Tag Archives: Greece local elections

From Zorro to zero

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

When then Thessaloniki Prefect Panayiotis Psomiadis dressed up as Zorro a few years ago and rode through the northern port city on a trusty steed to celebrate carnival season he thought he was sitting pretty, but he was just setting himself up for a big fall.

Psomiadis’s turn as the masked hero was in keeping with his ceaseless attempts to appeal to public opinion’s lowest common denominator while putting himself on the highest pedestal. Now the governor of Central Macedonia, the 63-year-old is in danger of being toppled after a failed appeal against a suspended prison sentence. Psomiadis’s career could come to an end at a time when his particular breed of politician seems to be threatened with extinction.
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The bell tolls

Whereas the first round of local elections made losers of PASOK, New Democracy and the other parties that had tried to turn the municipal and regional votes into a battleground for national politics and the memorandum/anti-memorandum debate in particular, the second round has produced a couple of clear winners.

The independent candidacies of Giorgos Kaminis in Athens and Yiannis Boutaris in Thessaloniki have been a breath of fresh air in these polls, which the representatives of the longstanding political system have tried to drag into the gutter, and their victories provide hope that a wind of change is now gathering in Greece.

Their candidacies are significant because they are both figures that have risen out of real life rather than the smoky backrooms of the tightknit political club that has come to dominate, and choke, Greece over the last few decades. Although PASOK and Democratic Left supported both Kaminis and Boutaris, their backing did not dominate or colour their campaigns.

In fact, in PASOK’s case it was so weak, the Socialists can certainly claim no credit for the victory of either man. In fact, this very loose association with PASOK, and thereby the political establishment that people have come to despise, probably did both men a great deal of good.

Their election is also a victory for all those that chose to ignore the wall of noise created by the parliamentary parties about austerity measures, the IMF, the memorandum and so on. It is a victory for citizens that thought deeply about the problems of their neighbourhoods and decided to support people who wanted to improve their cities rather than enhance a party’s standing on the national stage.

Finally, the victories of Boutaris and Kaminis provide hope for those that believe Greece’s future lies in a rejection of its confrontational, self-obsessed and unproductive past. They give further credence to the belief that the way forward for the country must be for those who want a fairer, progressive and productive society to reclaim this land.

Given these notable victories and the incredibly low turnout of about 47 percent, PASOK and New Democracy would do well to refrain from claiming moral victories. It is for them that the bell tolls tonight and, like Greece, if they don’t change quickly they will be soon be wallowing in irrelevance.

Nick Malkoutzis

Ask not

Illustration in linocut by Manos Symeonakis

“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” President John F. Kennedy’s words have been repeated, relayed and reinterpreted so many times since he uttered them on a chilly January morning in Washington in 1961 that their inspiration and impact has been severely diluted. They remain, however, relevant — but in a very different way now than they were almost 50 years ago.

The man who helped Kennedy construct this memorable sentence — his adviser Ted Sorensen – died just over a week ago. Apart from signifying the passing of someone who had a deep understanding of public service, his death also comes as a timely reminder that we have entered an era when the essence of “ask not” is being turned on its head. The financial crisis that emanated from the United States followed by the debt crisis that has battered many European countries, like Greece, is creating a new dynamic in the relationship between people and their leaders. Politicians from Washington to Athens are discovering that voters who have seen their livelihoods threatened and their quality of life compromised feel they have done enough for their countries; they now want their countries, and the people that lead them, to start giving something back.

This was one of the messages evident from the walloping that President Barack Obama’s Democrats received in last week’s mid-term elections. It’s clear many of those who voted for Obama two years ago feel there has been too little progress in terms of addressing day-to-day problems that stem from the state of the economy. No matter that Obama, in the words of New York Times opinion writer Timothy Egan, “saved capitalism.” After suffering the impact of the near-collapse of a system they helped build at the behest of their politicians and financiers, Americans aren’t concerned about theoretical arguments or long-term groundwork — they want the basics: jobs, prospects and security, or at least they want to be convinced that these basics are on the way. “Monetary stimulus is near exhausted; another big fiscal stimulus is now unthinkable. Obama has to stimulate something intangible: confidence,” writes the International Herald Tribune’s Roger Cohen.

