Tension in Greece over the name of one its northern neighbors is already threatening to pull apart the country’s populist coalition. Two weeks after similar demonstrations in the city of Thessaloniki, more than 100,000 protestors gathered in the Greek capital of Athens on February 4th to march against the use of the word “Macedonia.” At the behest of the Greek government, the nation has been provisionally called the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (or FYROM) by the international community since its independence. Leaders in Skopje, however, are looking toward integration with the European Union and accession to NATO, both of which require a final settlement of the naming dispute with Greece.
The history of the dispute itself is one steeped in nationalism and revisionist history. “Macedonia” is a historical region currently split between Greece and FYROM named for the ancient Greek tribe that produced Alexander the Great. Both countries now consider this region and historical figure as foundational pillars for their national myths, and the Greek citizenry has been less than thrilled with what they perceive as a threat to their territorial and cultural integrity. Greece has blocked FYROM’s applications to major international organizations on this basis. Recent trends of integration (as well as more conciliatory administrations in both countries) have encouraged the government in Skopje to nail down the name and restart the stalled processes.
Protests throughout Greece over the potential inclusion of “Macedonia” in the new official name have begun to pull apart the coalition that currently governs the country. A seemingly improbable marriage of the left and right wings of the political spectrum has maintained a majority in the Hellenic Parliament since elections in late 2015. The Coalition of the Radical Left (known by the transliteration of its Greek acronym, Syriza) maintains 145 of 300 seats, while the Independent Greeks (ANEL), a right-wing populist party, provides an additional 9 seats.
The situation since 2015 in Greece demonstrates the nonessentiality of linkages between populist movements and concrete ideology. Yet at the same time, the current friction between the governing parties over the Macedonian provides a key example of how the salience of cleavages can shape a resulting ideology.
Syriza and ANEL have little ideological overlap in their platforms beyond opposition to the austerity programs imposed by the European Union, IMF, and the World Bank (collectively deemed the “troika”). Syriza seeks to protect the migrants flooding from Syria, whereas ANEL espouses rhetoric of deportation and anti-multiculturalism; when the coalition proposed in 2015 to extend civil unions to same-sex couples, representatives from ANEL voted against it. And yet for over two years, the coalition has held fast.
According to the theoretical work of Rodrik, the ideology of a populist regime is heavily influenced by the type of cleavage that is most salient for the voters. Parties that prey on a majority-minority cleavage tend to adopt right-wing stances, whereas those that prey on an elite-majority cleavage tend to adopt left-wing stances. Greece faces an acute combination of economic crisis blamed on Germany and Brussels with a rapid influx of refugees, particularly from Syria and Sudan. As such, it has given rise to both kinds of populism (though the left-wing brand predominates).
The coexistence of these populist movements would not be strange, but the fact that they have joined together in a coalition government is cause for a raised eyebrow. A functional coalition comprised of parties from the opposite ends of the political spectrum raises questions about the ideological rigidity of the parties themselves. If these parties can govern a country together relatively peacefully for so long, can there be that much of a difference between their platforms? Such a phenomenon only furthers the idea that populism has no inherent ideological features, a notion proposed by earlier readings and built upon by Rodrik and Guiso.
Within the Greek context, this situation also points to the relative salience of cleavages at the current moment. If the majority of the populace supports the Syriza approach to austerity, ANEL has no incentive to accentuate its more nationalistic/cultural policy. Politics in the wake of the FYROM protests, however, may indicate a shift in salience. As the Greek economy slowly begins to recover—with the bailout program set to end this August—the problem of unmanageable refugee inflows only worsens. We can thus expect the focus to gradually move from economic turmoil to exogenous social shocks, including the migrant crisis and extensive brain drain. This movement of focus inherently signifies a change in cleavage salience as well. In other words, as the debt program ends and Brussels becomes less of a nuisance, problems can be increasingly framed as a result of the refugees and ethnic minorities.
Syriza’s multicultural platform is unequipped to deal with such a shift in salience, which will likely lead to salience congruence issues as demonstrated by Traber. ANEL (and right-leaning opposition parties) stands to gain voter support, and increasing authority given to the junior partner is already worrisome for Syriza. In the days surrounding the FYROM protests, the prime minister has already begun to seek out new groups with which to form a coalition. Even if PM Tsipras does manage to forge a new government, he will have to contend with a majority populace that is shifting to more hardline views on migration and national prestige (by late 2017, a majority of Greeks favored banning immigration from Muslim-majority countries).
The magnitude of the recent protests over the name of Macedonia signal that such a movement is imminent. Groups from nearly every opposition party made their nationalist stances clear, criticizing the Syriza government for its willingness to comprise, pulling together a broad spectrum that could challenge the government on its quality of representation. The populist coalition will soon fall apart due to the growing relative importance of ideological issues. Whether this means that traditional parties will have an easier time collecting votes by appealing to traditional policy divides or that the Greek party system will create space for a substantial right-wing populist movement is yet to be seen.
Photo from AP.