Why Closing Down Greek Public Broadcasting Could Throw the Country Into Political Crisis

People walk past graffiti in central Athens on June 17, 2013.
People walk past graffiti in central Athens on June 17, 2013.

Photo by Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images

Remember Greece? That most troubled of eurozone economies could end up back on the international front burner soon thanks to a brewing political crisis over the country’s public broadcaster.

The country is governed right now by an awkward grand coalition that seeks to exclude parties of the far left and far right while implementing the Troika’s austerity demands. And the country’s prime minister has rather suddenly announced plans to close the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation, a move that threatens to tear the coalition apart.

The basic issue here is that Greek politics very much has a patronage network structure reminiscent of the big city machines of the pre–World War II United States. The idea was to win power and then reward your supporters with government jobs. So conducting an all-party austerity drive can get awkward. So far awkwardness has been avoided by having zero public-sector layoffs. All that sky-high Greek unemployment you’ve read about has come from people losing jobs in the private sector. That’s clearly not a sustainable dynamic, and including public sector job losses in the package is a necessary part of the program. But in a patronage politics system, nothing is so simple as organizing a few layoffs. It’s very much a question of whose ox gets gored, and unilateral moves of this sort undermine the whole basis of the coalition.

Being a junior partner in a coalition whose mandate is to implement an unpopular austerity program isn’t a very appealing proposition. The reason you do it is to make sure you can protect your supporters’ core interests. Cutting public broadcasting jobs seems perfectly defensible on the merits, but unless it’s part of some broader measure in which everyone’s ox gets gored, there’s no reason for the coalition’s other members to go along with it. And if they pull out, that’ll mean new elections and a renewed risk that no majority can be found to implement the Troika program.