Tag Archives: KKE

Reaching the age of consensus

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

It was ironic that as the Greek government supposedly went in search of consensus last week, the streets of Athens should look just like the streets of other European capitals. As Prime Minister George Papandreou embarked on his doomed attempt to reach agreement with opposition party leaders, the only place where there seemed to be any unity of opinion was on the streets.

Student protestors in London raged against a coalition government pricing many of them out of university education, Italians vented their frustration at the seemingly impossible survival of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi while in Athens private and public sector workers expressed their anger at the latest set of reforms that are changing the face of Greek society.

Amid this turmoil, like the fishing boat skipper setting out for sea as the perfect storm looms, Papandreou cast his nets in the hope of catching a public relations victory. His effort to achieve “consensus” can be seen as nothing else but a frivolous foray into the choppy waters of political gamesmanship when there are much more pressing issues to deal with, such as thousands of Greeks losing their jobs and the country going through a violent adjustment to economic reality.

At a time when Greece, as well as many other countries in Europe are beginning to resemble the fractured British society of the Margaret Thatcher years, one of the former UK prime minister’s comments comes to mind: “To me, consensus seems to be the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies. So it is something in which no one believes and to which no one objects.” It perfectly sums last week’s aborted attempt to build accord between the parties.

Ostensibly, Papandreou invited the other party leaders for talks to find common ground on the challenging reforms prescribed by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund and to adopt common positions ahead of the EU leaders’ summit in Brussels at the end of last week, where politicians were due to agree on the details of the permanent support mechanism for members with sovereign debt problems. In reality, though, there were no grounds for believing that any of the political leaders would agree to common positions on the reforms or on what positions Greece should adopt at the EU negotiations.

It was delusional to expect any kind of understanding on the structural changes given that they were due to be voted through Parliament a few hours after the party leaders met Papandreou. It’s no formula for success to encourage someone to join you on a journey when your bags are already packed, the keys are in the ignition and the engine is running. Understandably, none of the other leaders decided to jump in the moving vehicle. As New Democracy chief Antonis Samaras pointed out, there is a world of difference between “consensus” and “consent.” None of the other parties had been consulted about the content of the bill on the restructuring of public utilities such as the Hellenic Railways Organization (OSE) and the redrafting of labour laws. Once the legislation has been submitted to the House, the role of the opposition parties is to debate it and then vote for or against it – the time for consensus-building has passed. But even at this late stage, the government did all it could to antagonize the opposition rather than encourage unity by submitting the reforms as an emergency bill and thereby limiting debating time to an absolute minimum. It’s no surprise that the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) leader Alexis Tsipras decided to boycott the talks with Papandreou – being portrayed as an accessory to policies you do not agree with, nor have had any part in shaping is not something that any young politician wants to have on their CV.

The reasoning that Tuesday’s “consensus” talks would firm up Greece’s positions ahead of the EU leaders’ summit was also feeble. Papandreou had already made his government’s ideas on some of the key issues crystal clear both at home and abroad. He had been shouting from the European rooftops for some time that Athens was in favour of the creation of a Eurobond and against private bondholders having to accept lower returns, or a “haircut”, on their investment as part of a permanent bailout scheme. It’s implausible that Papandreou would have suddenly performed a volte-face because Communist Party (KKE) leader Aleka Papariga or the Popular Orthodox Rally’s (LAOS) Giorgos Karatzaferis expressed misgivings. As it turned out, the Brussels summit was a damp squib rather than a landmark moment demanding national agreement from all of Greece’s politicians.

There is no doubt there are few choices in the sticky position Greece finds itself– there is never much wiggle room when you have been backed into a corner. But this doesn’t mean that everyone has to agree on the course being followed to get Greece out of the crisis. After all, it has never been the role of any opposition to provide the sitting government with succour. Its duty has always been to challenge the government’s policies, to highlight its failings and to offer alternatives. One area where Greece’s opposition parties can be seriously criticized is not in their inability to find common ground with PASOK but in their failure to provide plausible alternatives. Samaras developed a pie-in-the-sky scheme to wipe out Greece’s debt by the end of 2011, which was roundly rejected in the November local elections. In democracies, opposition parties have and always will be judged by the quality of their opposition, not the level of consensus they achieve with the government.

Greece is going through a period of immense upheaval, during which, as Samaras said “the terms by which millions of Greeks live are changing.” Clearly, if everybody agreed on the recipe for change, this process would be straightforward but it would also mean our living, breathing democracy would be brain dead. If people are not to question their government’s choices now, then when? Why shouldn’t voters or politicians doubt the efficacy or fairness of some of the EU-IMF-prescribed decisions?

