Posts Tagged 'left'

For Greek mainstream parties, it’s still business as usual

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By Harry van Versendaal

It almost defies reason. Six years into a wrenching recession and amid heavy speculation of a snap election next year, Greece’s mainstream parties are still locked in a self-destructive business-as-usual mode.

The survival of the power-sharing government seems to depend upon support from a critical mass of disaffected – albeit moderate – middle-class voters who are wary of the implications of an anti-bailout SYRIZA administration. And yet New Democracy and PASOK coalition politicians continue to dangerously indulge in the bad old partisan habits that are, at least in part, responsible for the nation’s current woes.

“This is all path dependence. It is not really rational, but this is what they know well, what they have been doing all these years,” says Elias Dinas, a political scientist at the University of Nottingham, ahead of a Greek Public Policy Forum conference later this month on Crete which is set to discuss the impact of the euro debt crisis on national party politics and the European project.

The Greek Cabinet primarily consists of MPs who are picked on the basis of preference votes. “This creates personal obstacles for the implementation of reforms. You need a large stock of support to enter into seemingly painful negotiations with specific professional sectors,” Dinas says.

The abrupt closure of Greece’s public broadcaster ERT earlier this summer, traditionally seen as a political fiefdom of the ruling party, raised some hopes among pro-reform centrists that – notwithstanding the questionable legality of the move – Prime Minister Antonis Samaras was finally prepared to build on a clean sheet and break with a long tradition of corruption and political patronage. Those expectations were soon defeated by a number of less-than-transparent appointments at ERT’s successor, DT, and a very messy launch that has been a cause of constant embarrassment for the government.

“The logic that has prevailed in this administration is a minimum-cost logic. This is clearly a very risk-averse government, primarily aiming at maintain marginal support and sacrificing reforms that might potentially harm this fragile equilibrium,” says Dinas, an expert on the development of partisan preferences.

The government has largely shied away from much-hyped structural reforms aimed at unlocking growth and creating jobs. The most common response to pressure from Greece’s foreign lenders – the European Union and the International Monetary Fund – has been haphazard, horizontal measures designed to meet nominal staff reduction targets in the country’s sizable public sector.

Samaras, who has been premier since June 2012, has heralded Greece as a “success story,” but the numbers tell a very different one. Unemployment is stubbornly stuck above 27 percent. A stunning 58.8 percent of under-25s are out of work. Over 20 percent live beneath the poverty line. The number of live births has declined by 10 percent since 2009, while suicides have soared.

Many analysts say that it is realistic to expect the debt-wracked nation to need further support from the eurozone before it can return to the markets. It is estimated that Greece will need around 10-11 bullion euros for the second half of 2014 to stay afloat next year and in 2015 – a prospect dreaded by euro-area governments faced with an increasingly skeptical public opinion.

The big shake-up

The crisis has radically transformed the two-party political system which was established after the collapse of a seven-year military dictatorship in 1974. A long-lasting tradition of nepotism gives the impression that Greece’s fate is in the hands of the same people who created the mess.

“But we must not forget that after the May 2012 election, PASOK has seen its vote decrease to unprecedented levels while New Democracy is still a key player only because of a record increase in party system fragmentation,” Dinas says. Last year’s vote still has the record of all inter-election volatility indices among established democracies, comparable only to the very first and formative elections of new democratic regimes.

Used to sweeping more than 40 percent of the vote, PASOK is now polling around 7 percent. A Public Issue survey published last week suggested that the conservatives have slipped behind SYRIZA, although a majority of respondents still consider Samaras a more suitable premier than opposition leader Alexis Tsipras.

“I cannot see a clear solution to the crisis in the foreseeable future, which means that a SYRIZA government might at some point become inevitable,” Dinas says.

However, the big shake-up of the Greek political system came with a self-destruct button. Neo-Nazi Golden Dawn is now polling at 13 percent, almost double the figure for PASOK.

