The tragedy of Greece's struggle to survive will affect us all


LETTER FROM GREECE:The general election has been a referendum on economic situation and its consequences

I AM sometimes asked why Irish readers should be concerned over the fate of the Greeks. Quite apart from the similarities in the depression of the two countries, Peter Murtagh’s recent reports from Athens in this paper vividly indicated the extent of the collapse of Greek society on both macro and micro levels. This has repercussions for Ireland.

The reasons for needing to know about Greece are threefold.

Firstly, the fact that we are all within the EU – at least for the present – means we do not ask for whom the bell tolls: it tolls for us.

Secondly, we need to appreciate that a country considered principally as a two-dimensional holiday destination is actually populated by real people with real lives to lead outside the holiday season: we have severe winters here!

Thirdly, Greece gave us concepts such as “democracy”, “economy”, “philosophy”, “aesthetics”, “semantics”, and, admittedly, “plutocracy” and “kleptocracy” – in fact, about one-third of our vocabulary. That it should lose its sovereignty, its status, even its attraction as a holiday magnet, is a matter for all of us to regret and to recognise we can do nothing about it.

And – here is the real tragedy – neither can the Greeks.

The public suicide last month of Dimitris Christoulas, a 77-year-old pharmacist (he shot himself in the head outside the Greek parliament), shocked Greece. His daughter described it as a “political act”, while one observer, speaking on television, called it “political murder” on the part of government.

Whatever his ideological allegiance, there was no doubting his sincerity – his decision was the final, dignified act of protest against a system that had completely alienated him. It was this which resonated through every Greek mind.

This man’s death should have been at the forefront of every politician’s mind during the election, should have focused attention on what it represents in terms of the frustration, indignation and despair of the vast majority of citizens who voted for those politicians, or didn’t vote at all, on May 6th.

In the village where I live, election fever was precisely that: heightened beyond anything I have seen before, fuelled by fear of the unknown. There were mixed feelings about both Pasok and New Democracy (ND) – sorrow that the former, which had seemed to protect all interests, had incurred debts which the country cannot sustain, and scepticism over the prevarication of ND leader Antonis Samaras. No one was sure what the centre parties were offering. Indeed, the curious fact about this ballot is that it was an election without promises, except for the far-right and far-left.

Samaras had only a short time to form a government, and indeed gave up trying after a few hours. The task rests for now with the far-left Syriza, which pushed Pasok into third place in the polls. If Syriza fails it will be the turn of Evangelos Venizelos, leader of Pasok. In the event no government emerges, the president can call for a government of national unity – an unlikely outcome. On election night, the leader of Democratic Left, the most likely coalition partner, ruled out that possibility. Syriza, the communists and the right-wing Independent Greeks are equally improbable, as is the neo-fascist Golden Dawn which, with 7 per cent, wins 22 seats.

There is consternation the two parties in the last government might regain power, despite the fact their combined vote fell by more than half, from 76 per cent to less than 33 per cent.

The most likely scenario, it seems to me, is a minority government of New Democracy and Pasok, supported on each vote by different parties, depending on the issues, heading to fresh elections, most likely before the autumn. Another possible scenario is a coalition that could succeed in renegotiating the terms of the bailout; another is a default, exit from the euro zone and perhaps a military coup.

The chief of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Athens, Poul Thomsen, has been contemptuous of Greece’s efforts to fulfil the bailout conditions, and in the run-up to the election he made blatant attempts to influence the outcome by demanding a stable coalition capable of implementing the changes that he himself has largely prescribed.

With the two bailouts merely stabilising the country’s ability to repay its debts, but having no effect on the ever-deepening recession, the usefulness of the EU and IMF aid is seriously in question as far as ordinary life is concerned. This election or, more likely, the next, will decide the direction of Greek affairs for decades, and will probably change the character of Greek politics. It is not merely about whether Greece will sink or swim in economic terms, but whether it can survive as a polity.

On April 24th, the governor of the Bank of Greece, made it clear how serious the situation was, calling for “fundamental qualitative change” in “the values and attitudes that shape our behaviour”, and predicting, otherwise, “an irreparable break-up of social cohesion” and “a drastic deterioration in the standard of living”.

In effect, this election has been a referendum on the economic situation and its consequences, and with very little clarity in the outcome. In one sense, those who voted for the fringe parties were throwing away their vote; in another, they were registering their disillusion.

The fragmentation of parliament has caused a political vortex. Will it drag everyone downwards, or will a new sense of destiny emerge?