Category Archives: Greece

Coalition unwound

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis for Cartoon Movement http://www.cartoonmovement.com/p/6035

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis for Cartoon Movement http://www.cartoonmovement.com/p/6035

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras marked one year in the job on Friday by becoming the leader of what was effectively Greece’s fifth government in four years after Democratic Left’s decision to drop out of the coalition left his New Democracy party and PASOK as the two that remained from a previous partnership of three. The dire economic situation, the pressure of its lenders and the historical absence of consensus politics in Greece meant it was always going to be a challenging job. Samaras enters the second year of his premiership on an equally shaky footing.

Democratic Left’s departure had been in the making for some time. The three parties that formed the coalition in June 2012 did so knowing that Greece had been balancing on the precipice but their intention of moving the country to safer ground soon lost its potential to drive this three-wheeled vehicle on. Beyond securing Greece’s place in the euro and rebuilding trust with the skeptical troika, there was no grand, or even less pronounced, vision to spur the coalition’s efforts. As the drachma risk faded and lenders were placated, so the three-party government’s raison d’etre dissolved. It was replaced by friction fuelled by each party’s desire to stake its claim to any positive development and distance itself from anything negative. As the stardust was blown away, the political and ideological splits were revealed.

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Happy anniversary. How about a reform?

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis http://www.cartoonmovement.com/p/6035

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis http://www.cartoonmovement.com/p/6035

It is one year to the day since Greece held its second general election in two months and third in three years. What better way to celebrate the occasion than trying to relive the uncertainty and tension we experienced during the summer of 2012? The leaders of Greece’s three coalition parties go into a meeting this evening with the future of their government less secure than it has been at any point during the 12 months. The cause of their dispute suggests that even if this crisis is overcome, deeper problems lie ahead.

The spark that threatens to burn the house down is the closure of public broadcaster ERT. Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, who ordered the shutdown, suggested over the weekend that the bigger picture in this standoff is that he is a reformer and the others, both in his government and in opposition, are not. But what does he really mean by reform?

His justification for closing ERT was that it was overstaffed, too expensive and a source of corruption. Greece needs a more modern broadcaster, along the lines of the BBC, it has been suggested. All of these things may be true to a greater or lesser extent but there has been no attempt by the government to back this up with any substance, just the standard smattering of platitudes.

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ERT: From test card to test case for Greece

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis http://www.cartoonmovement.com/p/6035

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis http://www.cartoonmovement.com/p/6035

Having ploughed on through a number of sticky patches over the last 12 months, it would be more than careless of Greece’s coalition government to sink into the mire due to differences over how to deal with public broadcaster ERT. Yet, a year on from when a second election in June led to the formation of the three-party administration, its future seems less secure than ever.

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’s decision to announce on Tuesday the immediate closure of the state TV and radio service left his coalition partners, Evangelos Venizelos of PASOK and Fotis Kouvelis of Democratic Left, apoplectic and demanding a meeting, which will take place on Monday and could put the administration at risk if a compromise is not found. They had not consented to this move and there had been no debate about it in Parliament. A legislative act was signed only by the ministers from Samaras’s conservative New Democracy party and, after 75 years, the broadcaster went silent.

The problem for Samaras is that the backlash to his decision was rather noisy. ERT employees refused to comply with orders to abandon their posts and continued to broadcast with the help of volunteers who got the broadcaster’s main TV news channel, NET, back on air. Thousands of people gathered outside the service’s headquarters in northeastern Athens and opposition parties condemned the decision. Criticism soon began arriving from journalism federations outside Greece. The European Broadcasting Union (EBU) also labelled the shutdown “a damning first in the history of European Broadcasting.” In a letter to Samaras, 50 director generals of Europe’s public broadcasters said his action was “undemocratic and unprofessional”.

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ERT off air: Thought for the day

erttestcard_390_1106One of the great moments in global radio is BBC Four’s “Thought for the Day.” Greek state broadcaster ERT is one of many that have adopted the format, giving a couple of minutes of airtime on its Second Program to the great and good musing about faith, current affairs and life in general. One can only wonder, though, exactly what the government’s thought for the day was when it decided to shut down ERT and dismiss some 2,700 staff on Tuesday.

There was plenty wrong with ERT, which had long been treated like most other parts of the public sector by successive governments who felt they had supporters to take care of and money to burn. Its 19 regional radio stations speak of an excess that was simply unsustainable. Thessaloniki, a city with 800,000 inhabitants, had three radio stations when Inner London, which has a population of more than 3 million, has only one.

There was also a lot to cherish about ERT, though. It continued to make challenging documentaries when practically nobody else in Greece did. Its stations played music that nobody else would. Even its insistence on sticking with tinny 80s theme tunes for its news and sports shows had a naive charm about it. Most of all, though, it did the job that all national broadcasters should do by being a common reference point for millions. There are few more emotional experiences one can have listening to the radio than hearing Diaspora Greeks cast to the four corners of the earth calling in to a Saturday night show on the Second Program to request Greek songs and share their memories and feelings about the homeland they left behind.

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Consensus, conviction and the anti-racism bill

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

It was fitting that a debate about the late British Prime Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was being held on Monday night in Athens at the same time as Greece’s three coalition leaders were trying to reach a compromise over an anti-racism bill. Since Thatcher was a self-professed opponent of consensus and saw herself as a “conviction politician,” she may have been smiling down as the heads of the tripartite government failed to find common ground.

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras certainly presented himself as a leader with convictions when he took over New Democracy following the party’s disastrous showing in the 2009 general elections. Although less than four years have passed since then, it seems like light years away. Samaras has since had to shed many of his convictions, going from anti-memorandum crusader, to peacemaker with the troika and now standard bearer for fiscal adjustment. Greece’s economic plight and the endless capacity for the country’s substandard political system to tie itself into knots led the conservative leader down the path of compromise. Here, perhaps Thatcher’s statement that compromise “seems to be the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies” is particularly apt.

There is, however, one thing that Samaras did not abandon, which is his apparent persuasion that New Democracy, and perhaps Greece, can be revived by appealing to the conservative streak that runs through the country. Faithfulness to tradition, religion, the nation and the armed forces are notions that can rally Greeks and unite enough of the population behind a cause to follow, Samaras seems to believe.

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