Austerity takes toll on cradle of democracy

Greece Letter: Extremism is fast becoming a political default in this humiliated country

The extreme right Golden Dawn party is still not yet the overwhelming popular choice, but may have a very significant stake in the next parliament, with 14 per cent of the vote in current opinion polls. Photograph: Yannis Behrakis/Reuters

The extreme right Golden Dawn party is still not yet the overwhelming popular choice, but may have a very significant stake in the next parliament, with 14 per cent of the vote in current opinion polls. Photograph: Yannis Behrakis/Reuters

Wed, Sep 18, 2013, 01:00

Given the low opinion held by most citizens of their political leaders, and of international institutions such as the EU and IMF, it’s astonishing that we seem to cling to the concept of democracy – especially in Greece, where the word was invented – to describe government of the people by the people. Today it’s all up for questioning, including the composition of the nation state.

There is a significant gap between our faith in the concept of democracy and our suspicion of the democratic process which produces people we cannot trust. A mismatch between the ideal and the real, including the operation of the civil service, the clientelist system and the passing of parliamentary seats from father to son – or daughter – a not unknown phenomenon in Ireland.

Do we distrust our fellow citizens because we fear that, as soon as elected, they will turn into powermongers, the political equivalent of werewolves or Frankenstein’s monster? In Greece we have a democratically elected parliament and a government appointed under the terms of the constitution, rejected and abhorred by the vast majority of voters.


Extremism
Plutocracy, oligarchy, autocracy, monarchy (all words with Greek roots) have their supporters, and even fascism (definitely not of Greek origin) has a hold in modern Greece (as reported in last month’s letter) although, as the third largest political party in the opinion polls, Golden Dawn is still not yet the overwhelming popular choice, but may have a very significant stake in the next parliament, with 14 per cent of the vote in current opinion polls.

But there is another Greek term gathering momentum today: anarchisddm. Many citizens, disenchanted with the political system which they regard as having failed the state, have turned their backs on politics and, instead, advocate lawlessness and, at its most extreme, tearing down political and social structures by terrorist means. The group Conspiracy of the Cells of Fire (one of the most successful) describes its mission as “urban guerrilla warfare”.

I am surprised that the Greek indignados (who made such a dignified, peaceful process in Athens’ Constitution Square for many weeks in 2011) have not re-emerged during the latest crisis; some of them are merely disenchanted with all forms of protest, but I expect that many, more aggressive types, are actively pursuing the anarchist option.

At one end of the spectrum is the fascist Golden Dawn, burning synagogues and mosques and beating up migrants and gays; at the other are the various terrorist groups, the latest of which calls itself Untamed Desires, which sounds more like the title of a porno movie than a bunch of arsonists and bombers attacking civil servants, lawmakers and judges.

But it is not only domestic affairs that are infuriating the Greeks. In June, the International Monetary Fund, which has led the EU-IMF troika in imposing austerity measures on Greece in exchange for massive bailouts, admitted that errors had been made in the original package of loans and payback. They got it wrong.

They miscalculated the effects of austerity measures and did not realise that many of the conditions imposed (such as privatisations and reduction in the number of public servants) were incapable of being implemented. And the result? A much deeper and longer recession than expected, with 27 per cent unemployed overall and, among young people, a whopping 60-65 per cent.

Meanwhile, two other developments have either encouraged or disheartened Greeks. At the end of July, vice-president of the European Commission Viviane Reding from Luxembourg (itself no great admirer of the EU), suggested that it might be time for the troika to pull out of Greece. “European citizens do not trust the troika, and they are right,” she said, calling for public service dismissals to be debated openly in the European Parliament. Concerning young people she said: “We cannot afford to lose this generation.” And she wasn’t talking just about Greece.

But almost at the same time leaks from Germany indicated that a third bailout for Greece will be necessary in the new year, a fact that German chancellor Angela Merkel is trying desperately to sweep under the carpet in the run-up to this month’s elections. German opposition to another bailout is trenchant and could lose her the election.

So what are Greeks to do? Shout “Hurrah!” because an EU commissioner says Greece has suffered enough, or shoot themselves because it looks as if more austerity is on the way?

If the existing measures are “unbearable” – to use the IMF’s word – and more taxes and pay cuts are on the way to pay for the third bailout, it is unsurprising that young people – many of whom are highly qualified, but unable to find jobs of any kind – are being recruited into anarchist groups who state baldly that they are “very angry and don’t have anything to hope for”.