Greeks approach election feeling angry, helpless and betrayed
LETTER FROM GREECE: Not since the fall of the military junta in 1974 has there been such turmoil in Greece
THE CHINESE curse, “May you live in interesting times”, might have been coined with the Greek people in mind. Not since the fall of the military junta in 1974 has there been such turmoil and uncertainty. It’s not physical turmoil (although there have been mild fisticuffs in my local bar) but conceptual, as voters prepare for the next elections on June 17th, following the totally inconclusive ballot last month.
There is a series of dichotomies (after all, the Greeks invented the word). On one hand, in the bigger picture, is the right of the Greeks to self-determination; on the other are Greece’s international obligations, as members of the EU and debtors to the IMF. On one hand, many politicians and technocrats are saying Greece must be changed completely, while on the other Greek people want to go on being Greek.
The greatest dilemma is the fact that Syriza (Radical Left) may well top the polls, having pushed Pasok into third place last month. Current predictions have Syriza at 27-30 per cent, with New Democracy (ND) on 23-27 per cent and Pasok limping badly on 12-15 per cent. Topping the poll on 30 per cent would give Syriza 90 seats, plus a bonus of 50 – a total of 140, just 11 seats short of an overall majority. Syriza’s leader, Alexis Tsipras, the new kid on the block, wants to repudiate Greece’s debts, reverse the austerity measures and nationalise the banks, yet – and here’s another dichotomy – he wants to stay in the euro, which might be fiscally impossible.
In a recent opinion poll, only 13 per cent wanted a return to the Pasok-ND coalition, which accepted the austerity measures and bailout conditions. All other parties are, to one degree or another, opposed to austerity which threatens to deepen and increase the rate of recession. Even Pasok and ND have indicated that the bailout memorandum could be renegotiated, but in many quarters this is seen as a desperate election ploy to woo back the voters who took their votes to the smaller parties and boosted Syriza so spectacularly – especially younger voters who see little prospect of jobs in the foreseeable future. The confusion is compounded by the fact that 85-90 per cent of voters want to stay in the euro, but over 60 per cent are opposed to the bailout.
Pressure from EU figures such as Germany chancellor Angela Merkel is mounting. A recent cartoon in the newspaper Kathimerini showed loudspeakers hectoring the crowd: “Greeks, we can’t govern you due to how you voted, so you will have to go back to the polls until our demands are met.” Merkel has allegedly urged the Greek president to conduct a referendum at the same time as the election. Perhaps she doesn’t realise that that is precisely what the election is: a referendum on the euro versus the drachma, each of which points to economic disaster for years to come, unless some middle road can be found.
Apart from the fact that a victory for Syriza, with Tsipras at its head, would precipitate a European crisis, there is a question mark over his capacity, at 37, to head a government with such responsibilities. His body language is refreshing but at a presidential conference with the leaders of Pasok and ND he appeared naive and ill-at-ease – the brightest boy in the classroom, perhaps, but outclassed in deportment by ND leader Antonis Samaras, who simply looked bored and moody, and Pasok’s Evangelos Venizelos, who smilingly courted the photographers.
The greatest economic obstacles facing any government which adheres to the bailout memorandum are tax reform, selling state assets and slimming down the civil service, while the conceptual problems are reform of the education system, deregulation of the “protected” or closed professions, and elimination of bribery. Yet it is not bribery itself that has to be eradicated but the need for bribery necessitated by the top-heavy bureaucracy where officials accept “fakelaki” (little brown envelopes) to speed up the system.
History repeats itself. The war of independence (1821-1830) was a war for freedom from Turkish rule – in modern terms, a No vote. Today’s “war” is also about a No vote, for freedom from the bailout. No one has an answer to the question of how you cope with freedom once you have won it. Greece cannot lose its history or its culture, but neither of these can offer any clue to the future.
In Greece today people are scared witless of the country’s impending collapse. They can either vote for an anti-bailout government even more emphatically than they did last month, thus bringing down bankruptcy on their heads, or they can go back to the “old reliables”, Pasok and ND (which were only two votes short of a majority on May 6th), thus confirming increasing recession and austerity.
Anger is the dominant way of expressing frustration. Arguments are conducted loudly and acrimoniously, but the general feeling is that people are helpless, betrayed by the two major parties which they lambasted on May 6th. The level of cynicism is astonishing.
Why should my neighbour, an elderly widow, have to pay emergency property tax, a 12 per cent increase in electricity and a doubling in the price of home heating oil, when she had no hand, act or part in the crisis? And could a left-wing, anti-bailout coalition last the course? I don’t think we have seen the end of elections this year.