Posts Tagged New Democracy

Outlawing Golden Dawn is no solution: Next they will come for the left

golden dawn propaganda poster

Straighten up and fly right, boys, and you can join the coalition!


There are those who will be cheering the arrest on Saturday of Golden Dawn leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos and the Greek government’s crackdown on his neo-Nazi party after the political assassination of rapper and left-wing activist Pavlos Fyssas last week.

My Facebook and Twitter feeds have been filled with hosannas for the government’s moves against the neo-Nazi party.

Some feel that with the raids of branches, confiscation of some weapons, and arrest of leading cadre on charges of forming a criminal gang, the governing parties, New Democracy in particular, have finally, belatedly realised that the Golden Dawn now threatens their interests as much as it threatens the left and immigrants.

Perhaps this is the case. Perhaps the cabinet has indeed decided that enough is enough, however useful the fascists have proved until this week, and that the pitbulls now need to be muzzled. I have no access to the interior of the skull of Prime Minister Antonio Samaras or Nikos Dendias, his anti-immigrant minister of public order and citizen protection [sic]. So I do not know.

But I am sceptical.

Despite my revulsion at the party, I am afraid that I have to take my leave from this celebration, partially because I feel that the evidence suggests that the crackdown is at best little more than a piece of political theatre.

But also more fundamentally because I worry that in the context of the dominant but dishonest media and political discourse of “two extremes” of left and right – where the so-called ‘far left’ Syriza, trade-union strike action, and smaller left wing groups are spoken of in the same breath as the Golden Dawn – the moves against the nazis are a precursor to a similar but more thoroughgoing crackdown on sections of the left.

I would rather the ideas of the Golden Dawn be defeated in open political contest, and its militants sent scurrying, swept from the streets by popular antifascist mobilisation, than they be arrested by the very same men who not days before stood by approvingly while the blackshirts engaged in their pogroms.

Let’s be clear: Greece has existing laws to deal with those engaged in violence, such as party activists’ savage aggression towards immigrants, left-wingers and gays and lesbians, and certainly to deal with the murder of a hip-hop artist. But these laws are not being enforced. Repeatedly, the police have been seen to turn a blind eye to the party’s violence or actively work alongside its militants. It is by no means the ravings of conspiracists to claim collusion between the police and the fascists.

On the contrary, this collusion is well known, discussed by human rights groups, mainstream journalists and now leading politicians. This collusion is as much a fact, a certainty, a truth – as gravity, or that the decimal representation of pi never ends, or that it is a mistake to touch your pink bits after handling habanero peppers.

Here is a statement from the Union of Hospital Doctors of Athens and Piraeus from 19 September following the murder of Fyssas:

“As doctors of the Tzanio general hospital, we express our strong concern, as yesterday night 18/09/13, after the protests against the murder of the young Pavlos Fyssas by a member of Golden Dawn, 31 protesters were brought to the surgical department, all with blows on the head. The injured people reported blows by batons, helmets, shields and kicks from Delta and Dias teams (motorcycle police), whereas there were reports of rocks being thrown from the side of the police towards the protesters, aiming for the head, from members of Golden Dawn.

“One of the people who was injured, after being operated upon, was hospitalized at the ophthalmological department of the hospital with a ruptured bulb [sic] from a stun canister. He reported being aimed directly on the head and is in danger of suffering a permanent loss of vision in one eye. We urge for a halt of the policy of intensification of the state and parastate repression in order not to mourn any more victims.”

In the wake of the arrests of Golden Dawn MPs, two senior police officers – the regional police commanders of southern and central Greece – stepped down while another seven were suspended. One officer was arrested, suspected of simultaneously working as security for the party. These are not small fry: five senior individuals were moved to other posts pending an investigation of collusion: the chiefs of the police special forces, internal affairs, organised crime division, firearms and explosives division, and the Dias motorcycle force.

The government said its simultaneous moves against the officers was to ensure “to ensure the absolute objectivity” of the inquiry into the Golden Dawn. Defence minister Dimitris Avramopoulos has also ordered an investigation into allegations that some members of the army’s elite special forces have trained the party’s militias.

