National contexts and settings

Blame Games: Sport, populism, and crisis politics in Greece

Jacob J. Bustad


In January 2016, a study abroad programme including students and faculty travelled from Towson University (Maryland, USA) to Greece - the programme included visits to the ancient Olympic sites in Corinth, Delphi, Nemea, and Olympia, as well as to venues and facilities constructed for use during the Athens 2004 Summer Olympic Games. The programme’s title, “Dropping the Baton: Sport and Society in Athens, Greece,” served to emphasise the contrast between the purpose and aims of the ancient Games, and the urban development-driven goals of contemporary Olympic host cities and nations. However, the title also reflected a common sentiment amongst observers of sport at the time - namely, that Greece had seemingly “dropped the baton” in its hosting of the 2004 Olympic Games, at least in terms of promises related to economic growth and rejuvenation via the vast infrastructure projects that the Olympic Games entailed. This sentiment of Greece as a nation in crisis had been particularly pronounced in the preceding months, as presidential elections had been held in September 2015 after nearly five years of political failures that had followed in the wake of the near collapse of the Greek economy in 2009. In response to the following calamitous economic despair - for example, by 2013 the national rate of unemployment was over 25%, and nearly 60% for citizens aged 15-24 (Riley, 2013) - a series of protests and strikes had served to symbolise a growing public discontent, if not outright fury, with the nation’s deteriorating social and economic systems.

These actions were also reflected in a broader shift in regard to the nation’s political parties, as voters increasingly left centrist-based designations for populist parties further to the left and right. Such changes to the Greek political structure were made clear in the 2015 presidential election won by' Alexis Tsipras, candidate of the leftist, anti-austerity SYRIZA party that had gained power in the parliamentary elections of May 2014. The election of SYRIZA and then Tsipras was initially viewed as a potentially radical change in direction for the nation’s approach to economic and social policy, though this government was immediately beset by challenges and perceived shortcomings. Yet at the same time that SYRIZA ascended to power, other forms of populism from both the left and right of the political spectrum were also more evident, including those representing a far-right populism based on exclusionary nationalism and anti-immigration. These shifts in the Greek political landscape serve to emphasise the importance of the nation’s particular economic and social discord, as populism often intensifies in conditions of crisis (Stavrakakis, 2002, cited in Vasilopoulou et al., 2014).

This chapter therefore reviews these recent developments in Greece within the context of “crisis” politics and populism, and specifically outlines the interconnections between contemporary Greek politics and international sport. First, I discuss how the 2009 economic crisis resulted in a political vacuum in which populist parties were increasingly powerful, especially given the history of populism in modern Greek politics (Pappas, 2014). This analysis then focuses on how two contemporary Greek populist parties - the leftist SYRIZA party of President Tsipras, and the far-right Golden Dawn party' - have engaged in discourses of “blame” to assign fault for the nation’s general socioeconomic decline (Vasilopoulou et al., 2014), and in particular how these discourses have incorporated and involved sport through both the hosting of the 2004 Olympic Games, and Greece’s participation in international football (soccer). While the marked contrast of the political goals and expressions of these parties cannot be understated, this analysis also suggests that each of these forms of populism relies both on the specific conditions and structures of Greek politics, and particular expressions of populist politics that reflect the relationship between contemporary sport and Greek society.

Populism in modern Greece

Following Pappas (2014), while most scholarly literature on populism focuses on the emergence of populist parties and figures, and the implications of these forms of populism within existing political structures, there is less consideration for those situations in which populist parties have achieved and consolidated governing power, as in the case of Greece (see also Simon Martin’s Chapter 7 discussion of Italy, Renata Toledo’s Chapter 8 and Bryan Clift’s Chapter 9 discussions of Brazil, and Pablo Alabarces’s Chapter 10 discussion of Latin America). The structure of contemporary Greek democracy therefore reflects shifts that occurred following the abolishment of the military junta and establishment of a parliamentary republic in 1975, in particular the collapse of the major centrist parties and rise in power of populist parties on the left and right. From this point, the development of politics in Greece has consistently exhibited the characteristics of what we can call a populist democracy: “a democratic subtype in which, besides the party in office, at least the major opposition party (and even other minor parties) are also populist” (Pappas, 2014 p. 1). This designation therefore serves to underscore the interior role of populism within the democratic process of Greece, as opposed to the more common exterior framing of populism as outside of a particular nation’s normal democratic proceedings.

Moreover, the forms of populism most often evident within modern Greek politics have followed a similar strain, whether employed on the left or right - in short, this approach is premised on the message of a “blameless us” and “evil others”, which certainly echoes with populism understood more generally (Vasilopoulou et al., 2014, p. 389). However, and as Pappas (2014) explains, populist parties in Greece have most often fashioned this message of “us and other” through three overlapping and mutually supporting ideas. This includes the assertion that the us/them split is a “single cleavage” between the good common people and evil structure of power - as this chapter emphasises, this “cleavage” has more recently materialised within discourses of Greek populism both on the left in regard to social class and economic globalisation, and on the right in regard to citizenship and immigration. Populist democracies are also marked by the prioritisation of polarising forms of politics ahead of any consideration for consensus with other parties; and a preference for and strict adherence to the idea of majority' rule, to the point of what Urbinati (2017) refers to as an “extreme majoritarianism” wherein 51% of the vote is designated as the “will of the people” for just about any, indeed close to all, political issues.

These characteristics of Greece’s “populist democracy” were evident in the success of populist parties following the end of military rule in 1974, in particular the Panhellenic Socialist Party (PASOK), which dominated Greek politics from 1981 to 1990 and then again from 1993 to 2011. However, while previous issues had beset PASOK through these periods - including ongoing tensions with Turkey over Cyprus and other territories, the rise and arrest of leftist guerrilla group Revolutionary Organization November 17, and a longstanding dispute with Macedonia over that nation’s name - the party' was at severe loss when responding to the onset of the nation’s worst-ever economic crisis. Following Vasilopoulou, Halikiopoulou, and Exa-daktylos (2014), the “explosive combination” of both internal and external factors - including the failures and imbalances of global capitalism and the clientelist-based networks that often undermine Greek politics and governance - ultimately resulted in the debt crisis of December 2009, when Greece’s national credit rating was downgraded, raising fears from international creditors and economic forums of a possible default on the nation’s sizeable debt and the subsequent potential collapse of the Eurozone and European Union (EU). It was in the context of this economic turmoil that the next shift in Greek politics emerged: as the PASOK government responded with drastic austerity measures and public spending cuts, large-scale protests and national strikes increased, ultimately leading to the resignation of Prime Minister and PASOK leader George Papandreou in 2011.

Over the next four years from 2012 to 2015, and as the economic crisis continued, the landscape of Greek politics revealed a new generation of populist parties vying for a share of power in determining the nation’s future. As Vasilopoulou, Halikiopoulou, and Exadaktylos (2014, p. 392) explain, a common characteristic across all populist parties in the post-2009 period was in the development and deployment of particular discourses of “blame” that work to shift responsibility to specific individuals and groups, while also entrenching forms of exclusivity between groups. In this mode, while the target of blame would vary between different parties, inevitably it was these discourses that provided prospective voters with a clear distinction of where to point fingers for the nation’s predicament. Among these parties, there were several that became both more widely known outside Greece, and also serve to demonstrate a particular relationship between populist politics and sport. This chapter therefore provides an analysis of the particular discourses of blame involved in the continued development of Greece’s populist democracy, and describes how populist politics often underscore the interconnections between sport and Greek society.

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