This Sunday, the Greek electorate is being summoned to the ballot boxes for the third time this year. For the third time, they are unsure as to the reason.
Back in January, an election forced by a quirk in the country’s constitution abruptly halted the reformist course of a coalition government that had brought the Greek economy back from the dead.
In its place, it propelled into power a coalition formed of two populist parties from the opposite ends of the ideological spectrum: from the left, a party that calls itself the Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza); from the right, a motley crew of casual anti-Semites and habitual conspiracy theorists under the banner of the Independent Greeks.
It was as if the Occupy Movement had teamed up with the Tea Party. It could scarcely have gone worse.
Already in a fragile economic state, the country was given a clueless cabinet staffed by the parvenus of power: professors eager to reshape the world according to niche theories, and party apparatchiks proficient only in the finer points of revolutionary Marxism.
But their belief in confused ideological constructs would prove to be only the lesser of their sins.
For the seven months that followed, the government wreaked havoc in every sector of Greek society.
To name one example, the education minister worked hard to abolish academic honours and the independent councils that were advising Greek universities and interfering with his unions – but neglected to ensure that there would be enough teachers at the start of the school year.
As a result, the public education system is 20,000 teachers short, and the teachers’ union warned that many schools would be unable to open in time.
The country’s health system is faring little better: thanks to brutal budget cuts the “anti-austerity” government instituted to fund its reckless confrontation with Greece’s creditors, over 26,000 positions remain unfilled, and hospitals are operating on a shoestring.
Short of medical supplies, nurses sometimes have to rush to neighbouring hospitals to procure goods as basic as gauzes and syringes.
The list goes on and on: migration policy, defence, the pension system – there is scarcely an area of policy where the populists did not fail. But the defining characteristic of the Syriza government was not its radical ideology. It was a simple inability to manage the affairs of state.
Populism is predicated upon a belief that the ordinary rules of governance – international accords, continuity of the state, the laws of economics – will crumble when confronted with the contrary will of the people. It is this belief that allows the populists to disregard external realities.
This is how a sartorially challenged finance minister can wear a devil-may-care attitude with pride and taunt the country’s creditors at every opportunity, regardless of how much his country needs their support.
This populist madness reached a crescendo in July, the second time the Greeks were called to the ballot boxes this year. In a hastily-arranged referendum Putin would be jealous of, Greek voters were asked to share their views on technical documentation numbering 34 crudely translated pages, including a “Preliminary Debt Sustainability Analysis.”
The people delivered their testimony (they did not approve of the documentation) and Syriza’s populist triumph seemed complete: the banks were closed, public transport was free, and the country was running towards the euro exit.
In the end, however, reality always wins. Faced with the results of his own six months in power, even the poster-child of the European radical left Alexis Tsipras had to give in. A master of ambiguity, he interpreted the referendum result as he wished.
Within hours, the peacock finance minister Yanis Varoufakis was gone. Within a week, a deal was signed very much resembling the documentation the Greek public had not approved of. And overnight, Tsipras turned from rebel to statesman.
The third bailout, as it is now known, is indeed Tsipras’s hallmark achievement: averting a catastrophe of his own making. Armed with this result, he is taking the country to elections for the third time.
This time, the question posed should be clear: are Greeks to applaud his Damascene conversion?
Does the captain of a sinking ship deserve a second chance at the tiller?
As opposed to populism, modern democracy is not about delegating executive decisions to the people at every mishap.
Rather it is about the accountability of political leadership to the public. The real question in these elections is one of competence. The record shows that the Tsipras government failed the Greek people – it is now up to them to show him the door.