But police collusion with the party is hardly a fresh revelation. In one internationally famous incident in 2012, police stood by while the party hurled rocks into an open-air auditorium where a play with gay content was being performed. The theatre manager made calls to the chief of police, begging him for protection from the mob as the fascists beat up journalists.

“This was the Greek Kristallnacht,” the play’s director, Laertis Vassiliou, told the BBC’s Paul Mason at the time.

“People went home with broken bones. Every day they phone me now, they phone the theatre, saying: your days are numbered.”

Raids on immigrant market stalls by the party’s bully boys go unpunished, again under the watchful eyes of the police. Its offices are aggressively protected from protesters by riot police. Two weeks ago, seven members of the Communist Party of Greece were taken to hospital after some 50 men wielding crowbars and wooden bats fastened with nails and spikes attacked them as they were putting up posters for a youth festival in the port district of Perama, a stronghold for the leftists. But nearby police were indifferent, according to witnesses. The government has long known what the party gets up to and how police give it a nudge and a wink, yet both the party and its police protectors have operated with complete impunity.

Either public order minister Dendias is utterly incompetent or has himself knowingly shut his eyes to the obvious.

But I rather think that the only conclusion that can be drawn is that the country’s leadership believed that the street thugs served a useful purpose against popular left-wing agitation against European austerity, or at least misdirected attention from the economic cataclysm by focussing on migrants, but now with the murder of Fyssas, the dogs must be brought to heel.

In recent months, some commentators such as Skai TV journalist Babis Papadimitriou have called for the Golden Dawn to be brought in from the cold and, so long as it can become a “serious party” and isolate the worst of its thugs, to join the governing coalition. The party was riding high before the murder – with most polls putting the party in third place on 12 or 13 percent, although one internal government poll in July gave the fascists a shocking 18 percent. It has lost a couple of percent nationally since the killing, but in its strongholds, polls suggest that it has easily shrugged off the murder.

A number of leading MPs have for some time now publicly mused about bring the party into government. Earlier this year, New Democracy MP Vyron Polydoras, said: “The Golden Dawn is no threat to Democracy.” Another MP and former leadership candidate, Panagiotis Psomiadis, said ahead of the 2012 elections: “We should join forces with all sister parties, such as X, Y, Z and Golden Dawn.”

The murder and crackdown, ironically, offers the party an opportunity to appear to rehabilitate itself should it choose to play its cards right in the court proceedings, and so far, with the voluntary surrender to police stations by many of its leading members, it’s making some of the right moves (although rhetorically, the party is as dyspeptic as ever).

Meanwhile the centre-left Pasok is one snap election away from oblivion. The latest numbers put it on around four percent, down from its election victory result of 44 percent four years ago. The threshold to get into parliament is three percent. Amongst young people in some major voting districts, the social democrats score zero percent. And with the final demise of the zombie Pasok, New Democracy would need a new ally.

In a previous iteration of the Athens crisis regime, New Democracy and Pasok did not blink when entering into a coalition with the far-right and religious conservative Laos party – a marriage publicly blessed, indeed encouraged, by Brussels. A tidied up Golden Dawn, post-show-trial, would be preferable in certain quarters to the eurozone Hades that they believe would be opened up by a government led by the left-wing Syriza.

Indeed, a day after the murder, it was not Golden Dawn that New Democracy MP and senior advisor to the prime minister Chrysanthos Lazaridis took to task, but the opposition Syriza and allied left groups, attacking the party for “undermining democracy”.

Under the Greek constitution, political parties cannot be banned, but the government now at least has set the precedent of exploiting laws intended for pursuing organised crime.

If you look at the policies of Syriza, it is clear they are a party of left social democrats at most, but the party has consistently been classed both by government-allied media domestically and in some of the foreign press as the left-wing mirror image of the Golden Dawn, the ‘extremists’ of the left.

It would be too much of a provocation for the government to move against the opposition party, but watch for the coalition now to make similar moves against smaller allies of Syriza or independent left-wing activists and trade union militants, which it will describe as “criminal gangs” as well.

New Democracy and Pasok are no defenders of democracy. It is through their economic policies, imposed at the anti-democratic insistence of Brussels, Frankfurt and Berlin, as well as their collusion with the Golden Dawn, that have given birth to this 21st Century fascism of thick-necked gym rats in black golf shirts in Greece. So long as these policies and politicians remain in place, fascism will only grow.

