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Another Type of European Democracy: The Emergence of Modern Greece

How clientelism became a way of life in Greece.

July 13, 2019

How clientelism became a way of life in Greece.

Editor’s Note: Kyriakos Mitsotakis has been given a mandate by Greek voters to move their country forward.
Just how large the challenge for the new prime minister and the country really is becomes apparent when one delves into the incisive, three-part series by Heinz Richter.

Moving through the centuries, he outlines the challenges, especially concerning corruption as well as deeply ingrained cultural factors standing in the way of good governance.

At the same time, Mr. Mitsotakis by background is quite ideally prepared to take on these challenges. One can only hope that the new government will succeed with its ambitious agenda.

Heinz Richter’s series of articles on Greece was originally published on June 18, 19 and 20, 2015. The author, from the University of Mannheim, is an expert of modern Greek history and politics.

Key findings:

1. There is a difference between the political cultures of Greece and those of Western Europe.

2. The European principle of separation of Church and State has never been fully realized in Greece.

3. Greek voters do not vote for a party, but against that party which did not do them the expected favor during the previous term.

In 1943, the head of the British Military Mission to the Greek partisans, Brigadier C. E. Myers, groaned in exasperation about Greek politics: “The Greeks are Asiatic. One cannot judge them by European standards.”

Despite the fact that this statement is factually wrong, it points to a difference between the political cultures of Greece and those of Western Europe.

After the Greek financial crisis broke out in late spring 2010, European leaders of today demonstrated that they did not have the slightest idea how the Greek political system functions.

This brings us to the question of the real difference between the Greek and “European” political culture.

The key difference, of pivotal importance today, stems from the fact that the Balkan countries that were located outside the Hapsburg monarchy were never part of the European Roman Catholic sphere.

The Ottoman occupation of Greece began in 1453 when Constantinople fell. It lasted for 400 years.

As Ottoman provinces, Greece and the other Balkan countries did not experience the subsequent periods of European history: Renaissance, Reformation, Counter-Reformation, Absolutism, Rationalism, Enlightenment and Bourgeois Revolution. For 400 years, time – in a Western sense of gradual progress – almost stood still.

In Greece, the centuries of Ottoman occupation nevertheless led to deep changes. One of the first measures undertaken by the conquerors was the eradication of the respective ruling oligarchy, i.e., the aristocracy. The purpose of that move was to deprive the subjected people of their leadership, thus precluding potential insurrections.

Leaders as guardians and oppressors

The surviving local notables slowly obtained a double function. On the one hand, they became the leaders and guardians of the local population. On the other hand, despite their elevated status, they were turned into objects of Ottoman repression if something went wrong within the sphere of their responsibility.

They protected the locals from the Ottoman overlords, thus gaining prestige and power in their eyes. As a quid pro quo, they expected loyalty from their local wards.

Over time, these notables became rich because their position and wealth acquired through their positions enabled them to obtain even more powerful positions. They ultimately became usurers.

This was, of course, less honest than the original idea of interceding selflessly on behalf of their weaker co-villagers. However, money-lending proved to be a more solid basis for reaping personal benefits from the growing dependency of the peasant on the patron.

This patron-client structure, called the muhtar system, existed all over the Ottoman Empire. In Greece’s case, it is the basis of today’s system of clientelism. It manifests itself via the protection of certain groups, including via hiring unneeded staff for the public sector.

What about the role of the Christian Orthodox church during this period of Greek history? Its influence increased, largely because it contributed to the preservation of the Greek identity.

On the other hand, the church collaborated with the Ottomans collecting taxes for the Porte, the central government of the Ottoman Empire.

The European principle of separation of Church and State functions has never been fully realized in Greece. The Greek Church has remained attached to state power.

Beginnings of clientelism

When the Greek struggle for independence began two centuries ago, in 1821, these clientelistic structures were the only existing core of political organization. No surprise then that, during the independence struggle, these structures grew, both horizontally and vertically.

Refined clientelistic networks came into being. When the struggle was over, clientelism became a system of government: When King Otto came to Greece in 1832, there was no other governmental structure.

He could not run the country with the help of a handful of Bavarian civil servants, but had to rely on the existing clientelistic networks for ruling the country. By taking over civil administrative responsibilities, the patrons gained access to the money of the state.

This episode was only the first instance where foreign powers either bought into the system of clientelism – or where they failed to transform the system away from it.

In this period, clientelism assumed a new character. Until then, the relationship between client and patron had been more or less on a voluntary basis, guided by the pursuit of a mutual advantage.

It now became a means of coercion to integrate the individual into society, which in itself is a laudable goal.

However, after the Ottoman power monopoly had vanished, the patrons also began to meddle in politics. They quickly learned that the clientelistic system could be used for political purposes.

The patrons used their political position and power to accord favors (so-called rousfetia) to their clients. They did so largely by stealing money that belonged to the state. In return, they expected their clients to vote for them in elections.

Western European influence begins

At first, the new Greek state was a European protectorate and the new “Greek” King was a kind of viceroy by grace of the big European powers of the time. At that moment, Greece had, in effect, become a European client state.

The European powers exerted their influence by arranging their adherents organized into “parties” which were in reality clientelistic networks.

In a nutshell, there were three “parties,” the Russian, English and French – Greece’s “troika” of that time period.

In 1862, however, Britain installed a new dynasty and, from then on, the Greek kings were British viceroys and Greece became a British client state or protectorate.

From that moment on, the actions of Greek kings and politicians were guided by one simple maxim: “What does the foreign factor wish?”


Balkan countries outside the Hapsburg monarchy were never part of Europe’s Roman Catholic sphere.

The European principle of separation of Church and State has never been fully realized in Greece.

Ottoman patron-client structure still manifests itself in Greece via protection of certain groups.

Clientelism in Greece became a means of coercion to integrate the individual into society.