Summer of discontent looms as coalition offers more of the same


LETTER FROM GREECE: Syriza’s campaign showed that many voters want to be Greek on Greek terms

IN GREECE, unlike Ireland, there is a 15-day moratorium on publication of opinion polls before an election. In the run-up to elections on June 17th, the Radical Left (Syriza) was running neck and neck with New Democracy (ND) for first place, but was expected to take the lead with 30 per cent of the vote.

In the outcome, during that silent fortnight, Syriza slipped to below 27 per cent while ND just held its pole position on 29 per cent.

Right up to polling day, the outcome was in the balance, but in the absence of opinion polls the situation was extremely unclear. By continuing to conduct unpublishable surveys, the pollsters knew that Syriza’s support was slipping.

The result came as a shock to the majority of voters, who were expecting a Syriza-led, anti- austerity, anti-bailout government that would have revolutionised Greek politics.

In rural areas, such as the village in which I live on the Ionian island of Corfu, Syriza garnered a surprising 33 per cent, due in part to villagers’ desperate belief that, despite the probable consequences – exit from the euro and further financial destitution – an anti-austerity, anti-bailout government was preferable to “more of the same” from a ND-Pasok coalition.

But “more of the same”, with ND-Pasok joined by Democratic Left, is what they got: continuing austerity and an ongoing debate with Brussels as to how the bailout might be renegotiated – mainly a longer repayment period and a closer look at the viability of conditions such as the sale of state assets.

Before the election, ND and Pasok leaders had pledged a renegotiation of the EU deal, but are now drawing back from that pledge in the face of intransigence from, among others, Germany’s Angela Merkel. Despite ND’s and Pasok’s commitment to the bailout memorandum, it is still uncertain whether Greece can sustain the burden and remain within the euro zone.

Meanwhile, Greece’s major industry – tourism – is in trouble, with a drop in bookings of 15-20 per cent. Many resort hotels didn’t even bother to open until late June (at least a month later than usual), while in many of Corfu’s resorts such as Ipsos and Barbati, about a third of bars and tavernas (including Ipsos’s two Irish bars) remain shut since last year and will not be reopening.

Tourism accounts for 20 per cent of GDP and 20 per cent of the workforce (much higher in niche markets such as Corfu, Rhodes and Crete), but is under threat from competition in Croatia and Turkey.

To lose 20 per cent of annual revenue in this sector would have a knock-on effect on the economy in general – and budgets to promote tourism have been sharply slashed as a result of the crisis.

While Brussels and Germany berate Greece for its failure to deal with the crisis, few, with the exception of Nobel economics laureate Paul Krugman, see the problem the other way around.

As he put it, “the origins of this disaster lie further north, in Brussels, Frankfurt and Berlin, where officials created a deeply – perhaps fatally – flawed monetary system, then compounded the problems of that system by substituting moralising for analysis.”

It is this perspective – that the euro was ill-conceived – that fuelled Syriza and the appeal of its leader, Alexis Tsipras. While Tsipras would have been a problematic prime minister and is now settling comfortably into his role as leader of the opposition, he did articulate Greek fears that there is a fundamental difference between the way business is conducted north and south, and thus a difference in the way the economy and social services are run.

If Syriza’s nearly successful campaign did nothing else, it showed that a substantial percentage of voters want to be Greek on Greek terms, rather than on terms dictated by the IMF-ECB-EU troika.

Unfortunate and misguided comments by the IMF’s Christine Lagarde, some of which had to be withdrawn, added to the resentment at external interference.

Basic facts and problems cannot be denied: the public service is overloaded, but how can 100,000 jobs be shed in the immediate future? “Bribery” and “corruption” are used almost indifferently in the same breath, but actually indicate different types of systemic failure within the public and private sectors.

Most state assets are regarded as unsaleable. Opap, the betting monopoly, is profitable, so why sell it? The railways allegedly lose €1 million a day, but it’s rumoured that the Chinese would buy them for almost exclusively freight usage.

The old Athens airport – a huge seaside site – is up for grabs, but there is disagreement as to whether it should be turned (as promised by a previous government) into an urban park (not much money in parks) or, as one developer proposed, a Monaco-type tax haven.

Perhaps the Greek dilemma is best illustrated by the fact the veteran socialist and author, Vassilis Vassilikos, stood for election for Democratic Left, even though, as he acknowledges, he doesn’t know today where socialism or the left really stand.

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