The party with the swastika-like emblem already controls 18 seats in the 300-member House after winning nearly 7 percent in the May elections. Its members have been repeatedly connected to violent attacks on immigrants, gays and political opponents. In the latest assault, nine members of the Communist party (KKE) were hospitalized last week after suspected Golden Dawn supporters wielding metal clubs and poles set upon them while they were putting up posters in Perama, near Piraeus.

The response from New Democracy – which only provided a belated and rather vague condemnation of the Perama assault – has been uncomfortably cynical. Party spinmeisters and conservative pundits have tried to play the polarization card by investing heavily in what is known as the theory of the two extremes. The idea is to discredit SYRIZA by playing up abusive language and rowdy behavior on the left and equating it with far-right violence.

At the same time, Samaras’s hard-line approach on illegal immigration combined with a political credo animated by emphasis on devotion to the nation, Orthodoxy and traditional values aspires to hijack Golden Dawn’s strongest catchment area. Studies show that four in 10 Golden Dawn voters in the May ballot came from the New Democracy camp.

Bridge building

All this polarized multipartism is unsustainable in the long run, Dinas says. One way to ease the pressure on the political system would be to reduce the number of parties in Parliament, now seven – an unlikely prospect given that all of the newly formed parties have more or less held their own since the last election. To avoid implosion, Dinas thinks, Greece’s political system must rather aim to build bridges between the pro- and anti-bailout camps, mainly by priming issue dimensions where there is room for consent, or, equivalently, potential for within-group divisions.

“This is the strategy that Abraham Lincoln used to win the 1860 US presidential election, introducing slavery as a new cleavage cross-cutting the existing cleavage structure and dividing the Democrats internally,” he says.

For Greece’s post-1974 system, the predicament is an existential one: Golden Dawn’s threat to democracy must become the glue for political action.

A lot will have to change. Until the May election, the political class was simply too busy with its own survival to grapple with the rise of Golden Dawn, as the grouping made its crucial early steps by operating as the typical local mafia branch, Dinas says, describing a protection industry that used conventional – and often illegal – means to provide services in the state’s stead.

Since then, Dinas says, the picture is similar to the contrast between guerilla and incumbent warfare in civil wars. Golden Dawn employs grassroots practices that are specifically targeted at local communities, such as – Greek-only – food handouts, blood drives and neighborhood patrols. Mainstream political parties, on the other hand, try to challenge the party through their discourse in the media. The problem, as several surveys demonstrate, is that the mainstream media – like most of the country’s other institutions – are heavily discredited in the eyes of angry voters. The elite message easily plays into the hands of the anti-systemic party.

“For Golden Dawn supporters, any criticism coming from the main parties against their own party is not going to change their sentiments; if it does, it will probably be in the opposite direction,” Dinas says.

The political system, he says, needs to adopt a different strategy – one that is built around the idea that representative democracy cannot tolerate its enemies.

“What needs to be done is to challenge Golden Dawn using its own means. You need a strong state that is prepared to take legal action against any deviation from the law in order to confront the problem,” says Dinas while also stressing the need to invest resources in creating strong social disincentives for the party’s supporters, in schools, the working environment and universities.

“One of the reasons Golden Dawn has been successful is that it provides a clear and unambiguous identity; everyone needs to belong somewhere. There is a whole socialization process,” Dinas says. For a state that managed to mobilize support for the criminal regime of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s, a similar anti-fascist mobilization should be a doable task, he says.

“Otherwise, Golden Dawn can only fall if it tries to embrace the political system,” says Dinas, pointing a finger at other radical right parties in Europe – such as the Freedom Party of Austria and Geert Wilder’s Party for Freedom in the Netherlands – that lost most of their appeal once they entered government coalitions.

“To be sure, this is not a prospect that we should be looking forward to.”

Mazower warns Greece is underestimating threat of Golden Dawn

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By Harry van Versendaal

Greeks must not underestimate the threat of Golden Dawn if they accept it as a legitimate, mainstream political movement British historian Mark Mazower said Tuesday.

