Category Archives: Greek politics

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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Greece: A reality check

Petros Giannakouris/Associated Press

Petros Giannakouris/Associated Press

And like that… poof, the crisis is gone. More bailout loans approved by the Eurogroup, a sovereign rating upgrade from Fitch, economic sentiment at the highest it’s been for the last 40 months, the Athens Stock Exchange becoming the best-performing stock market in the European Union and Greek bond yields dropping below 9 percent for the first time since 2010 have helped give the impression Greece has overcome the worst of its problems and that recovery is within touching distance.

This is certainly the story that the government will, understandably, run with. The three parties in the coalition have taken on considerable political cost in sticking with the EU-IMF fiscal adjustment program and their only hope of survival is to convince a large enough section of the Greek population that the chosen path leads from economic catastrophe to stability and then prosperity.

In Athens, there is also a belief, which seems to be shared by decision makers in Brussels, Berlin and elsewhere, that a change in mood alone will make a significant contribution toward overcoming the crisis. This rising tide to lift Greece’s boat will not only make the program more acceptable to the public, it will also make investors more buoyant, the thinking goes.

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Tsipras tackles speech impediment

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras is to attend the funeral of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez but this will not be his most significant political statement of the week or month. That came when he delivered a speech on Wednesday night at an event in Athens held to mark 15 years since the death of New Democracy founder and late Prime Minister Constantine Karamanlis.

In many European countries, a political leader from one ideological camp paying respects to the memory of a politician from the other side of the spectrum might not be particularly noteworthy. Tsipras’s address, though, broke several taboos in Greece.

Karamanlis has widely been acknowledged for his statesmanship in leading Greece from the pain of the dictatorship to the prosperity of European Union membership. But his prominent role during a turbulent period in Greek politics before the rise of the junta meant that many on the left had trouble accepting him as the national father figure (“ethnarhis”) others portrayed him to be. On the flip side, the Greek left has traditionally remained entrenched and introspective, largely as a result of the scars inflicted by civil war, persecution and the colonel’s regime. Even since the restoration of democracy in 1974, the left has rarely accepted any practical cooperation or ideological cross-pollination with the country’s right.

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A house in the middle of the street

 

akishomeIt must have been almost a year ago when Dionysiou Areopagitou Street was teeming with Athenians and visitors as spring escaped from the clutches of a drab and depressing winter to spray paint the capital’s most attractive walkway with color. Reveling in the sunshine and the essence of hope, smiles re-emerged on people’s faces, eyes twinkled and hearts beat in rhythm.

 

The sun’s appearance seemed to banish the doubts that had been pummeled into Greeks’ minds as a result of the collapse of George Papandreou’s government a few months earlier, the worsening economic situation and the fears about the country’s future in the euro.

 

It proved to be a false dawn, but on that sun-kissed March day in Athens, there was a hint that normality might return, that a stroll in the shadow of the Parthenon could be carefree. The Attic light streamed into each corner and pore as hundreds of people sauntered around the Acropolis and along a road named after an Athenian judge, Dionysius the Areopagite.

 

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Walking free or striding to jail?

Papageorgopoulos_390_2802They called him the “flying doctor” due to his sprinting exploits in the 1970s and Prime Minister Antonis Samaras referred to him in the past as an “honest man,” but on Wednesday the only place ex-Thessaloniki Mayor Vassilis Papageorgopoulos was striding to was Diavata Prison, where he is reportedly sharing a cell with nine rather dishonest men.

Papageorgopoulos and two ex-municipal employees were given life sentences for embezzling some 18 million euros from City Hall between 1999 and 2010, when the New Democracy politician served two terms as Thessaloniki mayor. Papageorgopoulos draped an overcoat over his arms as he left for prison to hide his handcuffs from photographers but it’s difficult to imagine what part of his reputation the 65-year-old thought he was protecting after being convicted of systematically plundering taxpayers’ money for over a decade. Nevertheless, Papageorgopoulos denies any wrongdoing and says he will appeal the decision.

While there is undoubtedly a personal story in all this (the tale of how a man who once competed for medals on the track ended up competing for space in a prison exercise yard), Papageorgopoulos’s spectacular fall carries two significant and wider implications for Greece.

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PASOK’s road of returnism

pasok_aloneMore interested in reaching a “new settlement” with the European Union than ancient Greece, British Prime Minister David Cameron on Thursday defended his belief that the Parthenon Marbles should not be returned to Athens, saying he does not subscribe to the idea of “returnism”. At PASOK headquarters, though, they have no reservations about returnism.

The return of four Socialist deputies who quit the party following a tense parliamentary vote in November to approve a new package of austerity measures and reforms that secured Greece’s latest loan tranche was confirmed on Thursday. The four – Costas Skandalidis, Angela Gerekou, Michalis Kassis and Yiannis Koutsoukos – failed to support the package and lost their place in PASOK’s parliamentary group.

Welcoming them back on Thursday, PASOK leader Evangelos Venizelos said that their time away from the fold was “part of the cost” the party had to pay for Greece getting its December loan installments and apparently reducing drastically the threat of a eurozone exit.

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Banners and batons

mergosSeveral hundred people in Greece lost their jobs on Thursday. For other Greeks, it was business as usual: A few dozen protesters took their banners to the Finance Ministry, a few dozen riot police officers wielded their batons to push them back.

The incident prompted a new and predictable round in the ongoing row between SYRIZA and Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias. Moments before our decision makers banged their heads together in futility once more, the latest shocking unemployment figures (27 percent overall in November and 61.7 percent for under-25s) were published. The juxtaposition between these two events summed up the illness that is threatening to cripple Greece.

Members of SYRIZA’s youth wing, as well as two of the leftist party’s MPs, went to the office of Finance Ministry general secretary Giorgos Mergos to protest comments he made earlier this week suggesting that at 586 euros Greece’s minimum wage may still be too high.

There are several ways to interpret Mergos’s ill-advised comments. SYRIZA took it to be an insult to those earning basic pay, evident from the banner which challenged the official to try to live on that little. If this was his intention, then it is truly condemnable. It seems unlikely, though, that this was the idea he was trying to communicate.

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