Tag Archives: Greece Communist Party

Old school

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Who says politics has become a young man’s game? At a time when pension reforms are causing retirement ages to creep upward across Europe, it seems that politicians who may have been facing the twilight of their career are finding a new lease of life and the drive to discover a fresh relevance.

On Sunday, amid an avalanche of goals at the World Cup and the conclusion of New Democracy’s congress in Neo Faliro, it went somewhat unnoticed that a group of just over 500 people gathered in an Athens hotel to launch a new political party, Democratic Left, which will have as its figurehead 61-year-old Fotis Kouvelis. The new grouping has been formed by disgruntled members and supporters of the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA). In early June, Kouvelis led a breakaway group of four MPs, and members of the so-called “renewal wing” of Synaspismos, the largest party in the SYRIZA coalition. Kouvelis expressed a deep dissatisfaction with the line SYRIZA has been taking and by the apparent short-termism of its young leader, Alexis Tsipras.

Kouvelis was soundly beaten by Tsipras in 2008 when he stood for the SYRIZA leadership. Then it seemed that Tsipras, in his mid-30s, was the sort of new breed of politician that Greece needed – young, enthusiastic and free of the ideological burdens that had accumulated in the baggage carried by the country’s political elite. But his star seems to have been extinguished as quickly as it was catapulted over the Greek political landscape. SYRIZA’s share of the vote dropped to 4.6 percent at the last general election in the wake of Tsipras adopting an equivocal stance on rioting and a firm stand against the European Union.

The breaking point for Kouvelis and his friends seems to have come in SYRIZA’s inability to strike a coherent, realistic approach to the economic crisis and its concomitant effects on Greece. In his scramble to find a position, Tsipras began to resemble a high school pupil guessing for the right answer to the wrong multiple choice question. Under his leadership, SYRIZA’s buzzword, much like the Communist Party, has become “resistance.” But it became clear to Kouvelis that when you push against something that ceases to be there because reality has changed, you fall flat on your face.

“We want a left that is daring, which does not settle for the easy option nor make concessions to popular or short-sighted leftism,” Kouvelis said on Sunday. “We went a left that does not feel it is legitimate to defend all workers’ established rights nor to pander to unions and associations for petty political gains.”

The veteran politician, who briefly served as justice minister in 1989 and has a history in leftist politics that stretches back to the pre-junta era, also made it clear that his new party seeks a closer, not more distant, relationship with Europe. “The economic crisis and the threat to the euro make more Europe necessary: We need a closer union and economic governance,” he said.

There are some 50 leftist political parties in Greece, so if Kouvelis’s timely and carefully weighted words are to be more than just pleasant musings on the country’s predicament, the Democratic Left will have to give voters who are lost between PASOK’s lack of conviction and SYRIZA’s lack of awareness something they can latch onto. Kouvelis also said that environmentalism will play a significant role in the party’s policies, perhaps presaging a cooperation with the Ecologist Greens, who were just 0.5 percent short of 3 percent needed for them to gain seats in Parliament in last year’s general election. If Democratic Left can attract support from all these different sources, then it could be looking at a share of the vote at the next poll that would give it double-digit seats in Parliament and a potential say in the formation of the government.

Bearing in mind that New Democracy’s ousted MP Dora Bakoyannis could soon set up her own centrist party as well, Kouvelis could be one of the draftsmen of Greece’s changing political architecture. But all that is still a long way off and will depend to a great extent on whether the gamble of placing Kouvelis – a respectable but hardly inspiring politician who looks rather fatigued after years of public service – in the frontline will pay off. Democratic Left is banking on the crisis fueling the feelings of frustration with politicians who cast themselves as modern-day managers but who manage to do nothing but squander the faith placed in them. This exasperation means that figures of trust – politicians who have stood the test of time and retained their integrity – are a rare and valued commodity.

The appeal of public figures that command respect was evident in Germany’s presidential contest, where the 70-year-old civil rights-campaigning pastor Joachim Gauck had been outpacing conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel’s candidate, the 51-year-old Lower Saxony state premier Christian Wulff, in opinion polls ahead of Wednesday’s vote. Gauck, dubbed “Grandpa Obama,” forced an unexpected third ballot in the 1,244-seat federal assembly before Wulff was declared the winner (there is no public vote to decide who fills the largely ceremonial role).

The decision of the opposition, center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens to pick Gauck, who was responsible after the fall of the Berlin Wall for exposing many crimes committed by the East German secret police, as their candidate says much about where politics in Germany and in Europe as a whole finds itself. It’s an indication that level-headedness is now a more useful political virtue than it has been for a long time.

“It’s so wonderful that we have you,” Merkel told Gauck at his recent birthday celebration, “because when you see a wound you always put your finger on it.” In fact, Gauck proved that his finger was on the pulse of German society. “We are at a crossroads in Germany,” he said. “There’s a deep-seated sense of anxiety right now, and we need a new impetus. I notice that people aren’t just interested in consumption and soccer, they also want to be able to believe in people and institutions again.”

Gauck described himself as a “leftist liberal conservative,” reflecting a growing sense that in the current climate strict adherence to a single ideology will simply put up more barriers rather than help overcome obstacles. Kouvelis and his friends similarly seem to have rejected dogmatism in favor of pragmatism and their success or failure may depend on whether this is a switch of convenience or conviction. Gauck perfectly summed up the challenge facing today’s policy makers when he said: “The German people have a deep longing for credibility in politics.” Ultimately, if they are going to make a difference, it is this credibility that politicians must discover, regardless of whether they are young or old.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on July 2, 2010.