From the latest package of reforms, for instance, few would argue with reducing wages at public enterprises, where many employees had built cash-lined fiefdoms, and cutting costs at public transport companies that are losing taxpayers’ money by the bus-load. In fact, New Democracy supported these provisions, proving that you don’t go in search of consensus; you build it around your ideas. In contrast, it was much more difficult for the opposition parties to back the articles of last week’s bill that allow companies to bypass collective labour contracts by offering employees in-house deals. This is a clear challenge to the rights of employees in the private sector, who unlike their pampered public sector counterparts have only been enjoying the protection offered by collective contracts since the 1990s. These agreements, which blossomed after Greece’s entry into the EU, are designed to give workers more reasonable pay and conditions and shelter from unscrupulous bosses, of whom there are many in Greece. As such, they are completely in keeping with the EU’s ideal of creating fairer, more socially conscious societies. To strip away these rights, which include respectable compensation deals for sacked employees, as jobs dry up and Greeks have to think about how they’re going to feed themselves and their families only increases the sense of insecurity.

Equally importantly, it’s an affront to the section of Greek society that has carried the country for the last few decades. Private sector workers, of whom there are about 2 million in Greece, have been the ones who have consistently paid their taxes and social security contributions – after all, their wages are taxed at source. Whether the employers who have withheld this money have been equally diligent is another question. Yet, despite their unswerving dedication to fairness and the advancement of national cause, it’s these workers that find themselves being punished by the latest measures, which look like a precursor to collective contracts being scrapped altogether and private sector wages being forced down.

In this climate, therefore, it seems unrealistic, almost offensive that voters and opposition politicians are being asked to give their consent without the government making any effort to win what is a crucial argument. The bypassing of Parliament and collective contracts and the mantra that “there is no alternative” does not make for a healthy democracy, or for a public that can find much good in the measures. It’s a mix that leads to people losing their belief in the political system and seeking answers, a voice and, in some cases retribution, on the streets. After all, the way things are going, this is where an increasing number of Greeks will find themselves anyway.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Kathimerini English Edition on December 20, 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

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.

No sleep till Athens

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

There isn’t much to laugh about in Greece at the moment. So, it was with great pleasure that I read an e-mail last week from one of our readers in the USA in which he suggested how Greece could overcome its economic problems. One of his ideas was that Greeks should stop taking lunchtime siestas because they lose valuable working time. It was the first time I laughed out loud for weeks. I don’t know any Greeks under the age of 65 that take a nap at lunchtime, apart perhaps from my son. But he’s only 20 months old, so perhaps he can be forgiven for not using these hours to contribute to the country’s gross domestic product.

Although the e-mail from America provided a moment of light relief, it left a bittersweet taste because it also underlined how the crisis has created a negative stereotype of Greeks. It is patently obvious that many Europeans, especially Germans, are convinced Greece is full of freeloading slackers. The reality, though, is different. For instance, Eurostat’s figures for the average working hours in Europe for 2009 indicate that Greeks work an average of 42 hours a week. The EU average was 40.3 hours and in Germany it was 40.8. In fact, the Greek figure is the highest in all of the 27 EU countries.

So, if the Greeks work so hard why is their country in such a mess? Well, one answer is that working long hours does not necessarily mean you are productive. In fact, in Greece you often end up working longer because of the inefficiencies of the system. The time you could be using productively may be spent queuing at a public service to get paperwork stamped or writing out invoices by hand because there is no computerized accounting system.

Of course, there are very clear economic and financial reasons for Greece’s collapse but the causes of the illness go much deeper. One of the most serious underlying problems is a bloated and decaying public sector which neglects to punish inefficiency and indifference. Until 2007, according to World Bank data, it took 38 days to set up a business in Greece. In Djibouti it was 37 days. Of course, what statistics cannot measure is the frustration that causes so many people to lose the will to fight the system and eventually play by its warped rules, even if this involves corrupt practices. And what sustains this vicious circle? Political expediency. Governments created this monster and were afraid to tackle it because their support base, and therefore their destinies, were tied not just to the public sector but to the array of professions that are interlinked with it, such as doctors, civil engineers, lawyers, notaries and farmers.

