The expression of anguish on President Karolos Papoulias’s face on Friday
spoke of two things. Firstly, of the sadness that an event held ostensibly to
remember the Greeks who fell in the Second World War was canceled for the first time since the tradition began. But more significantly it embodied the
frustration of a political system caught lagging so far behind its people that
the gap seems too wide to bridge.
The abandonment of the October 28 military parade in Thessaloniki was the
result of a number of things but the one that should concern us most is the
chasm that has opened between the rulers and the ruled, as was evident in the
hyperbolic chants of “traitor” aimed at Papoulias. This breakdown is an
indication of how badly Greece’s political system has failed and opens up a
space that could be filled by much darker forces.
Friday’s protest had many fathers and many others who tried to claim
paternity. It was noticeable, for instance, that within minutes of the parade
being canceled, the TV and radio airwaves were dominated by the voices of
politicians from the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS), a party that commanded less than 6 percent of the national vote at the last general elections. For the
nationalists, Friday’s events were like manna from heaven: a sign that tradition
is being cast on the bonfire and the state is turning to ashes. Yet this is the
same party that is the purveyor of populist scuttlebutt that destabilises the
very nation they claim to defend, such as Russia or China being poised to rescue
Greece from bankruptcy out of the goodness of their hearts.
The Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), meanwhile, saw the incident as a
“spontaneous expression” of people’s anger at the austerity measures and their
desire for elections so they can express themselves. The “spontaneity” theory
was slightly undermined by the fact that the protesters were carrying banners
and moved with military precision to stop the parade. The fact that the
demonstrators were from such disparate groups — including soccer fans, former
municipal employees, taxi drivers, nationalists, SYRIZA supporters and members of the general public — suggests each and every one of them had a particular agenda rather than a common cause.
Of course there is one thing that probably does unite them all, which is
their frustration with the current situation. In that sense, Greece is no
different to many other countries that are now experiencing protests against the
status quo. From the Indignados in Spain, the “Occupiers” in the US, the
students in Chile, the demonstrators outside St Paul’s Cathedral in London to
dozens of others around the world, there is an outpouring of feeling against the
unfairness of the current economic system and the unresponsiveness of the
For Greeks, though, there are some specific reasons to express indignation.
The austerity measures adopted by the PASOK government as a response to the debt crisis are pushing the middle classes toward desperation and the poor out of the picture completely. The political system, meanwhile, has insulated itself
against this process by admitting no responsibility for the crisis. Previous
ministers remain unpunished while too many of the current crop of lawmakers are caught up in a battle to cling on to power rather than actually save the country and its people.
One factor that underpins all this, which is that the generation of
politicians that Papoulias represents — that came through the Second World War, the civil war and the military dictatorships — experienced and survived severe injustices only to create an even bigger one. They are the ones who, through weakness of character, economic amateurism and absence of political courage, ensured that Greece became a thoroughly unjust country. If proof of this failure were needed, it came this week when German think tank the Bertelsmann Foundation produced a survey of levels of social justice in members of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Out of 31 countries ranked in the index, Greece ranked 28th, with Turkey in last place. “In both these countries, fair access to education and intergenerational justice (equity in burden-sharing across generations) are particularly underdeveloped,” says the report.
The cause for protest in Greece, therefore, is clear. The question, though,
is what the protests are aimed at. Are they an outburst against politicians that
have ripped up social contracts or an attempt to lay the foundation stone of
something new? “Indignation suggests that some social actors — a government or elites in general — have violated shared norms or moral understandings,” writes Jan-Werner Mueller, an assistant professor of politics at Princeton University. “If so, the people on the squares of Madrid, Athens and New York are not so much demonstrating against those in power — give or take a few anarchists — as demonstrating to those in power that they should feel ashamed for having reneged on supposedly shared commitments.”
This seems to explain the chants of “traitor” at Papoulias and the accusations of betrayal that were leveled at so many other politicians on October 28 and before. If this interpretation is correct, the political system is being given a chance at the 11th hour to understand and channel this frustration. This would require a drastic transformation and the chances of that look slim. One only needs to look at the reaction to the incidents in Thessaloniki to understand how detached from reality the parties are. New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras was content to heap the blame for what he termed “social explosions” exclusively on the government, even though with his next breath he condemned the fact they impeded the military parade. Social explosions are fine, it seems, as long as they are also controlled.
If the political system is not able to use the energy of the protests to fire
its regeneration, then it will have to be the people who shape the landscape.
But this too comes with a huge risk attached. The danger is that we will see the
dominance of what Mueller calls “self-empowered minorities [that] come to speak in the name of imaginary majorities — a populism of sorts, and, like all
populism, driven by emotions more than by norms, let alone reasons.” With some groups, several with deeply vested interests, already pushing an unashamedly populist agenda that includes advocating a return to the drachma as a panacea to current problems, the threat of going down an even more destructive path than the current one is real.
Another worrying alternative is that Greeks, who live in a conservative,
risk-intolerant society, will be driven by fear: fear of breaking ties with this
failed but familiar political system and the tired but tested faces that have
come to represent it. Some within the current system are banking on this,
knowing that it will preserve their power and privileges.
After leaving Friday’s parade, Papoulias called on Greeks to “pause for a
moment and collect our thoughts.” It was perhaps the soundest advice on a day of high drama. The economic, political and social developments of the next few
months will define Greece’s future for decades to come. Somehow, the Greek
people and their politicians have to find a way of moving things forward.
Otherwise, voters’ anger and the political system’s inertia will meet, in which
case, as we found out on October 28, everything grinds to a halt.