The defeat of the Golden Dawn can only come through the defeat of the architects of austerity.

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Puppies and ice cream


The Greek reality


Let’s say you’re the prime minister of a country that’s being forced to impose some seriously strict-ass austerian shock therapy. Every day, it’s all puppies and ice cream, am I right?

Okay, not so much.

Now, if you’re lucky enough to have a population who are as demoralised as Marvin the Paranoid Android and they just emigrate like the Irish (highest emigration rate in 25 years last year) or the Latvians (13% drop in population since 2000, most of which since the crisis and 80% of whom are under 35), then you don’t have to worry about rolling general strikes, low-level terrorism and neo-Nazi MPs beating up women on TV.

Sure, with all those hyper-educated working-age kids skedaddling off to Australia or Brazil or, erm, Angola, you’ll have a bitch of a brain-drain on your hands, not to mention a wallop of a drop in economic demand, but hey, isn’t that better than having your office shot at?

But not every prime minister is as lucky as Ireland’s ol’ Blueshirt Enda Kenny. Much of the rest of the EU periphery is nowhere near as docile as his flock. At a conference I attended last summer, one German analyst placed the number of general strikes in Europe’s southern flank since the start of the crisis at over 30. Historically unheard of. Even the tumult between the World Wars didn’t see this number of general strikes.

And all that’s going to happen is your economy is going to tank, unemployment will rise to 30% (to almost 60% for young people), pensioners will shoot themselves in public squares and mothers and sons will jump off the roofs of their building while holding hands when they can’t pay the bills, and your people will despise you. You won’t even be able to go to your favourite restaurant without having eggs thrown at you.

Then come elections, the other guys are certain to get in. Of course, they’ll impose exactly the same measures, but come on, they’re the other tribe! They may be ideologically identical to you, but they’re still the other team, man!

So what are you to do? How the hell are you going to boost your popularity in such hairy times? It’s a stubborn pickled octopus of a quandary.

Now, I’m no James Carville, the infamously Machiavellian political strategist who delivered Bill Clinton’s long-shot Democratic nomination and presidential election victory in 1992, but I’ve nevertheless come up with a handy little playbook with some lessons taken from the remarkable – if very likely only temporary – turn-around in opinion-poll fortunes of Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras.

In many respects it does come down to a bit of a Hail-Mary pass – the last best hope of a democratic government before it turns into something else, so it’s not recommended in anything but the most extreme circumstances. Still, other European leaders should at least familiarise themselves with these tactics should the economic and political stability of their countries ever, Heaven forfend, take a similar turn to that of the Hellenic Republic.


Step One: Distract attention from the cuts


Screen Shot 2013-01-25 at 23.33.02

Greek tourism revenues declined 15%
in 2012 for some reason.


First, and most important, initiate something along the lines of Samaras’ Operation Target Darkie.

Okay, so the undertaking is not actually called Operation Target Darkie. It’s called Operation Xenios Zeus, which is still quite a bit of a chucklesome border-patrol in-joke.

You see, since the launch last August of Operation Xenios Zeus, 60,000 (yes that’s not a typo. There are five zeroes after that six) people who don’t look Greek enough have been rounded up and detained, and 4,200 arrested. But ‘Xenios Zeus’ was in fact one of the Greek god Zeus’s many titles, and it meant ‘patron of guests and hospitality’, quick to avenge any wrong done to a stranger.

Ha! Rib-tickling! Side-splitting! (Actually, quite literally side-splitting in some cases) Do you get it? Amnesty International, those po-faced goody-goodies, clearly didn’t. They issued a 12-page report last month denouncing the government’s attacks on migrants, the extended detention in filthy, appalling conditions and its routine breaking of international and EU law.

But what you have to understand is that it’s been tremendously successful in restoring Samaras’s fortunes after his party spent months in the wilderness, trailing well behind the radical left Syriza in polls since the election. The most recent polls out this week now puts his New Democracy party even-Steven (even-Stefanos?) with Syriza – perhaps even actually pipping their main opponents. And a slim majority believe Samaras to be a better prime minister than Syriza’s Alex Tsipras would be.