Although PASOK did not suffer the “shellacking,” as Obama termed it, that the Democrats did at Sunday’s local elections, in what was effectively Greece’s version of the mid-term, it did receive a strong buffeting. It seems the source of this backlash, which saw PASOK’s share of the vote on a national projection fall by 9.5 percent compared to the 2009 parliamentary polls, was very similar to the fatigue that undid the Democrats. Even before Sunday’s elections, Papandreou and his government had demanded a lot from Greeks: They had asked them to put up more of their salaries for taxation, to give up jobs they thought were secure and to shut up if they disagreed. But ahead of the local elections, Papandreou had one more request to make: that Greeks vote for PASOK to avoid creating political instability in the country. He was asking too much.
Having pushed through the Kallikratis program, a much-heralded groundbreaking overhaul of local government, Papandreou and his team did not have the courage to stand by it. They tried to cajole the Greek people into voting not based on local issues – such as who would ensure their streets are clean or even preventing corrupt and ineffective mayors from being voted back into power – but along the same old tired party political lines.

The prime minister said that an unfavorable result would trigger snap national elections. He no doubt expected this to appear a bold move but it ended up looking like a childish stunt. There was absolutely no basis for seeking a fresh mandate: Having signed a three-year agreement with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, the government had made a public commitment to see through a package of reforms that would secure the loans Greece needs to avoid bankruptcy. To put this at risk with a show of supposed bravado, when there was absolutely no evidence of a mass public movement against the government or the memorandum, was an idea mined from the same vein of irresponsibility and self-absorption that brought Greece to the brink of collapse in the first place.

Having leveled the threat of snap polls, Papandreou said Sunday’s result proved Greeks still had “the same will for change” as at last year’s general election. How he arrived at this conclusion when PASOK garnered a million less voters than in October 2009 was never explained. Nor did he go into the details of how he derived a fresh mandate from the outcome when, for roughly every one person who voted for PASOK’s candidates, two people stayed at home, as abstention reached almost 40 percent. The near-record disinterest in the local elections was confirmation that, burdened by concerns about their immediate future, such as whether they will have jobs next year, few had the time or appetite for Papandreou’s power games.

It was not just Papandreou that showed he was completely out of touch with public sentiment. New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras also displayed a talent for getting carried away with trivialities. After campaigning on an ultra-populist anti-memorandum ticket supported by absurd claims such as being able to wipe out the public deficit in a year, Samaras suggested Sunday’s result, which helped the conservatives secure only a handful of municipalities and no regions, was a triumph. He said ND’s share of the national vote, which put the conservatives just 2 percent behind PASOK, was a “total reversal” of the conservatives’ fortunes since they hit rock bottom in last year’s general elections. Well, if Samaras thinks it was a total reversal, he should demand a total recount because the result shows that ND received about 550,000 fewer voters than it did last October and its share of the national vote was slightly beneath its record low.

At the end of a year of unprecedented austerity and abrupt reforms, rather than displaying respect for the electorate and regret for their part in leading Greece to the edge of oblivion, the country’s politicians had nothing to show but hubris and disinterest for people’s real concerns. The result of last Sunday’s local elections was the first sign that the public’s tolerance for making sacrifices when their leaders are not willing to give up their comfortable seats in the land of oblivion is being stretched to breaking point. Just as the Democrats’ defeat in the US mid-terms will focus Obama’s mind on achieving tangible results, so Greece’s local elections should force Papandreou and Samaras to concentrate on providing real solutions to real problems and not creating imaginary ones.
There is a closing line in the speech that Sorensen wrote for Kennedy’s inauguration that is rarely quoted, possibly because it is not in the interest of those in power. “… ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice that we ask of you.” Greeks have every right after being asked for months to do more for their country, to now ask what their country, its leaders and its political parties are doing for them.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on November 12, 2010.

Losers and losers

Greece can breathe a sigh of relief: there will be no snap general elections. With the votes from Sunday’s local polls still being counted, Prime Minister George Papandreou has decided that his government has enough support to carry on trying to prevent economic meltdown and keeping to the tough targets set by the European Union and International Monetary Fund.

