As Greece questions its identity ‘the only thing uniting us is conflict’

Greek Letter: amid ever greater political uncertainty, what it means to be Greek is up for debate

Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras (second from right) is calling for immediate elections in Greece. Photograph: Reuters/Alkis Konstantinidis

Greek people are inured to uncertainty. The Greek word abebaios means "without a foundation, unsafe". It suggests that uncertainty emanates from a lack of structure in the Greek world. Question marks settle themselves on almost all social issues.

Perhaps only those who have emigrated and – with spectacular success in some cases – made new lives elsewhere, found something more certain.

All this is by way of a preamble to the fact that Greece hasn't known this degree of uncertainty for many years.

Of course, some things are certain: the economic situation and all the hardship it has entailed. But no one seems to know what to do about it. The entire issue of a “Greek identity” is up for debate. What does it mean to be Greek? To come from a quiet, rural, inward-looking state into the current chaos of the EU in which it is expected to be European and yet at the same time retain its Greekness?


Was Greece ever ready to join the EU? Was it necessary to adopt the euro? Did it deal appropriately with the eurocrats when the bailout crisis loomed? These may be political and, above all, economic issues. But at heart Greeks are wondering – and have been wondering for at least the past century – what westernisation and modernisation would really mean. And no one has come up with an answer.

Dramatic shift

The recent elections have shown, as in most of the EU, a dramatic shift in perceptions, especially on the part of Eurosceptics: nation state and national identity versus wholesale integration. While a shift to the right has characterised France, Denmark and Austria, in Greece the success of Syriza, the anti-bailout, left-wing opposition party, was even more pronounced than was predicted in polls.

Prime minister Antonis Samaras of New Democracy (ND) hoped the May elections would endorse the coalition’s economic policies. Syriza correctly predicted that they would do the opposite.

While the parties were neck-and-neck in the opinion polls at 21 per cent, Syriza ended up taking 26.5 per cent to ND's 23.5 per cent. Coalition partner Pasok managed a last-minute resurgence from a miserable 3 per cent in the polls to 8 per cent on the day, reflecting the fact that the centrality of Pasok to the fate of Greece over the past 30 years remains a fixture in the hearts, if not the minds, of many Greeks. Sentiment, not realism, has shored up the coalition for a few more months, perhaps. A vote for more uncertainty.

Greece had a fragile coalition before the elections, with conservative ND and socialist Pasok clinging to the slimmest of majorities. Today, that coalition seems even more unsteady. A general election now would see Syriza as the largest party, capable of forming a new-look coalition.

Of the 21 new Greek MEPs, six are Syriza, five ND, three Golden Dawn (fascists), one Pasok, two from the new Potami (river) party and two Communists.

The fact that one of these Syriza MEPs is 91-year-old Manolis Gletzos who as a teenager removed the Nazi flag from the Acropolis, is a sign not only of his continuing protest against fascism but also of the electorate’s wish to indicate that some values transcend and outlive the mundanities of party politics. The election of the captain of Greece’s triumphant 2004 European Championship soccer team is another: populist in the best sense of the word.


I wrote last month that Europe was less important than local issues in Greece. Despite these European election results, the vote was not so much anti-Europe as anti-austerity, anti-government, anti-complacency. Reform begins at home, not in Brussels, as so many of Europe’s results have shown.

If Manolis Gletzos climbs the flagpole in Strasbourg and pulls down the EU flag, he’d be showing his pride in Greekness, rather than his disillusion with Europe.

Lack of appropriate, effective structure in Greek life is at the root of the uncertainties that face Greeks every day of their lives. As leading journalist Nikos Konstandaras said last year, “the only thing that unites us is conflict.”

Syriza's leader Alexis Tsipras is calling for immediate elections. Knowing that the prime minister is unlikely to agree, Syriza has in effect said that the coalition can only stagger on with Syriza's support.

One thing seems certain in the middle of all this confusion: a new president has to be elected next February, and this cannot be achieved without a parliamentary majority which depends on Syriza’s support.

The succession to Karolos Papoulias – a very fine, balanced president – may be the catalyst (a great Greek word) that makes a general election inevitable. Watch this space.