The Young as Political Actors in Greece under the Crisis
Maro Pantelidou Maloutas
University of Athens, Greece
Although the young in Greece have had a long tradition of dynamic democratic involvement in politics, in the early 1990s they grew increasingly distanced from it, adopting individualistic attitudes and lifestyle politics, quite in line with the general European “period climate”. As for their ideological identity, it seemed that the 18-29 year olds were turning away from the Left. Whereas 37.1% had declared adherence to the Left in 1988, the corresponding figure shrank to merely 9.8% in 2006 (according to data from a 2006 research project at the University of Athens). The young appeared to have become more cynical and disinterested in politics. Whereas in 1988, the most widespread attitude towards politics had been “interest”; in 2006 it was “mistrust”, with “disappointment” and “lack of interest” also quite widespread. Max Kaase’s 1999 empirical claim about lower political trust corresponding with higher probability of engagement in direct action, seems to be verified in the Greek case.
Indeed, with social problems creating a feeling of dead-end for the young, whose unemployment reached 60%, the crisis functioned as a catalyst, having a profound re-socialization effect and changing the young as political actors. But already in the 2008 “December events”, adolescents and students as well as young unemployed and immigrants protested spontaneously, massively and violently, after the killing of a 15 year old high-school boy by a policeman, in the center of Athens. These events, expressing deeper latent conflicts within the Greek society represented a riot, offering a pre-view of the changes that had already started within the political culture of the young. Important subsequent milestones were the protest events of 2010-11, including pupil’s occupations of school buildings, and the young’s participation in the crisis-elections of 2012 and 2015.
Massive protest events took place in 2011 in Athens and other cities against the imposition of austerity. Autonomous and spontaneous popular assemblies appeared in squares, as well as the “aganahtismeni” (indignados). Τhe presence of the young was very important (as attested by the research project of the National Centre for Social Research), since 42% of the 18-24 year old Athenians participated in popular assemblies, while 50% participated in “aganahtismeni” protests; the average being respectively 35% and 41%. It is indeed established that in 2011 the young demonstrated in various ways an increased tendency to participate in politics. Even if in these events, the political goals and the ideological identity of the protesters were not always clear. They helped the formation of a political “we”, that later facilitated the victory of Syriza. “The return of the young” in politics was thought as having been achieved initially by their spontaneous and autonomous participation in the 2011 events, and completed later through their role in electoral politics.
Let us be reminded that Syriza obtained 4.6% in the 2009 election, 16.8% in May 2012, and 26.9% in 2012, to reach 36.3% in January 2015. The twin elections of May and June 2012 destroyed the traditional party system and bipartisanism in Greece, punishing what were perceived as the main culprits of the crisis, while January 2015 brought Syriza to power, changing, in a sense, the political map of Europe.
An age gap was noticed during the 2012 elections, with younger cohorts voting massively in favor of Syriza and older ones in favor of Nea Dimocratia (ND), the traditional party of the Right.However, according to exit poll data, this gap is related to a cut-off either at 54 (18-54 year olds versus 55+) or at 45, thus not providing exact data on the young. Indeed, if we divide exit poll samples of the 2012 and of the January 2015 elections (when Syriza formed a government), in three age groups, it is always the middle age group of 35-54 years olds that voted more in favor of Syriza, and not the youngest. However, in the 2012 elections, Syriza was the party that gained the biggest percentage among new voters, whose second choice was the Golden Dawn, a neo-Nazi political formation.
The referendum called by Syriza during the summer of 2015 in order to obtain support in its negotiations, showed the young vote approaching 80% for the 18-24 year olds and 70% for the 25-34 in favor of “no” to the austerity measures (national average: 61,3%). These high percentages attest that the young felt concerned by the referendum, the choice offered to them, as well as the “no” vote proposed by the party that instigated it. Already initiated to direct democracy at popular assemblies, it seemed to them that, for the first time, accountable representatives asked for their opinion. Such politics seem to relate to a wide spectrum of young people in Greece, autonomy and self-expression being an integral part of the attitudes of today’s young in many societies. However, attitudes referring to a wounded national pride were (expectantly) expressed also among the “no” votes. To make things even more complex, the divide in the referendum was strongly related to class: The “yes” reached 85% in the exclusive suburbs of Athens, while “no” approached 80% in working-class areas. Interestingly, the class and age dimensions seem however to be quite independent. (Young middle class voters voting “no”.)