Now, I know what you’re gonna say. “Leigh, won’t this sort of strategy just normalise attacks on immigrants and open the door for the neo-nazi thugs who will be emboldened to assault or even murder anyone who doesn’t look or sound ‘Greek’?”

And I see where you’re coming from. That could indeed be a problem. Why, just last week, a young Pakistani man riding his bicycle in Athens was stabbed by two men on motorcycles, later dying of his wounds. In August, a 19-year-old Iraqi was fatally stabbed by a gang, also on motorcycles. The city’s mayor describes knife attacks happening on an almost daily basis.

There has been an increase in racist attacks since 2010, but human rights groups say that incidents of racially motivated violence last year just skyrocketed. Golden Dawn thugs break up market stalls with baseball bats while the police stand by and watch. They climb aboard buses and drag people out and beat them with crow bars and chains. They throw molotov cocktails at barbershops and when the police come and investigate, they arrest the barber.

But remember, we’re all in this together. We’ve all got to do our part. Sure, it’ll be a bit uneven. Some of these measures will fall unfairly on some people. I recognise that. But what other option does Samaras have? How else is going to be able to distract attention from his EU-ordered gutting of social protections and services? Sure, children are being kept in concentration camps with no clean bedding or warm water, but where’s the sympathy for poor old Sammy?


Step Two: Use arcane laws to break strikes



Remember to respect workers rights, or a committee of the
UN International Labour Organisation will write you a very stern letter indeed!


Next, you’ve got to figure out a way to deal with bolshy workers who saw household disposable income drop by 10.6% in the third quarter of 2012 compared with the previous year, as data released by the government stats agency last week showed.

One-day general strikes you can handle. It’s normal that unions should march on parliament. There’s the odd scuffle with riot police, then people go home. So what? As Swedish finance minister Anders Borg joked about Hungarian unions protesting austerity in 2011, “Isn’t that what unions always do?”

But indefinite strikes, particularly in strategic sectors that the rest of the economy depends upon, such as transport, ports, oil refineries and airports – that’s a real nuisance. People like to say that unions aren’t as powerful as they once were. Many union leaders, particularly in the European Trades Union Congress, may even believe it themselves. But t’s remarkable how just a few strategically placed strikers can paralyse an entire economy.

The solution to this persnickety little problem here does require breaching international conventions against forced labour dating back to the 1930s, but don’t worry, you’re not going to get any trouble from Brussels on that front.

So when Athens Metro workers go on strike for eight days to oppose an EU-demanded 25% cut in wages – a demand being imposed in breach of contract with the workers – all you have to do is enact a ‘civil mobilisation’ order, enforced by riot cops armed with the threat of five-year prison sentences.

“What on earth is a ‘civil mobilisation’ order?” I hear you say. And indeed, it is an obscure power that governments have. There’s no Wikipedia entry for it, and if you Google the term, you’ll only find clippings from newspapers from the First and Second World Wars. It’s a tightly bounded form of martial law, restricted to a particular sector, that requisitions workers’ services for an indefinite duration and bans strikes. Essentially, it’s labour conscription or military labour.

But just like the return of avocado-green kitchen appliances, after a long time unconscionably démodé, civil mobilisation is deffo back in fashion.

In 2010, then-French-President Nicolas Sarkozy used ‘requisitioned labour’ to break strikes at occupied refineries and oil depots and defeat the widespread movement against his planned pension cuts. The requisition order declared that continuance of the strike could cause “serious disruptions of public order” including “riots”, and threatened the workers with six months’ imprisonment and a €10,000 fine. A judge may have subsequently declared the requisition order illegal, but the government just issued another, less general requisition.

The same year, Spain’s Zapatero militarised labour in the country’s airspace in order to break a strike by air traffic controllers over similar European orchestrated public sector cuts and privatisation. The Defence Ministry was put in charge, sending military police to disrupt a union meeting and force them back to work. Soldiers took over air traffic control towers across the country and army units were given the power to conscript air traffic controllers from their homes and order them to work under military authority. Workers faced prison sentences of up to six years for disobeying military orders. In effect, they had become military personnel.

So basically, everybody’s doing it, so why not Greece?