Speaking during a lecture on Greece’s political extremes at Deree – The American College of Greece, Mazower did not hesitate to draw parallels between the Greek far right party and the nationalist socialist (Nazi) party of the 1930s.

“There is commonality of approach,” he said of the two parties stressing their emphasis on biological racism and violent street tactics that sets them apart from other European nationalist movements like Le Pen’s National Front party.

Golden Dawn officials vehemently deny any Nazi affiliation saying they are Greek nationalists and that they have nothing to do with Hitler or Mussolini.

“Any right-wing party worth its salt is keen to stress its nationalist credentials,” said 55-year-old Mazower, an expert on Greece and the Balkans who teaches history at Columbia University.

Greece’s brutal financial crisis has catapulted Golden Dawn, for years at the fringes of domestic politics, into the spotlight. A recent opinion poll put the party’s support at 11.5 percent, compared to the 7 percent that it garnered in June’s election. This puts the party, which currently holds 18 seats in the 300-member House, in third place behind conservative coalition leader New Democracy and leftist opposition SYRIZA.

Reports of deadly attacks against immigrants by alleged supporters of Golden Dawn and its open endorsement of the country’s 1967-1974 military dictatorship have not dented its appeal among voters in a country where national self-understanding has to a significant degree been shaped by the fight against the Nazis and opposition to the junta.

Mazower, who has written a number of books on 20th century Greek and European history, said Greece’s political class has failed to assume culpability or accept even a symbolic share of the burden that the population has had to shoulder as a result of the painful bailout agreements. Nevertheless, he said, Greeks must not turn their back on the democratic legacy of the post-1974 era.

“People need to defend the achievement of the metapolitefsi,” he said of what is widely regarded as the longest period of democratic stability in the country’s modern history.

However, he said, they should try to remedy the system’s failings starting with “the credibility of the political class.”

Mazower was critical of the Greek left “that never made a mental break from the image of revolution.” But in a nod to the ongoing debate among pundits and historians in Greece concerning public toleration of leftist radicalism, the London-born academic drew the line at of equating far right and far left violence.

“Some say all forms of lawlessness are equally dangerous. I disagree,” said Mazower adding that left-wing protests and law-breaking behavior have not put Greek democracy in jeopardy.

He said historical attempts to underline the “fundamental kinship” between fascism and communism – bringing them both under the label of “totalitatarianism” – are flawed.

“The totalitarianism thesis has been abandoned for very good reason,” he said criticizing recent attempts by conservative politicians in Greece to revive the debate in a bid to score political points against SYRIZA.

Instead of going after anarchist-run squats in Athens which are of little political importance, New Democracy should rather direct its energy and attention at the bigger threat that is Golden Dawn, Mazower said referring to recent police raids on several abandoned buildings in Athens.

“Unfortunately the Greek state does not seem to realize the urgency of the situation,” he said.

The genealogy of violence

By Harry van Versendaal

When Dimitris Stratoulis, a leftist lawmaker, was assaulted by alleged far-right extremists at a soccer stadium last month, many in Greece found it hard to disguise feeling some degree of Schadenfreude.

It appeared that the tables had finally turned on Greece’s main SYRIZA opposition party, which has in the past failed to provide a convincing condemnation – some would say it in fact silently condoned – similar attacks on its political opponents.

Greeks have traditionally been more accustomed to social unrest and political disobedience than their European Union peers, but the meteoric rise of Golden Dawn, a neo-Nazi party that was comfortably voted into Parliament for the first time last year, has spawned a local Historikerstreit, a contested debate among politicians and pundits about the causes and the nature of violence.

Ideological hegemony

Interestingly, some critics have gone as far as to blame Golden Dawn’s shocking surge on the country’s left, which, despite losing the civil war, went on to win the ideological hegemony. Public tolerance of left-wing radicalism in the years following the end of the military dictatorship in 1974 – what is commonly referred to in Greece as “metapolitefsi” – allegedly laid the ground for Golden Dawn’s violent extremism in providing some sort of social legitimacy.