Whatever you do in Greece, you cannot avoid dealing with the state and coming up against its inertia. According to Eurostat, roughly one in 10 Greek adults is a civil servant, which is the highest proportion anywhere in the EU. This is a legacy of the 1980s, when the governments of Andreas Papandreou’s socialist PASOK sought to balance years of right-wing rule and dictatorship by finding jobs for the party faithful. Since then, each government has treated the civil service as just another party apparatus, hiring more people even when the country couldn’t afford it.

But, again, the story of the Greek public sector is a symptom of the problem rather than the root cause, which lies in the country’s political system. Since the 1970s, Greece has been ruled by two parties that helped themselves rather than the country. They awarded their friends jobs or state contracts and as soon as any social group or sections of the media resisted an attempt to change the status quo, they would cave in and abandon the offending policy. So, it’s no surprise that an opinion poll by GPO for Mega TV this week indicated that 54.3 percent of Greeks believe all the recent governments, rather than a specific one, are responsible for the current crisis.

The previous New Democracy government of Costas Karamanlis is blamed by 20 percent of those questioned. Karamanlis and his ministers have a lot to answer for. At a crucial time for the global economy and despite having a comfortable majority in his first term, Karamanlis dodged any attempt at structural reform. Instead, he handed over questionable statistics, a spiraling deficit and no new ideas.

But the current PASOK government is not without blame. As assured as Prime Minister George Papandreou may look on the international stage now, he had no idea how to be a constructive opposition leader for the previous five years. In fact, the period from 2004 to 2009 will go down as a barren time in Greek politics, when no party could come up with a vision for Greece. The leftist parties — the Communists (KKE) and the SYRIZA coalition — were content to simply battle for control of the unions. This fight is continuing and, as the crisis puts the unions in the spotlight, it is clear they have failed to overcome their esoteric attitude. Even now, they have not been able to refine their tactics beyond that of blackmail — if the government does something they don’t like, they block ministry entrances or central Athens.

So, when people ask “Why did Greece end up in this mess?” perhaps the best answer is that it would have been a miracle if it hadn’t done so. It’s only now that Greeks are beginning to realize the damage that has been done to the country over the last decades and that, as voters, they actively encouraged it. They were happy to turn a blind eye as PASOK exploited the public sector in the 1980s; they were equally oblivious to the failures of socialist and conservative governments in the 1990s, when money from the EU began to flow into Greece; and during the last decade, when entry into the euro secured cheap loans and a comfortable way of life, nobody wanted to ask any difficult questions.

The realization is a painful one for Greeks — it’s like thinking you have entertained a friend by taking him out for a few drinks only to find out that you actually fed his alcoholism.

The recovery from this crisis will not just depend on the emergency loans from the IMF, Germany and the other eurozone countries. It will not depend just on growth rates and bond spreads. It will, to a great extent, depend on whether Greeks are now prepared to take the extra step to demand better of their public sector, push for the private sector to be allowed to flourish and, above all, be ruthless with incompetent and cowardly politicians. To do all this when your salary is shrinking, your taxes are increasing and your livelihood is at risk is not an easy task. For all these reasons, Americans, Germans and everybody else should know that Greeks will not be sleeping well at night for many years to come, let alone taking lunchtime siestas.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and appeared in Athens Plus on May 7.

A third way

Illustration by Manos Symeonakia

A prime minister who’s abandoned his socialist roots, an opposition that doesn’t know how to profit from the failings of a beleaguered government, a terrifying deficit that will take years to tame, a staggering rate of borrowing, fear that the International Monetary Fund will have to be called in and a smaller opposition party that is threatening to shake up the established order: All of these apply to both Britain and Greece apart from the last one. Whereas the Liberal Democrats are set to capitalize on economic uncertainty and political fatigue by making a discernible impact on the May 6 general elections, Greek politics remains devoid of a credible third voice.

The way the Liberals, and particularly their leader Nick Clegg, have exploded into life during this election campaign has defied perceived political wisdom and will undoubtedly make other European parties that have struggled to make an impact sit up and take note. Before Britain’s first-ever televised leaders’ debate last Thursday, Clegg’s fieriest moment was when as a drunken 16-year-old exchange student, he set fire to a German professor’s collection of rare cacti. On Thursday, though, he lit the election campaign’s blue touch paper.

Confident, clear and coherent, Clegg captured the imagination of many of the 10 million viewers. Regardless of what questions members of the audience posed, Clegg had an underlying aim to connect with the frustration people feel about power ending up in the hands of the same two parties all the time – a sentiment Greek voters could sympathize with. “Nick Clegg possessed the great advantage of having a simple, clear message that fitted with his wider campaign,” wrote Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer. “That message is that Britain has been let down for decades by the other two. His most resonant line of the night was when he said: ‘The more they attack each other, the more they sound exactly the same.’”