In keeping with the UN International Labour Organisation’s Forced Labour Convention (Convention No. 29) and according to Greek law, the requisition of labour is only permitted in cases of a “sudden situation requiring the taking of immediate measures to face the country’s defensive needs or a social emergency against any type of imminent natural disaster or emergency that might endanger the public health”.

After an investigation by the ILO’s Committee on Freedom of Association in 2009 into a controversial use that year of a 1974 decree (thus dating back to the last year of the Colonels’ junta) on ‘Civil Emergency Planning’ to issue a civil mobilisation order against striking seamen, the Greek government committed to ensuring that such use “will from now on only apply in times of war.”

But really, who cares about the ILO? It’s not like they’re international lenders who need a signal showing how tough you are at forcing through the cuts and privatisation they’re demanding. Political leaders across the EU periphery have desperately been trying to figure out a way to show the markets and European power-brokers they mean business. And now, Eureka, they have found a way! Is there any bigger big-cock manoeuvre than the militarisation of labour?

Samaras’s civil mobilisation was denounced by unions as authoritarian and “tantamount to dictatorship”. “Let them [the government] come and collect dead bodies. Let them send in the army,” bellowed transport union leader Antonis Stamatopoulos.

But after riot police stormed a train depot in the diddly tiny hours of Friday morning and served mobilisation notices to 2,500 employees, normal service was resumed by the afternoon.

There is of course the danger that the use of such unorthodox tactics will itself produce still an escalation in militant activity from furious citizens and unionists, shocked that you are using a mechanism normally reserved for times of war, but then all you have to do is escalate the repression! Simples!


Step Three: Accuse your opponents of terrorism



Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras consorting with a vicious Slovenian terrorist.


Third in the clutch of clever strategems aimed at boosting your popularity in an age of austerity is the tried-and-true gambit of all desperate pols: slander your opponents by accusing them of terrorism.

If you’ve got a fragile governing coalition, it’s pretty inconvenient to have to a major corruption scandal on your hands directly connected to the current crisis. If some meddling little journalist publishes a list of some 2,000 wealthy tax-dodging Greeks with Swiss bank accounts your government knows about but does nothing to investigate, including one of your advisors and finance-ministry officials, and to top it off, a finance minister removes evidence relating to three of his family members, it’s pretty awkward. I mean, when you’ve been saying that everyone has to tighten their belts for a few years until the crisis is over, you don’t want everyone to find out that you just meant everyone except the wealthy and well-connected.

Well, one option is that you can have the journalist arrested, and why not? It’s only one more episode in the cavalcade of assaults on freedom of the press in the country such as threats from neo-Nazis and riot police attacking journalists covering demonstrations. Who cares if your country drops to 84th place (out of 179) in the annual press freedom rankings of Reporters Without Borders to just between Kosovo and Togo?

But an even better option is to exploit the petty terrorism from anarcho-nihilist quarters that has intensified in recent weeks and accuse your political opponents of being “terrorist-friendly”.

On 14 January, gunmen strafed the headquarters of the New Democracy party with bullets, and in recent weeks, canister bombs have exploded at government offices, banks and the homes of high-profile journalists. The streak of low-level petty terrorism escalated however with the bombing of a shopping mall owned by shipping magnate Spiros Latsis, the second richest Greek in the world and a student mate of European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, on 20 January.

When Syriza MP Vangelis Diamantopoulos warned that austerity was producing a despair that was so wrenching that it was leading to people “either committing suicide or picking up the gun”, and encouraged them instead to join Syriza, New Democracy government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou accused the “hoodlums of Syriza” of being “terrorist friendly” and Diamantopoulos of making the shopping mall a target. The party also produced a heavily edited 90-second video of Diamantopoulos, making it look as though the MP was issuing a call to arms, and said that it reveals a “justification of violence and understanding for the use of weapons”.

Now, sure, accusing another party of fomenting terrorism may further undermine political stability by casting your democratic opponents in the role of enemy within, but who’s paying attention to the corruption scandal anymore? See? Magic!


Step Four: Who doesn’t love a police crackdown on dissidents?



