Tag Archives: Greece national elections 2009

Barbarism at the gates

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Politicians often say things during election campaigns that they later regret. Looking back on his first year as prime minister, George Papandreou must be wondering what possessed him ahead of last year’s October 4 poll to utter – with excruciating regularity – the words: “The money is there.” Unless, of course, by “there” he meant in the back pockets of pensioners, civil servants, motorists and most middle and working class families that are now footing the bill for Greece’s economic rescue effort.

The money was never there and everybody, including PASOK, knew it. This didn’t stop Germany’s Werkstatt Deutschland organization from awarding Papandreou the Quadriga Prize for “Power of Veracity” on Sunday. The award, named after the sculpture of a horse-drawn chariot that sits atop the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, was in recognition of Papandreou revealing the truth about the state of Greece’s public finances, which seems a bit like giving a lollipop to a child who admits its part in smashing a vase but only after discovering there was nowhere to hide the broken pieces.

Nevertheless, the trip to Berlin may have given Papandreou an opportunity to contemplate one of the other regrettable statements he made before last October’s election. “Socialism or barbarism,” the PASOK leader had said, echoing Marxist activist Rosa Luxemburg, a late resident of the German capital who believed adopting Socialism was the only escape from an unjust existence. Papandreou spoke in a slightly different context, arguing that the global financial crisis was proof that the capitalist model was unsustainable and that a center-left structure, with more emphasis on regulation and the state, should replace it.

However, 12 months on, his dreams of 21st century Socialism have vanished into the same vortex that is consuming the billions of euros Greeks are paying to prevent their country from going bankrupt. In the meantime, the threat of barbarism has become very real.

Some of the measures taken over the last 12 months were undoubtedly necessary and long overdue but the manner in which they are being applied and the IMF/EU market-driven philosophy that underpins them is brutal. While all eyes are trained on safeguarding financial capital, little attention is being paid to the negative effect on social capital.

The recent liberalization of the road haulage sector set a dangerous precedent. Apart from the truck owners themselves, most people would argue that time had run out on the closed-profession privileges the truckers enjoyed for so many years. Yet, it’s unsettling that the forced end to their lengthy strikes – first with a civil mobilization order in the summer and then with legislation threatening truckers with jail sentences in September – should be met with such satisfaction within the government and among some of the public. After all, this was a failure of democracy and had a distinct totalitarian element to it. PASOK backtracked on its promises to the truckers, one of the many groups that have been pampered by successive governments, and then portrayed them as being unreasonable and obstructing progress. Unable to engage in debate and then formulate policy – functions of the democratic systems we uphold and the governments we vote for – PASOK rammed the liberalization through Parliament and down the throats of the truckers. The government’s heavy-handedness throughout the dispute does not bode well for the future.

Greece’s experience is being replicated in other European countries, such as Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Britain, where citizens are being presented with a fait accompli. Their governments, regardless of political hue, are telling them that austerity measures must be adopted without question. In doing so, elected politicians are not only perverting the very system that put them in power, they’re also sowing the seeds of deep discontent as people grow increasingly aggrieved with the impact of the austerity measures and the lack of alternatives.

The United Nations work agency, the International Labor Organization (ILO), warned last Friday that the global employment market, where 22 million new jobs are needed, would not recover from the crisis until 2015 and that this would only fuel social unrest. “Fairness must be the compass guiding us out of the crisis,” said ILO director general Juan Somavia. “People can understand and accept difficult choices if they perceive that all share in the burden of pain. Governments should not have to choose between the demands of financial markets and the needs of their citizens. Financial and social stability must come together. Otherwise, not only the global economy but also social cohesion will be at risk.”

While scenarios of popular revolution are pure fiction as far as Greece is concerned, the country is no stranger to social unrest. The longer that measures which impact on people’s viability are passed one after the other, with no discussion or effort to present a vision for a better future, the more resentment will fester and the threat of a backlash will grow.

The possible breakdown of social cohesion creates the conditions for another, even darker, reaction to austerity. While understandable to some extent, the glee some citizens and commentators expressed at the abrupt way the government dealt with the truckers is a tell-tale sign that, given the current circumstances, a larger proportion of the population than usual thinks the use of force – psychological or physical – is acceptable. The danger is that the longer the government depends on this tactic, the more people will become accustomed to it and start believing it’s a perfectly legitimate way to run a country and get things done. In Greece, where society has been fragmented for many years thanks to each group pursuing its narrow interests, the flourishing of this mind-set will lead to even graver polarization.