“Only blindness or bias would prevent someone from noticing the connection between public attitudes regarding the violence of the extreme left and the rise of the violent extreme right in Greece,” said Stathis Kalyvas, a political science professor and an expert on the subject of political violence at the University of Yale.

“If public attitudes vis-a-vis leftist violence had been different, the extreme right would have been much more constrained in its use of violence today,” he said, stressing however that there is no casual relationship between the violence of the two political extremes.

Blogger Konstantinos Palaskas, a contributor to the liberal Ble Milo (Blue Apple) blog, says that the antics of left-wing and anarchist troublemakers during protest marches and university and school occupations over the last 30 years, and the public’s acceptance of them, have significantly influenced the players of the new far-right.

“The left’s violent interventions, its disregard for the law, and the acceptance of its lawbreaking activity by a section of society – combined with the state’s tolerance of all this – were a lesson for people at the other end [of the political spectrum],” said Palaskas.

The habit forms at an early stage. The governing of universities has for years been hijacked by political parties and youth party officials. The country only recently scrapped an asylum law that prevented police from entering university campuses, hence allowing left-leaning activists to rampage through laboratories and lecture theaters.

Despite incidents of rectors being taken hostage, university offices being trashed and labs used for non-academic purposes, many Greeks remain uncomfortable with the idea of police entering university grounds and more than a few support SYRIZA’s promise to repeal the law if it forms a government.

Beyond the universities, left-wing unionists – like the Communist Party (KKE)’s militant PAME group – traditionally organize street blockades and sit-ins at public buildings as a form of protest. Mass rallies, interpreted by many as a sign of a vibrant democracy, regularly turn violent and destructive. Groups of hooded youths carrying stones and petrol bombs ritually clash with riot police, who respond with tear gas and stun grenades. Public property is damaged, banks are set on fire and cars are smashed, but arrests and convictions are surprisingly rare.

Serious injuries and fatalities were also rare, until May 2010, when three people were killed as hooded protesters set fire to a branch of Marfin Bank in central Athens during a general strike over planned austerity measures. Demonstrators marching past the burning bank shouted slogans against the workers trapped inside the building. No arrests have been made in connection with the murders, which many leftists have blamed – like other similar incidents – on agents provocateurs.

A few months later, Costis Hatzidakis, a conservative heavyweight who is now development minister, was beaten up by unidentified protesters before being led away bleeding on the sidelines of a demonstration against the then Socialist government’s cost-cutting policies.

The reaction of SYRIZA, a collection of leftist, even militant groupings, to such incidents has been rather ambiguous as the party – which denies links to violent groupings – has repeatedly fallen short of providing a clear-cut condemnation of violence.

“We condemn violence but we understand the frustration of those who react violently to the violence of the memorandum,” SYRIZA chief Alexis Tsipras said of the painful bailout agreement signed with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. Critics responded by accusing the left of giving in to ethical relativism, by seeking to differentiate between “good” and “bad” violence as it sees fit.

A few months ago, SYRIZA refused to vote for a motion by the Parliament’s ethics committee that condemned violence, arguing that the text should refer to “racist violence” and not just “violence.” Party officials appeared concerned that the motion could be used to sabotage acts of popular struggle versus the injustices of the state. KKE, as is its wont, chose to abstain from the vote.

When the residents of Keratea, a small town 40 kilometers southeast of Athens, fought, often violently, with police forces for three months over the planned construction of a huge landfill in the area, Tsipras hailed the “town that has become a symbol for the whole of Greece.”

But nowhere has social tolerance of violence been more evident than in the case of domestic terrorism. November 17, a self-styled Marxist urban guerrilla group, assassinated 25 people in 103 attacks from 1975 until it was disbanded in 2002. One of the reasons the terrorists managed to remain elusive for so long, many analysts believe, was that its actions, mostly targeting American officials and members of Greece’s wealthy “big bourgeois class,” did not enrage the mainstream public, fed on years of anti-American rhetoric from long-serving socialist Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou.

