Greek tradition of acrimony revived as austerity bites

 

Workers are taking to the streets and political consensus is fading, writes John Psaropoulosin Athens

THE POLITICAL atmosphere in Greece is turning acrimonious. A strike being declared today by Greece’s largest umbrella unions intends to send the socialist government a message that its austerity plan is putting too much pain on labour.

Greece has committed itself to slashing its deficit by four percentage points this year, to 8.7 per cent of GDP. The government has cut the public wage bill by 4-6 per cent and imposed higher taxes on petrol, alcohol and tobacco.

A strike earlier this month by the civil servants’ union alone was a damp squib. About 1 per cent of the union’s official membership showed up on the streets. Now, it has teamed up with the General Confederation of Labour, GSEE, which represents the private sector. Together the two claim to speak for three million of Greece’s 4.5 million-strong labour force.

The effectiveness of the union action remains to be seen. Despite the fact that more belt-tightening is expected, two-thirds of Greeks are polled as supporting the government policy as inevitable if Greece is to regain the trust of international money markets.

Also clouding the horizon is a parliamentary committee of inquiry the socialists have called to examine financial mismanagement under the conservatives during the past six years. This has led conservative New Democracy to abandon its consensual approach on the economy, and begin to distance itself from government policy. Last week it issued a list of development actions it feels should accompany the fiscal belt-tightening to prevent the economy from being flattened.

Conservative leader Antonis Samaras went on to deliver a fiery speech to his party’s congress, stealing the socialist pre-election message of hope over adversity.

The government’s response has been to escalate the tension further. The government spokesman said on Monday that “we realised yet again how much hypocrisy there is in the words of the leadership and members of New Democracy”.

Samaras warned that the committee’s findings will further humiliate Greece abroad and undermine faith in politicians at home.

Deputy prime minister Theodoros Pangalos called Samaras’s warnings “nonsense”.

In December 2004, before they had completed a year in power and just after the Athens Olympics was out of the way, the conservatives launched a parliamentary committee of inquiry into socialist defence procurements that went nowhere. The socialists are now doing the same. This reciprocity seems to confirm that Greek politics will continue to enshrine the traditional acrimony that has bedevilled attempts at long-term policymaking in Greece for decades.