It may have been the worst recession to hit any economy in modern times. Between 2007 and 2014, Greece lost a quarter of its economy; hundreds of thousands of people moved abroad; unemployment peaked at almost 28 percent, hitting nearly 1 in 3 of the working population. Extremist parties of the far left and far right came to power, railing against shadowy foreign enemies, spinning dark conspiracy theories and making impossible promises.
Under their leadership, the crisis grew worse. In the summer of 2015, the Greek government, led by a former young communist, Alexis Tsipras, nearly crashed out of the euro, the common European currency. Tsipras called a defiant referendum that rejected the terms of the bailout proposed by the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, as well as the budget austerity that it required. There were rumors of military coups and the beginnings of a financial panic. In a stunning reversal, Tsipras threw in the towel a week later and accepted the terms anyway.
And then, somehow … it worked. The Greek economy turned the corner. Last summer, the country graduated from the European bailout program after eight years. Growth has returned, slowly. Unemployment is decreasing, also slowly. Most of all, democracy, though severely challenged, did not collapse, and that meant that alternative visions for the country’s future were allowed to gain strength. Greeks began asking if there weren’t better ways to run the country, and began tossing around words like “liberalism,” even “neoliberalism.” Now they might get to try some of them.
On Sunday, the Greeks elected a new prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who fits neatly into what would have been a negative, unelectable cliche just a few years ago. Harvard-educated, suit-and-tie wearing, former banker, center-right, economic liberal, Mitsotakis is the scion, even, of a political family. Mitsotakis has promised centrism, and his new government includes people from the center and center-left, as well as an array of experts from outside of politics, in addition to his own party. The language he is using, in a country intellectually dominated by Marxism for many years, echoes that used in those subversive conversations: transparency, entrepreneurship and meritocracy, instead of the clientelism and jobs-for-the-boys patronage that have marked Greek politics for decades.
This kind of talk is now popular, it seems — at least for the moment — and it doesn’t come with wild claims and unkeepable promises. Of course, Mitsotakis may not succeed, but it will not be because he made guarantees he knew he couldn’t hold.
For the rest of us, there is good news and bad news in the Greek story. Here’s the good news: Even extreme forms of populism can be defeated, assuming that they have not, as in Hungary or Venezuela, undermined democracy so much as to prevent anyone else from winning. European institutions did, after making a lot of mistakes, help stabilize Greece. The international system wobbled, but it did not collapse. Tsipras himself assimilated into Europe, became more statesmanlike and helped find a compromise to end the stupid squabble between Greece and the country now known as Northern Macedonia.
But the bad news is pretty bad. Before Greeks lost their trust in a far-left government making impossible guarantees, the country had to go through a trauma that will mark an entire generation. The hundreds of thousands of emigrants, often highly educated, who left the country might never return; the young people who couldn’t find work might never make up the lost time. If that’s what a population has to go through before it sees through the false promises of populism, then a lot of bad times in a lot of democracies are still to come.