Even When Austerity Works, It Doesn't Work

In this photo made on Saturday, June 20, 2015, a man walks past graffiti titled "0 Euro" by street Artist Achilles in Athens.
In this photo made on Saturday, June 20, 2015, a man walks past graffiti titled "0 Euro" by street Artist Achilles in Athens. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

Can a government that adopted austerity policies win an election? Over the past year, this question has been asked in many languages and in many countries. And the answer seems to be, for the time being, a unanimous no.

After Greece, Portugal and Spain, it was Ireland's turn to take the test. It was its chance to submit an exception to the rule. Ireland was the exemplary student in the Troika classroom; it executed the recipe willingly and without complaint. It diminished public spending dramatically, taxed citizens, and cut pensions. But when compared with Greece, it did so with a smaller economical and social cost, and achieved greater success.

Before its three-year memorandum had run out, Ireland was the fastest developing economy in Europe. In the eyes of Mr. Schäuble, this was proof that the austerity recipe is effective, and that those who failed to execute the recipe have failed.

And yet, the governmental coalition failed to get re-elected in last Friday's elections. Prime minister Enda Kenny's center-right party Fine Gael landed first place, of course, but lost 27 seats, while its coalition partner, the Labour party, was harshly punished. It won only six out of the 37 seats it had in the previous parliament.

If austerity is not rewarded electorally, even when it is "successful," it makes sense for it to be disparaged more violently when it is not successful-- such as in the case of Greece.

Ireland thus repeats a pattern that appeared in the Portuguese and Spanish elections. The governments which implemented austerity programs in exchange for the market's trust cannot also earn the electoral body's trust. The prosperous macro-numbers are slow to translate to micro-prosperity in the poorer households. And that anger is recorded by the elections.

In all three countries, the voters put the governing parties in first place, but kept them from having the majority they need to continue to govern. "Vote for stability," "Let's keep the recovery going," were the slogans of the government bloc in the Irish elections. But the voters were not convinced. Because they didn't have an alternative, they elected a parliament without a clear majority.

Likewise, in Portugal, a fragile government was formed out of the second most prominent party (Socialists), with the help of the parties in third and fourth place, the communists and the Portuguese SYRIZA, respectively. Meanwhile in Spain, a government has yet to emerge.

If austerity is not rewarded electorally, even when it is "successful," it makes sense for it to be disparaged more violently when it is not successful-- such as in the case of Greece.

Greece is an exception to the rule. It is only in Greece that a new party, an "antisystemic" one, managed to convince the people that it really is an alternative solution, and it has therefore received the support to govern.

The elections in Portugal, Spain and Ireland offer after-the-fact lessons to Greek political powers.

That however is not the only feature that's unique to Greece. Greece --and this is the most glaring exception to the rule-- was the only country to open its electoral cycle before completing the cycle of its memorandum, before coming out of the spiral of recession, and before regaining its sovereignty and access to the markets.

From that perspective, the elections in Portugal, Spain and Ireland offer after-the-fact lessons to Greek political powers.

Since governments that implement austerity measures lose elections anyway, it was needlessly harmful for the country to bring about Samaras's panicked reformulation after the European elections of 2014. Appointments were set up with the Troika in Paris, and the elections were accelerated in a polarized environment. It would have been better if they had come to terms with the inevitable. They could have chosen to leave a posthumous legacy; when they were faced with the (impossible) reelection, they could have sincerely sought a consensual presidential election, with or without the collaboration of SYRIZA, in exchange for elections immediately after the end of the evaluation.

And since SYRIZA would have won the elections regardless of when they took place, rushing the elections was a mistake on SYRIZA's part. As a result, SYRIZA prematurely and unnecessarily spent political capital in the six-month period described by Nikos Voutsis as a one of "flirting with political delusions." The country paid for it as well; the recession reverted and the the era of the memorandum was extended indefinitely.

If only I knew then what I know now...

This post first appeared on HuffPost Greece. It has been translated into English and edited for clarity.