I wonder if, against a backdrop of tortuous talks aimed at
forming a coalition government, thousands of Greeks gathered in Syntagma Square and chanted slogans against their politicians, tussled with police who tried to protect them and let their frustration get the better of them, there would be the same negative reaction abroad as there usually is when there are protests in front of Parliament. This week’s extraordinary events must have made it clear to international observers who should really be the target of their derision.
As PASOK, New Democracy and others labor to achieve a deal for an interim government, we are witnesses to the final days of a bankrupt political system. Parties that had been vehicles for personal advancement at the expense of broader interests are now trying to combat the deeply ingrained need to serve themselves so they can save the country.
If Prime Minister George Papandreou and New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras, and maybe others, manage to strike a deal to form a short-term government of national unity it may be just enough to prevent a disorderly default, exit from the eurozone and departure from the European Union. However, in creating an interim administration, Greece’s politicians will simply be doing what voters have been telling them for the last two years, which is to find a way to work together.
Opinion polls have consistently shown that people’s faith in political parties – the channel through which jobs were gained and public contracts won during the previous three decades – has been deeply eroded. Two polls published by newspapers this Sunday indicate that well over half of Greeks would support the idea of a unity government. But this is hardly a new development: go back and look at most opinion polls conducted over the last 18 months and you’ll see that there was strong support for some kind of coalition government to steer Greece through this crisis. Take the Public Issue poll conducted for Kathimerini last month – well before Papandreou lit the fuse to blow the crumbling political edifice sky high. It indicated that seven out of 10 Greeks believed neither a PASOK nor a New Democracy government would be capable of tackling Greece’s problems but almost 50 per cent felt that a coalition government involving one of the two parties or both would be the best option for Greece.
In fact, opinion polls suggest that if elections were held tomorrow – as some parties would like – there would be no clear winner, a coalition would have to be formed. Greek voters are displaying the consistency and maturity their politicians have failed to. Their message is that this crisis cannot be tackled through the compromised politics of the past but through at least some degree of cooperation. Even at this 11th hour, their leaders might yet absorb the message but their future has been sealed. They have been exposed as yesterday’s men, counting their political beans while the runaway wagon headed for the cliff.
Perhaps more by luck than design, Papandreou’s leftfield proposal to hold a referendum on the impending eurozone debt deal set in motion a chain of events that led to this denouement. Suddenly, politicians were stirred by the prospect that Greece’s membership of the eurozone and the European Union was coming to an end and that their next task would be to rebuild the country from the ashes of a bankruptcy. Samaras dropped his resistance to the new bailout, albeit with some caveats, while Cabinet ministers and PASOK MPs threatened to topple Papandreou if he carried through with a referendum that he seemed destined to lose.
Papandreou, the joker in Greece’s dog-eared political pack, was not done, though. Despite the pressure from his party, he attempted to dodge the commitment to initiate coalition talks and then stand aside. This was an act of self-interest and self-preservation too far. Even those within the crumbling system realized it and it now looks as if Papandreou is on his way out. His wavering was matched by Samaras’s petulant reaction before and after Friday’s confidence vote. New Democracy’s boycotting of the debate and its leader’s curt statement demanding elections afterwards were hardly the maturity demanded by the critical circumstances. Saturday’s exchange of pointless statements between the two, confirmed to the watching world and desperate Greek public that these were just two boys unwilling to let go of their toys.
The one blessing of this frantic week has been that the pathogeny of Greek politics has been laid bare. Until recently, for many people abroad this crisis was caused by the lazy Greeks, the corrupt Greeks, the Greeks who don’t pay their taxes and the Greeks who retire at 50. The Greek people are not blameless but perhaps now the world has a better idea of where to locate the roots of this country’s problems: in the backyards of decision makers who shirked their responsibilities, who ruled for their own benefit and who always took the easy options. How ironic that these men and women now have to make the toughest decision they could have imagined, one which could decide if Greece stumbles toward salvation or if it will tumble into oblivion.