Most people will feel a weight lifted of their shoulders that was placed there when Papandreou issued the surprising threat/challenge that he would call a parliamentary election if the outcome of Sunday’s vote indicated that PASOK did not have a mandate to continue. But the result was hardly what Papandreou referred to in his late night televised address as “confirmation that those who voted for change [in general elections] last year still want that change.”

That may, or may not, be the case but when PASOK has seen its share of the vote nationally, according to Public Issue, drop by almost 10 percent compared to last year’s national elections, its clear that fewer people have faith in Papandreou and his party. The projections indicate that PASOK gathered only 2 percent more of the vote than New Democracy, compared to 10 percent last October.

The fact that close to 40 percent of voters abstained, in what was set to be a new record, is also a blow to Papandreou’s credibility. It leaves a huge question mark hanging over the result of Sunday’s vote and is evidence of the lack of enthusiasm amongst the electorate following months of austerity measures. But, perhaps more importantly, it seems to underline that people are uninspired by the political options available to them.

There are two things in Papandreou’s favour. The first is that the low turnout can be interpreted as reluctance by voters who have been cowed by the economic difficulties they are facing and are waiting to pass judgment on the government in national elections, not local ones.

The other is that New Democracy – the party that led the charge of the “anti-memorandum” front – actually got a slightly lower share of the national vote than it did at the ballot box in the last parliamentary elections. Examined in the cold light of day, this is a shockingly bad result. Faced with a government that has had to impose the most unpopular measures ever seen in modern Greece, an administration whose capability has been questioned on a daily basis and riding the surfboard of populism by claiming to be able to wipe out Greece’s deficit in a year, the conservatives have managed to convince fewer people than they did when they had apparently hit rock bottom last year.

So, this has been a lose-lose election for the two big parties. The Communist Party (KKE) has fared well and the two other parliamentary parties, the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) and the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) have had some middling to good results. It is hardly a seismic shift on the Greek political map – the control of most municipalities and regions will be decided next Sunday in run offs between PASOK and ND candidates – but some tremors are being felt. The ultimately unsuccessful run of independent Yiannis Dimaras in Attica on an anti-memorandum platform did enough to show that someone with a modicum of talent, imagination and charisma could make some political headway with his/her own party. Dimaras, who indicated that he might be considering running with the idea, is not that man.

Finally, amongst all the losers on this election night, there is something else to consider – the biggest losers of all are the voters. Their chance to pick suitable people to run their municipalities and regions, the men and women who take vital decisions about the neighbourhoods we live in, has been completely overshadowed and usurped by a political sideshow.

Nick Malkoutzis

Integration for the nation

 

Illustration in linocut by Manos Symeonakis

There are several reasons why the local elections on Sunday, November 7, will be no ordinary day at the polls. But amid all the attention on the anti-memorandum vote, the rise of independent candidates and the possibility that the outcome may lead to general elections, a historic aspect of Sunday’s vote has been overlooked.

For the first time in the country’s history, non-European Union citizens who are long-term or permanent residents in Greece can vote and stand as candidates in local elections. Some 13,000 non-EU residents will join another 15,000 from EU countries at the ballot box, according to the Interior Ministry. This is substantially lower than the figure of 250,000 possible new additions to the electoral register given by the ministry earlier this year, when the government passed a new citizenship law. Apart from being a landmark moment because it allowed second-generation immigrants to claim Greek citizenship, the law also took the logical step of allowing people who have invested in this land, not only in financial terms, to have a say in how their local authorities are run.

The law was opposed by center-right New Democracy and the right-wing nationalists of the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS). ND leader Antonis Samaras, who had not yet decided to focus all his powers on opposing the EU-IMF memorandum to win votes, launched a polemic against PASOK for undermining Greek identity and subverting the great nation-state. LAOS leader Giorgos Karatzaferis, whose knickers are so often in a twist it’s a wonder he’s not propelled around Athens like a giant spinning top, claimed the inclusion of foreigners on the electoral roll would lead to the result of any vote being “adulterated.”

