BRUSSELS — The results of the Greek elections are widely seen as heralding a new period of uncertainty for the country, and potentially for Europe. Beyond signalling a repudiation of austerity measures, the outcome in Greece has some potentially disturbing political and security implications, for Athens and for transatlantic partners. A chaotic and polarized Greece will be a more isolated, distracted, and unpredictable actor in international affairs just as new forces of stability are needed in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The Greek election outcome can be read as a systemic rejection of politics and governance as it has evolved in Greece since the end of the junta and the restoration of democracy in 1974. Voters did not simply rebel against the traditional centrist parties, leading political personalities, and a very unpopular bailout deal with the European Union and international creditors. They also voted to sweep away a system widely seen as corrupt and ill-equipped to deal with the critical problems facing the country. Even sophisticated Greek observers, well aware of the risks of a go-it-alone strategy outside the eurozone, have become skeptical about the curative effects of an austerity plan aimed at restoring competitiveness when there is little productive capacity to revive. The old European-oriented order has few adherents in today’s Greece.
This failure of domestic governance and the collapse of the old political establishment may be at the heart of the current political chaos, in which the formation of a stable coalition is unlikely without new elections. But international issues are also a key part of the Greek equation, and they could well take center stage in the next phase of the Greek drama. Like many of its neighbors, Greece is a sovereignty-conscious society, wary of external influence and perceived manipulation by larger powers. Decades of integration into the European mainstream have weakened but not extinguished these impulses. They are now on full display. The rejection of policies imposed upon Greece by international partners, including sweeping austerity measures, drew voters to new parties on the extreme left and right.
The prevailing discourse is unashamedly populist and nationalist, and the principal objects of Greek rage are foreign. The Coalition of the Radical Left, which took second place in the election and may hold the key to any new government, has put opposition to the international financial plan for Greece at the top of its agenda. Golden Dawn — the neo-fascist party that garnered some 8 percent of the vote and would be entitled to 21 seats in parliament — goes much further, explicitly targeting both international partners and the foreign migrants who have arrived in large numbers over the last decade. The party’s xenophobic and sometimes violent behavior is likely to fuel international concern, and may have an effect on Greece’s standing out of proportion to its real influence. This fraught political landscape will contribute to Greece’s isolation, precisely when closer ties to international partners and investors are needed.
More broadly, the chaotic conditions in Greece will deprive the region of a promising force for moderation and stability, from the Balkans to the Levant. A nationalist mood in Athens will threaten the all-important détente that has prevailed in Greek-Turkish relations for the last decade. At a time when competition over energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean is becoming more intense, drift or deterioration in this critical relationship would bode ill for crisis management. The recent deepening of Greek-Israeli ties, and the ability of Athens to play a useful mediation role in the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, will be impeded by the lack of a credible, focused partner in Athens. Further social instability and even political violence in Athens — all a distinct possibility in the absence of a stable government — could affect the prospects for development and European integration in Greece’s Balkan neighborhood. In sum, Greece’s domestic political woes may grab the headlines, but over time, the geopolitical implications of a more isolated and nationalistic Greece may be even more profound in a region of unquestioned strategic importance for its Euroatlantic partners.
Ian Lesser is executive director of the German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Center in Brussels.