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Will The Greeks Revolt Against Austerity?

A protestor throws a stone to riot police in front of the Greek Parliament.
Photo: Aris Messinis | AFP | Getty Images
A protestor throws a stone to riot police in front of the Greek Parliament.

Tear gas rises from the square outside of the Greek parliament building.

Protesters vow to keep fighting against the austerity plan just approved by the Greek parliament.

Memories of recent Arab uprisings provide inspiration. If it can happen on the other side of the Mediterranean, why not in Athens?

Revolutoion, however, is unlikely. The Greek regime is probably too robust to fall to anti-austerity zealots.

While there are lots of theories explaining why people rise up and topple their governments, only recently have political scientists developed a persuasive theory predicting revolutions. That theory has been worked out over the years by a team lead by Jack Goldstone of the George Mason School of Public Policy. You can read their latest paper—titled "A Global Model for Forecasting Political Instability"—here.

According to Goldstone and his co-authors, the key factor in predicting political instability is the type of regime that is in charge. Robust democracies led by institutionally constrained executives selected in a competitive and open process are unlikely to fall. There just are too many non-revolutionary escape hatches for serious political unrest to take hold.

“We apply the label strong full democracies to those full democracies that have highly institutionalized and cooperative political competition, and a chief executive who is subordinate to or on par with other government institutions,” Goldstone and others explained in a 2004 paper titled "It's All About State Structure."

Greece has been doing everything right to avoid revolution. The chief executive of its government is the Prime Minister George Papandreou.

His power is constrained by his need to maintain the support of the members of Parliament, who are elected in competitive races between stable political parties. The recent confidence vote demonstrated both an openness to change and political competitiveness, as well as the continued popularity of Papandreou among the political elite.

Even the some times violent street protests may help stave off revolution. Greece has a long tradition of violent protests. These seem to provide an outlet short of revolution for expressing political dissent.

This contrasts starkly with the regimes overthrown in Egypt or Tunisia, where the regimes were far more closed off to political competition.

Incidentally, the Goldstone findings of revolution are not ideological boosterism for democracy. The same kind of political stability enjoyed by strong full democracies also applies to tightly controlled authoritarian regimes. It is the middling democracies and authoritarian regimes that are most likely to fall to revolution.

This, by the way, could explain why the regimes of Egypt and Tunisia fell, while Iran, Syria and Libya have held on: the American influenced governments of Egypt and Tunisia were just open enough to invite revolution. Syria, Libya and Iran were closed enough to avoid it.

So despite revolutionary rhetoric, we’re unlikely to see revolution in Greece.

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