form a large number of the voting population in this country. It would be impossible to persuade an average grandparent in Greece to accept a small reduction in his/her pension to be invested for the benefit of the future generations. A Greek grandparent would rather keep the few Euros in his/her pocket now, or even decide to pay more money than the suggested reduction to the grandchild but as long as he/she has full control over it. That is why no political candidate in Greece offers plans for the creation of jobs, making better schools or investing in any way in the future of the nation. Instead what they concentrate on, what they reanalyze and make promises about is higher pensions, higher unemployment benefits and higher salaries and better services today. It is worthy to note that due to demographic particularities in Greece, there are now more grandparents eligible to vote than the younger generation and a candidate, in order to buy votes, must concentrate on the older generation who want money and services now.

Economic reward and fair taxation is another major factor which creates the suitable conditions for the survival of democracy. In a fair and progressive society economic reward must have a direct connection to productivity and taxation policies must always consider the impact of tax regulations on productivity. Unfortunately, in this country we reached a situation where, in many industries, subsidies and compensation for failures of production surpassed the economic reward for actual production. An economic system as such, does not survive without currency injections from external sources and with its demise it takes every democratic element in the fabric of the society.

The maintenance of the Greek society is so costly that there has hardly ever been any savings to be invested in the future. The country is realizing this at a time when the source of hard cash from abroad is dried up making the very survival of the economy questionable. Tragically the solution the current Greek politicians have come up with is to increase taxes on the only productive sector of the economy, the private sector, therefore, killing any hope of recovery. It is the exact reverse of these policies which is needed in order to help the survival of the economy but the politicians cannot afford to make these decisions. They cannot afford to think about the long term benefit of the society, the sick democratic system does not allow it. A system has been created in which if the politicians make the right decisions they will imminently be voted out. This is how elections, instead of positively contributing to the democratic system, are damaging its roots and are halting it from finding its way out of the crisis. Here, every time we vote, we damage the system more, just how by over-watering I killed my plant.

It is the system and the conditions that we have created which are destroying the suitable environment for our democracy, but instead of forming a national authority to reevaluate the system and find solutions we call for elections and change the administrators of the system , and ironically by voting, every time, we justify the existence of the system that we know is not working. Coming back from the voting station we proudly smile and are happy to have contributed to our democracy, for another four years or maybe less depending on whether the road in front of our house, by the time our children are ready to travel abroad to find a job, is asphalted or not.