Villa Amalia is beautiful, moving 2009 film starring Isabelle Huppert.
It’s also the name of a Greek squat and cultural centre raided by police last December


But if the right side of the political spectrum is splintering, with New Democracy having lost its nationalist right to the anti-memorandum Independent Greeks, and yet another new right-wing movement being formed this past week out of refugees from the governing coalition and the remnants of the hard-right Greek Orthodox party Laos – and of course, famously, an openly neo-Nazi party has swollen to third place in opinion polls, you still have to do something to hold the right together against a radical left that is on the cusp of power. After all, Sammy was picked as leader precisely because he was thought most likely to be able to hold the right together.

What you’ve got to do is find that thing that can both unite conservatives and is popular amongst a populace frightened by a growing crime wave: a good old law-and-order crusade.

And while you’re making yourself look good to certain traditional quarters by getting tough on crime, why not mount a crackdown on squatters and anti-authoritarian youth and launch mass arrests of left-wing trade unionists including a number of union chiefs – and call it putting an end to “lawlessness”?

You can set in motion police raids and evictions of long-standing cultural centres with their dangerous cafes and free concerts, child-minding and left-wing literature. Above all, have the minister of public order, Nikos Dendias, issue a dog-whistle message that the democratic era after the end of military rule was too lax with those of certain political philosophies, a situation that needs to be corrected: “The country must finally settle its accounts with the post-1974 era.”

Be careful of course to do essentially nothing to track down the murderers of Golden Dawn, who brazenly usurp the state’s monopoly on violence, openly engage in racist assaults in public places such as squares or public transport while the police look on or even participate, beat journalists in front of them as well, attempt to enter parliament with guns, issue death threats, distribute white nationalist literature in schools, intimidate theatres that produce plays with gay content, maintain caches of weapons and train militias. Even if every day is a Greek Kristallnacht,

I admit that all of this may seem like a high-risk strategy – the immigrant round-ups, the use of arcane junta-era laws intended to be used in times of foreign invasion or viral haemorrhagic pandemic in order to break strikes, accusing opponents of terrorist sympathies, and the police crackdowns on dissidents.

But when the state has surrendered all its economic authority to international organisations, and handed much of its civil authority over to black-shirted thugs, how else do you prove to your people that you’re still there?

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Decree-o-matic: The periphery’s permanent state of exception

decree-o-matic chopper 4

The Greek Frankenstein’s monster of a coalition government – stitched together from the torso of the wounded conservative New Democracy and the decomposing, undead remains of centre-left Pasok and ex-eurocommunist Dimar – passed legislation last week raising taxes on ordinary Greeks and corporations and then this week approved another package of moves restructuring state assets for privatisation and expanding the powers of the finance ministry

I’ll not go into details of the problems with the legislation, termed ‘prior actions’, which was demanded by international lenders in return for the latest round of financing due this month. The imposition of suicidal and unjust economic policies in the European periphery is very much more ‘dog bites man’ these days than ‘man bites dog’. I’ll leave it to others to point out the errors.

Instead, what I find significant is that the different pieces of legislation have not been presented as proper bills, but as edicts in order to prevent debate, which would slow down the approval process.

The coalition felt it didn’t have time for the legislation to go through normal procedure as it wanted the bills to be already in the bag before finance minister Yannis Stournaras headed to the Eurogroup meeting (of finance ministers from the eurozone) on Monday, 21 January, where the first of three bail-out tranches worth €18 billion was to be considered and possibly approved.

Opposition parties, both the socialist Syriza party and the Independent Greeks – the anti-memorandum splinter from New Democracy – accused the government of bypassing parliament.

Their criticisms were – how should this be put politely? – let’s say ‘unvarnished’.

“You are introducing a new form of governing,” Syriza parliamentary spokesman Panayiotis Lafazanis said. “Ministers will issue edicts that will abolish parliament’s rights and will not be debated at all. You are responsible for turning a parliamentary democracy into a parliamentary junta.”

“We are observing a situation where parliament has essentially ceased working,” said Notis Marias of the anti-memorandum splinter from New Democracy, the Independent Greeks. “Your attitude is ‘Eurogroup uber alles.”

It seems strange to be talking about legislation by decree in the 21st Century. The words ‘decree’ and ‘edict’ evoke images of the Catholic Church releasing papal bulls, or absolute monarchs issuing proclamations changing the religion of a realm overnight.

