Greece's Election in the Time of Consent

Former Greek Prime Minister and leader of the left-wing Syriza party Alexis Tsipras (L) jokes with main opposition conservati
Former Greek Prime Minister and leader of the left-wing Syriza party Alexis Tsipras (L) jokes with main opposition conservative New Democracy leader, Vangelis Meimarakis before a live pre-election televised debate at the state-run ERT television in Athens, on September 14, 2015. Greece's snap election next weekend will be a cliffhanger, with latest opinion polls on September 13 giving the radical left Syriza party only a razor-thin lead over its conservative rivals. AFP PHOTO/ LOUISA GOULIAMAKI (Photo credit should read LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images)


Monday night, the two politicians who seek the win in the election of this coming Sunday found themselves up against each other in one last, pre-election debate. Half the country's population, a minimum of five million people, watched at least some of the showdown. The truth is that nothing groundbreaking occurred, it was not easy to have a winner nor a loser, it was hard for one to discern something that would have a measurable effect in the electoral result and of what was said, and very little remains in our memory. It is indicative that the only subject which survived the media frenzy into the next day was the little fight between Mr. Meimarakis and the debate's director for shooting in such a way that Mr. Tsipras appeared taller than Mr. Meimarakis (despite the fact that Mr. Tsipras is factually the shorter of the two). Even so, the debate was a politically important moment simply because of the fact that it took place.

The last time Greece saw political leaders oppose each other in a debate was 2009. Since then the country has gone to the ballots five times (for three parliamentary elections, the Euro-elections and the referendum), and lived five crucial and highly charged showdowns without seeing the political leaders converse. It was a secondary symptom of the sickness that was eating the insides of the country over the past half decade: Public life had become so toxic, so poisoned from the fumes of a polarization that even a rote televised dialogue between leaders was impossible to organize. This toxicity often took almost-violent forms and opened cracks that exposed the public sphere, which at times was invaded by bullies who fondly recalled Hitler.

From that perspective, just the fact that the two political opponents conversed under the television spotlights and opposed each other without crossing the lines that mutual respect dictates, gains a distinct symbolic significance. It is a change of pace in public mores. And it is impressive that it took place a mere 70 days from the ultimate moment of polarization: the July 5th referendum.

The change is partially due to the people involved. The new leader of the conservative party, Vaggelis Meimarakis, adopted from the get-go a consenting, moderate policy, that was the polar opposite of that of his predecessor. Alexis Tsipras reciprocated.

But beyond the persons involved, it is the political environment that has changed drastically. Monday's debate confirmed that change. No matter how much and on how many topics they may have disagreed, the two political leaders aligned on three basic points: They both believe that Greece must, by any means necessary, stay in the Eurozone; that staying in the Eurozone, and by the given political connotation in Europe, is impossible without accepting some version of the dominant economic dogma; and that the next government, whatever else it may try to do, is obliged to faithfully put into action the recent Athens-Brussels agreement. Any corrections or changes in this deal -- which both leaders still view with a critical eye, for different reasons -- and any claims toward the debt and the financing of the economy, are contingent on the deal's enforcement.

Along these lines, the era of the civil cold war gives way to the era of consent. Whatever the electoral result, one may hope that the next government will at least be able to converse with the opposition, whoever ends up being in the former or latter position.

Some, not always in good faith, support that this coincidence of the two leaders agreeing on the need to enforce the Euro-deal could be a sign of a homogenization of politics, a dulling of political differences and a close of big divides. Many, in fact, claim that the election should bring forth a government of a "grand coalition" or "national unity." But even if a small caprice of the numbers makes it necessary for the two bigger parties to collaborate in forming a parliamentary majority, I doubt that would be a beneficial solution.

Conversely, I believe that it would be incredibly beneficial if all this resulted in a move of the axis around which political life rotates. From the "pro-memorandum/anti-memorandum" line that was dominant over the last few years and which featured the Left, the Greek version of the Tea Party and the "patriotic Right" of ANEL cohabitating at the same pole, Greek politics may be slowly returning back to the axis of "left/right" and "progressivism/conservatism."

Sunday's elections pose exactly that dilemma: Will a center-leftist alliance government form around a changed SYRIZA, which will attempt to change the worn links that connect the public and private sectors in Greece and dissolve the political alliance that supports tax evasion and which has held the country hostage? Or will a center-rightist alliance government form around a renewed Nea Dimokratia, which will guarantee political stability that is necessary to bring back normalcy in financial life? This question loomed over Monday's debate.

This post first appeared on HuffPost Greece and was translated into English.