Hungary, which was discovered in 2006 to have been fiddling its economic figures and had until this year been applying the austerity measures prescribed as part of the rescue deal it signed with the IMF, offers a salutary tale for Greece. Earlier this year, the extreme right-wing Jobbik party won 850,000 votes in the parliamentary elections on the back of a campaign that targeted the Roma but also played up the failures of the traditional guardians of power in Hungary, the conservative Fidesz and the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP). “The main factor behind Jobbik’s rise has been its ability to make political hay out of popular demand for extremist policies,” writes Peter Kreko for the Political Capital think tank in Budapest. “The primary driver behind extremist sentiment is a decline in public morale: Many Hungarians feel they can no longer trust the political elite or their governing institutions. The other fact is a rise in prejudice, especially toward foreigners.”

So, as Greece takes stock a year on from when Papandreou made his foolhardy election campaign pronouncements, it can draw some timely conclusions from its own and others’ experiences. It’s clear that the money is not there, nor is Socialism. As for barbarism? It’s creeping through the gates.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on October 8, 2010.

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Green sun up in the sky

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Greece is waking up to a new government today after a stunning victory by PASOK which swept New Democracy aside after a larger than expected number of Greeks gave their negative verdict on 5.5 years of troubled conservative government.

The magnitude of the victory achieved by PASOK and its leader George Papandreou should not be underestimated. With PASOK winning just under 44 percent of the vote and New Democracy just 33.5, the Socialist achieved the kind of difference between the top two parties that has not been seen since the 1980s.

That was when Andreas Papandreou, George’s father, was in his prime and PASOK’s green sun shone down on most parts of Greece. Now, George Papandreou follows in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps by becoming prime minister of Greece with the green sun high in the sky. The question is if and for how long Papandreou will be able to keep it there.

His clear majority in Parliament, thanks to the 160 seats PASOK won on October 4, gives him more wiggle room than the centre-left party could have dreamed of. But Papandreou faces a huge list of tasks to take on and the odds are stacked against him. But Papandreou might not mind expectations being low, in fact, he will probably prefer it. After his election defeat in September 2007, Papandreou was at his lowest ebb. Media barons and some members of his party were pressuring him to resign. Numerous pundits predicted the end of his political career.

However, Papandreou braved the flak – often personal and disparaging – and fought off a leadership challenge from Evangelos Venizelos. It was interesting to see that Venizelos, who famously threw his hat into the ring before the results of the election two years ago had been confirmed, was one of the first to publicly congratulate Papandreou on his “personal” victory on October 4. They say a week is a long time in politics, two years is an eternity.

This is something that the outgoing prime minister Costas Karamanlis will testify to. Although New Democracy’s popularity had begun to wane in September 2007, nobody could have imagined that the conservatives would suffer such a crushing defeat just 25 months later.

Karamanlis chose the only option available to him by resigning and starting the process to elect a new party leader. It was regarded as a brave move by most commentators and the swiftness of his decision and the honesty of his statement, in which he admitted that his power base was the relationship of trust that he had built up with some citizens but this had now disintegrated, certainly mean that he can leave office with some dignity intact. But in many ways it was too little too late from Karamanlis, who like a child that fails to do his homework on the first two occasions, asks for a third chance to get the job done.

His campaign was never convincing and New Democracy is clearly a party in disarray – as soon as the security of power started to seep from its ranks, infighting and personal agendas took over. For this, Karamanlis must take a big share of the blame. It is one of the reasons that history will probably not judge him very favourably. He inherited a country on a high, full of a sense of achievement after entry into the eurozone, consistent economic growth, a growing infrastructure and the host of a unique Olympic Games but in more than five years took it nowhere in particular.

Papandreou’s task in contrast is much more difficult. He takes over a country mired in chronic problems and with no obvious ideas of how to solve them. He and PASOK will have to find some answers quickly – if they have learned anything from the failure of Karamanlis and New Democracy it’s that you have to seize the opportunity while its there. The conservatives failed to do so and have dragged Greece to the precipice. If PASOK follows suit, it will plunge the country into a black hole where the neither the green sun, nor any other light, shines.

Nick Malkoutzis