As we’ll discover on Monday morning, neither of these nightmare scenarios will emerge to shatter our blissful Greek reality. Actually, the participation in Sunday’s elections of several thousand foreigners who call Greece home, at a time when those born here seem to be as divided as ever, is a giant step toward making the country feel like a normal, well-adjusted European state. In fact, given German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent comments about multiculturalism having “utterly failed” in her country, Greece can be proud that at least on one level it has found a way for different nationalities and cultures to work together.

Beneath the luster of Sunday’s elections, though, there lies much more work and introspection for Greece. From the troubled streets of central Athens to the labor-intensive farms of the Peloponnese, it’s clear that harmonious co-existence between locals and foreigners is still a long way off. In this sense, the debate going on in Germany is extremely relevant to Greece. After all, immigrants have a strong presence in both countries — in Germany almost 7 million of the 82 million (8.5 percent) inhabitants are migrants, in Greece the figure stands at about 1 million out of 11 million (9 percent).

For some, Merkel’s comments were a clumsy, populist appeal to the right wing of her flagging conservative CDU party, a senior partner in Germany’s coalition government. Others saw it as a timely intervention after years of half-measures aimed at integrating Germany’s migrants, especially some 4 million Muslims mostly from Turkey.

Thankfully, Merkel cleared up what she meant on Wednesday, November 3. “For decades, the approach was that integration was not something that needed to be addressed, that people would live side-by-side and that it would sort itself out on its own,” she said at a so-called integration summit in Berlin. “This turned out to be false. What in fact is needed is a political effort and an effort by society as a whole to make integration happen.”

The clarification is vital because it nips in the bud attempts by skeptics, including those in Greece, to seize Merkel’s critique of multiculturalism as a sign that immigration is failing. Merkel is clearly not saying that and, as Jan Fleischhauer, an editor at German weekly magazine Der Spiegel writes, the thought of living in a society that barricades itself from the outside world is ridiculous. “The idea that a country is a better place if its people keep to themselves as much as possible is a strangely claustrophobic notion — even in the happiest of families, it’s nice to see a new face now and then,” he says. “Influx from outside invigorates a society and serves as an excellent tonic against the stagnation that tends to plague sedentary cultures.”

In Greece’s case, legal immigration has brought with it a vital contribution to social security funds at a time when the system is running on fumes as well as providing able bodies at a low cost in a range of sectors, such as farming and construction. Also, the proliferation of languages that can be heard, customs that can be observed and cultures that can be discovered in Greece’s major cities has helped at least the younger generation realize, in a way the Internet and TV never could, that it lives in an interconnected world with common themes and challenges.

Illegal immigration, however, has posed a set of more uncomfortable questions. It’s among the illegal immigrants in Greece that one can find the kind of problems that concern Merkel about some of Germany’s second-generation migrants – the inability to speak the language and find regular jobs, for instance. Merkel’s government will commit some 400 million euros by 2014 to help the children of immigrants improve their German. There will also be programs to increase the number of migrants working in the public sector.

Consciously or not, Merkel has hit on an easily forgotten truth: Ultimately, integration is not about whether you can eat bratwurst or souvlaki like the locals, or whether you like to read Goethe or Kazantzakis, or even what religion you practice. It’s about being able to participate in a society that you respect and which respects you. What immigrants need most from their host countries are the tools and opportunities to find jobs and build their own futures. If they have those, they have life. And when you have life you can become part of something, you can integrate.

“People who dare to try their luck in a foreign country are by their nature especially resourceful and driven,” writes Fleischhauer. “Turning such people into beggars is no easy feat, yet we’ve managed to do precisely that.”
This is something for Greece to consider as it becomes a magnet for undocumented migrants trying to reach other EU countries at the same time that thousands of jobs are being shed every month. The creation of a structure to assess the country’s needs and the skills and capabilities of those that cross through its borders is more urgent than ever. But, amid the attention on the anti-memorandum vote, the rise of the independent candidates and the possibility that the outcome of Sunday’s polls may lead to general elections, it’s just another important issue that’s been overlooked.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on November 5, 2010.