The referendum played a very important role for the young and their relation to politics, functioning as a substantial means of attraction for some, consolidating their return to politics for others. Thus, the results of the September election following the referendum—Syriza having lost the necessary parliamentary support after the split of one of its components—could be seen as a surprise: Syriza, supported by the massive “no” went ahead reaching a difficult agreement with the troika, against its own and its voters’ wishes. Calling for new elections to renew its mandate, Syriza managed to obtain an important result in the young vote, while for the first time since the 1970s it was the 18-24-year-olds that gave the biggest percentage in favor of a party of the Left, and that by more than 43%. It is even more impressive for young women who, by 54.2% in Attica, voted in favor of Syriza, a percentage that amounted to 45.6% in Greece as a whole, with the same age curve: It is the younger electorate that votes more for Syriza, a vote that diminishes with increased age.
What the young seem to say, by their vote in September, is that if the power game shows that there is indeed no alternative right now, they prefer a party that does not believe in austerity but that is inclined to alleviate its consequences, than one that is ideologically in its favor and, at the same time, responsible for the crisis. However, the main thing proved during the recent electoral processes is that in order for the young to be regained to politics a democratic participatory perception of the process must be promoted, making citizens feel being co-producers of their future every day and not just consumers on the political market every four years. This is a generation used by the new technology to expressing oneself on a daily basis, one which seems reluctant to acquire a party identity and a followers status, deciding ad hoc, based on the issues at hand, even beyond class lines at times. Thus their apparent return to politics—through direct action initially, conditional and with low party identification—and radicalization, seem fragile even ambivalent, so that one cannot avoid wondering: Is this indeed a return to politics? If we take a macro-sociological stance, this generation seems to be much more politically involved than previous ones, so in the long run there is change. But today’s young, per se, are they really undertaking some kind of change? Is this participatory behavior linked to a change in their basic pre-dispositions, values and outlook, provoked by the strong socialization influence of the crisis? Or is what we witness rather an expression of the same representations that create aversion from institutional politics, with the same attitudes just being materialized in different circumstances, provoking thus circumstantial change just on the level of behavior, not on deeper attitudinal or related to values, levels?
The hypothesis of important change of the young seems to be supported by the radicalization thesis, which appears plausible based on a young vote in favor of the Left by more than 50% in September 2015. (If we include Syriza, the Communist Party and Antarsya). However, as the apparent ease of the young engaged in direct action testified in 2010-11, the political involvement of today’s young has a different character than that of past generations fighting on issues of democracy, social justice and based on class. Today the young seem to demand their autonomy and need mainly a way of self–expression, in accordance to the technologically mediated politics to which they are accustomed. So we are permitted to question whether this is indeed a radicalization. We cannot avoid wondering whether the young’s massive vote for Syriza was made possible because it was not really an expression of radicalization, but rather a thematic vote in view of the reality of the impending new austerity memorandum. Especially since this happened during the September elections, when Syriza itself was viewed by some as having lost its radicalism.
It is too soon to speak with a degree of certainty on this important issue. The young will prove if they have returned to politics promoting a radical view of social co-existence or not, depending also on developments within the wider Greek and European political scene, and particularly on how the Left will deal with the situation.
Maro Pantelidou Maloutas is Professor of Political Science at the University of Athens. She specializes in issues concerning democracy, equality, citizenship and the cultural aspects of politics. The main areas of her research refer to the young as political actors and to issues of democracy and gender. She is the author of many articles and nine books, mainly in Greek. In English see: Pantelidou Maloutas, Maro: The Gender of Democracy: Citizenship and Gendered Subjectivity, Routledge, 2006.
Banner Image: The Young in the Streets, photo: Neolaia, Greece (www.neolaia.gr).
Add to favorite