It’s not the fall, it’s the landing

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

La Haine (Hate), Mathieu Kassovitz’s seminal 1995 film about the disenfranchised youths of a Paris housing project begins with an image of a petrol bomb dropping to earth. As the firebomb falls, a voice says: “It’s a story about a guy who falls from a 50-story building. As he falls, he tries to reassure himself by repeating: “So far, so good. So far, so good. So far, so good.” When the firebomb explodes, the voice says: “It’s not the fall that matters, it’s the landing.” Last Wednesday, when three bank employees in central Athens suffocated from the smoke produced by petrol bombs, it confirmed Greece was locked in a death spiral and rapidly approaching rock bottom.

The incident and its fallout encapsulated the failures and hang-ups that have pushed Greece into the void. The attack, carried out by mindless fanatics or deranged criminals depending on how you prefer to view it, was the culmination of years of pathetic indifference to the destructive nature of a fringe element that mistakenly believes it has a relevant message to convey. Greek society has never been able to draw a clear distinction between what is legitimate, effective and necessary protest and what is the imposition of one’s view on others.

The way some protesters taunted the bank employees is evidence of the perverted thinking that has been allowed to fester among a segment of the population. It’s the defeat of compassion by bigotry and the loss of common sense to blind obedience. Unquestioning commitment to the cause suggests a society where the basic norms have dissolved under the pressure of its members constantly needing someone or something to oppose.

The fact that the particular bank was a sitting target, with little protection against such an attack, highlights more of this society’s hang-ups. The bank did not have metal shutters because it was housed in a neoclassical, listed building. If the building was worth protecting, either it shouldn’t have housed a bank or adjustments should have been made to protect it. Doing neither is proof of a people that cannot reconcile themselves with their past, who end up simultaneously paying it both too much and too little respect. The end result is that Greeks are not able to live fully in the present, let alone think about the future.

That the three employees were allowed to be in harm’s way also points to some of the shortcomings in labor relations in Greece. Although Marfin Egnatia is not a member of the OTOE banking union, which had joined in the general strike, the Stadiou Street branch should have been closed last Wednesday purely for safety reasons. Rather than bowing to protesters, this would have been an acknowledgment of the real danger to employees’ health and safety. People are a business’s most important assets but in Greece the conditions in which employees work are too often overlooked. The unions that represent workers are too focused on other areas, such as maintaining privileges and rigid labor regulations, to pay any attention to ensuring working conditions are safe and professional.

The reaction of the country’s unions and politicians after the firebombing emphasized the bankruptcy of the current system. In the immediate aftermath of the three deaths, when a minute’s silence and a brief statement of condolence would have sufficed in Parliament, the party leaders chose to engage in drawn-out political point-scoring. The unseemly argument between the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) and the Communist Party (KKE) was like guests at a funeral arguing over the quality of the brandy. The unions reacted by making the rally they had organized for the next day one of remembrance as well as of protest against the austerity measures. It didn’t occur to them to either cancel the gathering out of respect for the dead or to organize one for another day just in memory of the three victims.

In fact, the silent protest that was held in Syntagma Square on Sunday by a couple of hundred citizens also speaks volumes about Greece’s social degeneration. Those who gathered did so thanks to a commendable effort to use the real social networking power of the Internet. But the presence of less than 200 people confirmed a fear or lack of conviction among Greeks – who have been spoon-fed political protest as the only form of valid public discourse – to eschew these old habits and voice their displeasure as independent citizens. And, what of the young people who so passionately and so justifiably took to the streets to protest the killing of teenager Alexis Grigoropoulos in December 2008 – where were they to protest the deaths of people that could have been their brothers, sisters or cousins? Did someone not have the guts to tell them that in a few years’ time they could be the ones working behind desks at banks?

Certainly, it’s not something they would hear from the media. Never ones to miss an opportunity to pour oil onto the fire, newspapers, radio and TV had for weeks been screaming about tough measures and unavoidable pain and disaster. None of them, though, would accept that for years they have played a part in fostering an atmosphere of fear, antagonism and rejectionism. Why keep your head, when – as the media suggest – everyone around you is losing theirs? And, just to confirm the cheapness of the country’s journalism, one newspaper illustrated a story about one of the victims – a woman who was four-months pregnant – by running a picture of a sonogram with flames surrounding an unborn baby.

But perhaps the most galling aspect of the firebombing was that the three victims belonged to a group this country is relying on to stay afloat – salaried workers. For years now, Greece has managed to stumble along because of employees who have their taxes deducted at source. These people carried others who treated tax as an option rather than an obligation. Having been pushed, pulled and squeezed for so many years, they are now being asked to give again. Well, three of them can’t give anymore, nor will they find out if everyone will be made to pay their fair share.

As La Haine nears its tragic climax, the three main characters pass a billboard. The image of the earth is seen again, this time with the slogan “Le monde est a vous” (The world is yours) underneath it. One of the three takes a can of spray paint and changes the words so they read: “Le monde est a nous” (The world is ours). This hints at the question Greeks must respond to: whose is this country? Who will fill the moral, social and political void? As Greece hurtles headfirst toward apparent disaster, the only chance it has of landing on its feet is if this question is answered. Anything less and there will be an almighty thud when the country finally hits the ground.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and appeared in Athens Plus on May 14.