Clegg brought something different to the table: Labour leader Gordon Brown was the full fat milk that has turned sour, Conservative leader David Cameron was the cappuccino froth that dissolves as soon as you touch it but the Liberal Democrat was the raw carrot juice that could inject new energy into the country. Clegg’s impact was not just down to his accomplished appearance though. The essence of his popularity – which could help his party become a partner in coalition government next month – derived from the fact that the electorate was being presented with a credible alternative, one that would allow them to act on their frustrations with the two main parties but not risk putting power in the hands of an incompetent or irrelevant one instead. “The Clegg bounce seems to me to speak of an electorate that wants to change the terms of the contest they are being offered and is simply looking for a means to do it,” wrote Martin Kettle in The Guardian. “They want to show two fingers to the main parties. They want to drag them down to size, knock them off their pedestal.”

The unaligned voter is a growing phenomenon in Greece but despite the country facing many similar political and economic challenges to Britain, there is no evidence of a third party emerging as a serious player here. The Communist Party (KKE), which received the third largest share of the vote in last year’s election, is content with engaging in spoiling tactics. Exercising control over unions that punch above their weight is the limit of the Communists’ political ambition, as was evident this week when a light sprinkling of PAME members obstructed hotels in central Athens and Piraeus port.

The nationalists of the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) have steadily improved their ratings in recent years but their message remains too populist, too lacking in substance and, in some instances, too hateful to carry any considerable credence. LAOS will continue to generate passionate support from a relatively small band of voters, as long as it prefers to devote itself to tittle-tattle rather than real policies.

The only party with the potential to break out of this perpetual cycle is the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA). At a time when jobs are at stake and quality of life is set to nosedive, a competent leftist party should be able to make itself heard. Die Linke, the emerging party of the left in Germany, has proven that the financial and economic crisis provides fertile ground for attracting supporters who are disillusioned with capitalism. Although a centrist party, the Liberal Democrats are further to left on some issues, such as taxation, than the Labour party.

So, why isn’t the formula working for SYRIZA? Because, unlike Clegg, leftist leader Alexis Tsipras chooses to ignore that in order to attract the skeptical voter, you have to go to him, not call him over to you. SYRIZA prefers to paint itself into a corner, to turn itself into an insurgent party conducting raids against the government, rather than to open its embrace and draw strength from greater numbers. A typical example came this week when, with the prospect of Greece borrowing from the IMF growing by the day, Tsipras demanded a referendum on the issue. Rather than the leader of a mature party, it made him look like a high school student calling for a vote on whether pupils should be made to sit exams. If Tsipras cannot understand that recourse to the IMF will not be a matter of choice, then he really should not be allowed anywhere near a political platform. And, if Greece were to hold this referendum, what next? Presumably, the majority of Greeks would say “no” to the IMF. Would we then hold another referendum to decide who we borrow from instead?

Tsipras’s suggestion looks like nothing more than a juvenile stunt. It ignores the fact that more than four in 10 Greeks voted PASOK into power to take decisions on their behalf. Yes, the economic situation has changed dramatically but part of a government’s mission is to adapt. What Greece’s smaller parties refuse to accept, unlike the Liberal Democrats, is that their real responsibility is to provide a credible alternative, not just channel bitterness and frustration. Political power lies in making decisions, not just in voicing your opinion. As long as KKE, LAOS and SYRIZA are content with being backseat drivers, Greek voters will not have a party with the potential to lead them along a different, third, way. And this, rather than the IMF or the public deficit, is what will make the country poorer.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and appeared in Athens Plus on April 23.

Reading the signs

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

If there’s anything to be gained from being stuck in an interminable Athens traffic jam, it’s that we get an opportunity to pose ourselves existential questions like “Why do I do this to myself?” and “Why do we do this to each other?” The more immediate and practical answer becomes apparent when the amber lights on the matrix display above the street gleam, one after another, like cigarette lighters being thrust into the air at a soft-rock concert, spelling out: “Rally. Center closed.”

These are three words every Athenian is familiar with. They’ve been seared onto our retinas. In fact, they could be the perfect motto for Athens, the city where unrest never rests and where disquiet is never quiet.