“Public opinion, as recorded in several surveys, viewed terrorists either with sympathy or indifference. There was hardly any mass mobilization against this group,” Kalyvas said.

In an opinion poll conducted a few months before the dismantling of November 17, 23.7 percent of respondents – nearly one in four – said they accepted the organization’s political and ideological views, although most said they disagreed with its practices. Only 31.3 percent said they wanted the guerrillas to put their guns down and turn themselves in to the authorities. Later, many on the left slammed the government’s anti-terror law as an attempt to crack down on civil liberties.

For Kalyvas, in a public arena saturated with rhetorical violence – for example the increasingly frequent calls for hanging or executing traitors, especially during the Indignant protest gatherings in central Syntagma Square in the summer of 2011 – it was perhaps predictable that the violence of the extreme right may strike a large number of people as a quasi-legitimate political weapon.

“How surprising can it be to see the public responding in this way, after four decades of being consistently told that political violence can be justified?” he asked.

The rise of populism

Vassiliki Georgiadou, a political scientist at Panteion University in Athens, agrees that the tolerance of violence may have played a role in the rise of Golden Dawn. But there was nothing particularly left-wing about the displays of lawlessness, she points out.

“Sure, the law was often not enforced, there was an anything-goes mentality, a sense that people stand above the institutions,” Georgiadou said.

“But this was not an exclusively leftist outlook. It was more the outgrowth of a populist outburst that swept across the left-right spectrum. And it was a PASOK creation. PASOK was the creator of populism in the post-dictatorship era,” she said.

But it was not just the populism. Like other analysts, Georgiadou attributes Golden Dawn’s soaring influence to popular disillusionment with the country’s crumbling institutions.

“It was the discrediting of political institutions, of the political class, and of the operation of democracy that allowed anti-systemic, far-right extremism to flourish,” she said.

When Golden Dawn spokesman and MP Ilias Kasidiaris repeatedly slapped Liana Kanelli, a long-serving Communist deputy, in the face on live television last summer in a fit of frenzy, many, instead of being shocked, saw the move as an attack on the country’s bankrupt status quo, despite the Communist Party not having ever risen to power in any election. In contrast to most analysts’ expectations, Golden Dawn’s ratings rose following the incident.

The trend did not occur overnight. For more than a decade, public surveys have found Greeks to have among the lowest rates of trust in political institutions when ranked with their European counterparts. Only 11 percent of Greeks are satisfied with the way democracy operates in the country, a December Eurobarometer survey found, against 89 percent who said the opposite. A scant 5 percent said they have trust in political parties, while a slightly higher number, at 7 percent, said they have trust in the Greek Parliament.

Journalist Xenia Kounalaki readily points a finger at the obvious culprits: the nation’s mainstream political parties, PASOK and New Democracy, who have between them ruled Greece since 1974.

The daughter of a veteran Socialist politician, Kounalaki speaks of “the corruption, the entanglement between media owners and state contractors, and the sense of impunity,” which, she says, pitted a better-connected, privileged chunk of society against the disenfranchised lot that were left out of “the system.”

If the Greek left has something to regret in the surge of the far right, Kounalaki says, it’s that it chose to hold the moral high ground on the issue of immigration instead of articulating a more pragmatic alternative.

“Its stubborn anti-racist rhetoric was hardly convincing among the lower-income groups living in depressed urban centers, lending it a gauche caviar profile,” she said of the nation’s left-wing intelligentsia who preached multiculturalism from the safety of their suburban armchairs.

Greece’s porous borders, combined with the rather unworkable Dublin II convention, which rules that asylum applications must be heard in the first country of entry, made sure that the country became a magnet for hordes of unregistered migrants who eventually get stuck here in a semi-legal limbo.

