On May 29, 2013 The New York Times ran an article on the tensions within Greece's governing coalition that have been triggered by the anti-racism bill prepared by the Greek Minister of Justice. (1) In its headline the article suggests that "Push for Antiracism Bill Leads to Rift in Greek Coalition." This headline is misleading in a number of ways. What follows is, therefore, aimed at clearing up some of the misconceptions that the headline creates as well as at providing some of the contextual information, which is missing from the article, even though it is important for an understanding of what the controversy is all about.
To begin with the headline is misleading because it is not the push for the anti-racism bill that has created the rift (such as it is, on which more below) but the conservative prime minister's decision to kill it. The bill in question was meant to ensure that Greece aligned itself with the European Union's human rights standards and to combat the dangerous rise of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, whose paramilitary units have been attacking and terrorizing immigrants throughout the country. The Greek minister of justice, therefore, prepared this bill on behalf of the governing coalition, only to find out at the last minute that the conservative party, which is the largest party within the coalition, had changed its mind. The reason for this change of heart is both a fear, on the part of conservatives, that they might lose even more voters to the rising Golden Dawn party if they did not adopt a hard-line stance against immigrants and the hope that, by pandering to the xenophobic and racist impulses of Golden Dawn's voters, they might convince these voters to come back to the conservative party that many of them had supported in the past.
Secondly, the article's reference to a rift is somewhat exaggerated, as is the claim that the decision of the two smaller coalition partners to send the bill to the parliament amounted to an act of defiance towards the conservative prime minister. In practical terms the decision of the two parties to send the bill to the parliament does not mean much, since, given the numbers in the parliamentary committee that would have to vet the bill first, it is not clear that the bill would ever be presented to the full body of the Greek parliament for a vote. If there was a vote in the Greek parliament, of course, the conservatives might find themselves in the embarrassing position of openly aligning themselves with Golden Dawn and, to the extent that's the case, the move by the smaller coalition partners does put some pressure on the conservative prime minister to reconsider. However, it is clear that the two smaller coalition partners have decided not to put maximum pressure on the prime minister because they have made it clear that they would not withdraw their support for the government because of this disagreement.
In this sense, this controversy has less to do with principle than it has to do with narrow political calculation. Just as the conservatives want to pander to Golden Dawn voters, the smaller coalition partners, the Socialist party and the Democratic Left party, want to combat the growing impression that they have no independent voice over government policy, having in effect given carte blanche to a prime minister that is moving the conservative party more and more to the right. The socialists, in particular, which had dominated Greek political life for decades, have seen their support in the polls plunge yet again, so their attempt to differentiate themselves from the conservatives is an integral component of their ongoing struggle for political survival.
In any case, the fact that the anti-racist bill was meant to implement European human rights standards in Greece suggests that there is a battle going on in Greece, which is not, as mainstream media would like to believe, between the pro-austerity supporters of Europe, on one side, and the anti-austerity enemies of Europe, on the other. As the discussion above makes clear, all the pro-austerity forces show greater allegiance for the Europe of neoliberal austerity than the Europe of enlightenment values and human rights. If there is a voice in Greece for European enlightenment values, one has to look for it not in the pro-austerity coalition but within the ranks of the anti-austerity left. Thus, despite its probably small implications for government stability in Greece, the controversy over the Greek anti-racism bill illustrates the fact that how the capitalist crisis becomes resolved will determine whether the European project that emerges out of the current crisis is one of neoliberal capitalist policies coupled with racism and anti-enlightenment values, on one side, or one of social justice coupled with human rights for all, on the other.
Costas Panayotakis is Associate Professor of Sociology at CUNY's New York City College of Technology and author of Remaking Scarcity: From Capitalist Inefficiency to Economic Democracy (Pluto Press).