“Rally. Center closed” flashed up more often than usual over the past few days, as several thousand people took to the streets to commemorate the anniversary of the killing of teenager Alexis Grigoropoulos. The upheaval that followed his shooting last December was the crystallization of the turmoil that plays out on Athens’s streets with predictable regularity. It was, however, more direct, more potent and more devastating than the usual protests.

A year on though, as a Public Issue poll for last Sunday’s Kathimerini indicated, we are still struggling to understand what happened and what it means for this country’s future. We examine last December’s events hoping that by sifting through the protests, the riots, the vandalism and the general outpouring of anger and frustration, we can find the answers to some of the existential questions that trouble us.

But perhaps the answers lie not so much in what actually happened but in how we’ve interpreted what happened. Among the poll’s most significant findings are that 52 percent of those questioned believe last December’s events were a “social uprising” – but 45 percent disagree; 51 percent think only a minority was involved, whereas 45 percent believe it was a mass movement; 51 percent think the protesters were not being incited but 42 percent think they were.

In assessing last December’s events, we are in perfect disagreement, which is a dominant feature of our society. It’s a form of disharmony that means the right cannot agree on much and those on the left turn their backs on each other; that civil servants work against rather than for the citizens who pay their salaries; that students can protest about the same thing at the same time in the same city center but in groups that are not in contact with each other; that Greens cannot watch a soccer match in the same stadium as Reds; and which prompts each minority to pursue its niche demands at the expense of the rest of the population.

The Public Issue survey underlines that Greece is a society at odds with itself, where a common view is always beyond reach, where one group is pitted against another and where consensus is torn apart like a chew toy thrown to a pack of Dobermans. So, maybe it’s time for us to look at this pervasive division as the key factor behind last December’s events rather than trying to work out whether it was a “social uprising” or a “mass movement.”

It’s very tempting, as some have done, to look back on the unrest of 12 months ago as being the lovechild of France’s May of 1968 but such comparisons are rooted in nostalgia. The December 2008 protests had no common purpose, whereas in 1968 a key aim was to bring down the existing government, shift the political system to the left and create a new morality. Yes, New Democracy lost power after 10 months – but at its own hand rather than anyone else’s. In fact, the riots did not even force the resignation of then Interior Minister Prokopis Pavlopoulos, which would have been a given in most other European countries.

While the intensity and persistence of the protests last year were impressive, they did not have the broad appeal or participation that some would like to believe. In France, 11 million workers went on strike for two weeks in 1968, bringing the country – not just a city center – to its knees. Also, French workers and students united in their opposition to the government of Charles de Gaulle. Here, this solidarity was fleeting and it was not long before each group was protesting on its own. On the political front, the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) isolated itself by adopting an equivocal stance on where the protests ended and vandalism began, PASOK and the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) exploited the situation as much as they could, while the Communist Party fulfilled the role of the sage elder of the tribe, urging for a more mature form of opposition.

That this movement, albeit not a mass one, should blossom out of nowhere last December and then split into various disparate branches was absolute confirmation that the country’s youth cannot help but be sucked into Greek society’s vicious circle. In simply raging against the system, they registered their presence on the landscape but did little to change it. By taking to the streets to vent their frustrations, they thought they were making a bold statement on behalf of a new generation but in fact they were speaking their parents’ language of selfishness and bloody-mindedness.

In a society as divided as Greece’s, the only way people know how to communicate is through conflict, by butting their heads against each other – we see it when we are in our cars, on our TV screens, at public service offices, in banks and at sports grounds. The philosophy of “I rage, therefore I am” is best manifested in our public protests, where either one man and his dog or tens of thousands of people voice their cause in the central Athens and demand that the rest of us listen.

There’s an average of more than two protests a day in Athens, as each group, no matter how small or large, attempts to take what it believes it’s entitled to by force, foregoing any opportunity of uniting with other aggrieved workers, establishing common positions, putting forward proposals. The fragmented nature of this opposition and the frequency of the rallies dilute their impact and undermine the moral basis they may have. The only thing they succeed in doing is to antagonize the majority that suffers from the constant protests and so, in turn, more grist is fed to the mill of discontent.

There is no doubt that last December was a landmark – not because it marked the dawn of a new era but because it saw a new generation fall into the whirlpool of self-destructiveness that is dragging Greece down. The only hope is that this generation will be quicker to understand its mistakes and to find different ways of communicating than those that went before it. If not, the country’s future is already written – we only have to look up and see it in bright lights right in front of us: “Rally. Center closed.”

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on December 11, 2009.