The development of modern democracy placed great emphasis on ‘legislative supremacy’ (also known as ‘parliamentary sovereignty’). Whether called a parliament or congress or house, the deliberative assembly normally has exclusive authority to pass, amend or repeal laws, raise or lower taxes, regulate trade, and declare war. Western societies did not opt instead for a model of elected monarchs (athough Poland famously employed wolna elekcja, or royal elections, on occasion until the late 18th century).

Why did we do this? Well, it’s a long story and whole libraries could be and indeed are filled with discussions of theories of governance. But boiled down, the argument is that the executive branch – the body that enforces the law and carries out the day-to-day administration of the state – is the servant of the legislature, in order to ensure a separation of powers, which in turn serves as a sort of inoculation against tyrants.

By distributing power away from the executive, and maintaining the supremacy of the elected chamber, a polity is supposed to be protected against authoritarianism. In those places where there is little or no separation between executive and legislative branches, the different powers of government by definition are held by one person or one small group of people. (This situation, by the way – other than during times of national emergency, or ‘state of exception’ – is the very definition of despotism you will find in any dictionary)

Yet what happened in Greece this past fortnight is far from the first time that governments in the eurozone periphery have turned to the use of decrees to avoid parliamentary scrutiny. Indeed, though it has received little notice, the use of decrees, edicts and similar manoeuvres – a direct challenge to legislative supremacy – has been sharply on the increase in since the advent of the crisis.

Grand Duke Draghi of Frankfurt

Most controversially, the ECB’s humiliating ultimatum letter to Berlusconi in the summer of 2011 that was leaked to Corriere della Serra, the Italian daily, included not only a series of demands for legislation in return for central bank bond purchases, but the detailed timetable bills needed to be passed by and that they be imposed by edict, only later to be approved in a similar up/down fashion to this past fortnight’s Greek decrees. According to the letter, the package of austerity and structural adjustment bills had to be passed “as soon as possible with decree-laws, followed by parliamentary ratification by the end September 2011.”

The bulk of the shock therapy that unelected technocrat prime minister Mario Monti has applied to Italy have been performed by decree – the ‘Save Italy’ emergency decree, which took place days after Super-Mario took power; the ‘Grow Italy’ decree, the ‘Fiscal Simplification’ decree, the ‘Spending Review’ decree, the ‘Sustainable Development’ decree, and so on.

Some of the actions undertaken by decree any progressive could support; others decidedly less so. But whether one supports or opposes a move is immaterial – the method through which they are enacted is undemocratic.

Over in Spain, in May last year, Spain’s Mariano Rajoy used a decree to avoid parliamentary oversight of the decision to use public funds to bail out its drowning banks, offloading written-down assets into separate financial vehicles. Similarly, in February, Rajoy used the decree format to force banks to set aside certain amounts as cash buffers against losses. In March, there was a labour market deregulation decree in March, and in November an anti-tax-fraud decree and another delinking pensions from inflation.

After a woman killed herself when bailiffs tried to throw her out of her home and under pressure from protests, Madrid also passed a decree suspending home evictions for poor families with small children, the disabled and long-term unemployed. This action should certainly be welcomed, and probably did need to be instituted instantly for obvious reasons. But the question still remains, even for these sorts of measures – why is so much legislative activity now being done without parliamentary scrutiny?

By contrast, this past week, US President Barack Obama unveiled his gun control strategy. Alongside a series of legislative proposals, Obama announced 23 executive orders that are enacted immediately. Republican opponents and hyperbole-mongers have attacked the president for bypassing congress and ‘ripping up the constitution‘.

But in reality, every one of his gun control recommendations – criminal background checks for all gun sales, reinstating an assault weapons ban, a 10-round limit on ammunition magazines, outlawing armour-piercing bullets and providing mental health support services in schools – require congressional approval. The executive orders cover such matters as directing the Center for Disease Control to perform research into the causes of gun violence, requiring that federal agencies make relevant data available to the background check system, launching a national dialogue on mental health and starting a a national safe and responsible gun ownership campaign.

These are precisely the sort of relatively trivial moves that do not require parliamentary debate and oversight – the sort of direction from the directors of the executive branch of government to its officers and agents managing their operations or the appointment of senior civil servants. In France, these are called décrets (although the president may not rule by decree except during national emergencies) and in the UK Orders in Council. Not all executive actions need to be put through the legislative sausage factory.

But major policy changes with significant impacts, such as cutting pensions, radical overhaul of labour markets, bank bail-outs and so on certainly should indeed be looked over by parliaments with a fine tooth comb. And when they aren’t, if there is genuinely some sort of emergency requiring immediate executive action, there needs to be a bloody good reason, and it should be explained why this exception is necessary.

(If you want to be technical about this, what we’re talking about here is the distinction between primary legislation – crafted and approved by the legislative branch – and secondary or delegated legislation – laws made by an executive authority under powers transmitted to them by the primary legislation in order to carry it out)

Special powers

Citizens’ ears should prick up every time they read that something is being passed by decree or edict. Nine times out of ten, it is a sure sign that democracy is getting a bit of a hair-cut. An historical wander through the textbook exemplars of the use of decrees are instructive for comparison.

Famously, George W. Bush enacted a whopping 262 executive orders, the preponderance of which were a clear usurpation of congress’s position as the legislative branch. In this way, he blocked funding for stem-cell research, sidestepped the Geneva Conventions protection from torture, and offered impunity to US corporations operating in Iraq.

Those for whom the origins of Russia’s current ‘managed democracy’ remain a mystery could do worse than read up on Boris Yeltsin’s privatisation by decree and ultimate disbanding of parliament and rule by decree in the autumn of 1993. Fantastic sums in public funds were transferred to banks owned by major figures in the Soviet state and the former Communist Party higher ups. These banks then spent the effectively embezzled funds to snap up state industries on the cheap in privatisation auctions they themselves conducted.

From 1972 to 2007, governance of Northern Ireland was carried out under what was known as ‘direct rule’ – in effect rule by decree. While the people Northern Ireland still technically elected members of parliament to the House of Commons, legislation administering the region was made through Orders in Council, a situation opposed by by both nationalists and unionists for its lack of democratic accountability.

Similarly, during the Algerian War of Independence, in 1956, the governor general of French Algeria, Robert Lacoste, abolished the Algerian assembly and ruled by decree to deal with the mounting political violence. Then in 1961, President Charles de Gaulle became the only French president to rule all of France by decree during a national emergency, employing ‘special powers’ he requested from the National Assembly in the wake of an abortive rightist uprising in Algiers. Over the course of five months from April to September of that year, De Gaulle enacted 16 decrees expanding police powers, enlarging the power of the courts, banning publications, dismissing civil servants for ‘encouraging subversion’, and establishing special military courts, amongst other measures.

Now, one of the difficulties in discussing Europe’s democracy-on-a-diet approach to the economic crisis is that when anyone suggests that there has been a hollowing out of democracy, the cry immediately goes up from defenders of the strategy: “Where are the tanks? Where are the gulags? Where is the police state?”

But this is a category error, a conflation of autocracy and totalitarianism, as there can of course be creeping autocracy without totalitarianism. The advance of rule by decree does not signify the imminent appearance of a Duce or Fuhrer but with a blue and yellow flag. Mario Draghi is not Kim Jong-un.

Cindy Skach, professor of comparative government at the University of Oxford and one of the world’s leading experts on constitutional design, has described precisely this sort of legislative atrophying phenomenon as ‘constitutional dictatorship’. It comes from the use of emergency powers over a prolonged period “during which authority is transferred to non-partisan, above-party sources, leading to a loss of substance in the democratic process.”

In her work comparing Weimar Germany and the French Fifth Republic, she offers a warning of what results from this overuse of decree: “Such periods are also characterised by opaque, nonaccountable decision-making in which the democratically elected institutions of the polity, such as the legislature, have lost their controlling capacity, as presidents become increasingly less accountable.”

Such descriptions will of course be familiar to anyone who has followed the steady transfer of fiscal powers out of the hands of democratically elected parliaments – both in EU-IMF programme countries and across the eurozone.

To be clear, I am not saying that Italy, Spain, Greece and other countries are being ruled entirely by decree, but a lot of the new rules do come in the form of decree.

This state of exception is becoming permanent.

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