Family resemblances

Like many others, Kounalaki may be willing to discuss any wrongs by the left in the rise of Golden Dawn, but she rules out any attempts to equate the radicalism on the two sides. Not only are such efforts unwarranted, she says, they are also dangerous.

“Equating the locking up of university professors with Greek neo-Nazi pogroms against migrants leads to relativism and, effectively, legitimizes Golden Dawn violence,” she wrote in a recent publication on violence.

The Hamburg-born journalist, who became the target of anonymous threats on the Golden Dawn website after she wrote an article critical of the party, thinks that equating the two types of violence amounts to a relativism that effectively legitimates far-right violence.

Others are not so sure. When a protest supported by members of Golden Dawn against the staging of Terrence McNally’s “Corpus Christi” led to the cancellation of the “gay Jesus” play’s premiere at the capital’s Hytirio Theater in October, several critics were quick to point to a similar incident in late 2009, when self-styled anarchists burst into a theater and damaged the stage at the premier of Michel Fais’s “Kitrino Skyli” (Yellow Dog), a play inspired by the hideous acid attack on Bulgarian labor union activist Konstantina Kouneva. The anarchists said they were against the theater cashing in on the woman’s ill fortune.

The fact is that left-wing activists have in the past prevented the screening of movies and forcibly interrupted speeches and book presentations.

“Golden Dawn’s hit squads are no different from the groups of left-wing activists that like to blockade streets, assault lawmakers or interfere with academic proceedings,” Palaskas said, adding that violence lies at the heart of both ideological doctrines, which, under certain conditions, treat force as a necessary means to a superior end.

“Attacking a student who collects rubbish around his university dorm, or a professor because he holds different views than you do is no different, from a humanitarian perspective, to attacking a migrant trying to make a living in this country,” he said, referring to a recent feud between students at Thessaloniki’s Aristotle University and leftists supporting striking municipal cleaners when the former tried to clean up growing heaps of rubbish on the campus.

But it is hard to see how such acts, illegal as they may be, can be compared to organized attacks against fellow humans.

“The violence of Golden Dawn carries a very specific ideological weight: discrimination on the basis of skin color or sexual orientation,” Georgiadou said.

“It’s a violence which is directed against individuals. It seeks to deny their universal rights in the most extreme manner and, on top of that, it involves an extreme form of physical abuse,” she said.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other groups recorded 87 racist attacks between January and September last year in Athens, Piraeus and Patra. In 50 of those incidents, the victims suffered serious bodily harm. In 15 of them, victims accused police officers of using violence against them. Many immigrants are reluctant to report such abuses because they don’t have documents or mistrust the police.

Those who put the two types of violence in the same bag seem to suggest that scrapping leftist violence of its social legitimacy would make it easier to combat far-right violence. However, says Giorgos Antoniou, a historian at International Hellenic University, it’s hard to see why one thing would lead to the other.

“Despite the political and social consensus to deal with far-right extremism, this has not been enough to curb [the phenomenon], a fact which underscores the complexity of the situation,” he said.

Part of the system

Perhaps it would be more interesting to examine why Greek society is not willing to condemn violence in general. Part of the explanation can be found in its modern history. During the Second World War, the country suffered massacres and famine in its fight against the Nazis. The specter of the 1967-74 dictatorship also hangs heavy over the country’s modern politics. Far-right violence has bad historical connotations for it is associated with memories of the so-called right-wing “parastate,” the junta and torture.

“Although leftist violence has its origins in equally anti-systemic reasons, motives and objectives, it would be hypocritical not to acknowledge that, for better or worse, it benefits from having been absorbed into the country’s political culture,” Antoniou said.

“The purportedly anti-systemic violence of the far left is in a way at the same time also systemic because a big chunk of the political system and society has accepted it as an integral part of Greek political culture,” he said.

Each time activists used Facebook and other social media to organize peaceful demos against violence in the recent years, these only drew very sparse crowds.

As part of the national narrative, Antoniou says, this type of violence is seen as less of a threat to the nation, thus “undermining democracy in the long run.”

However, should attacks by ultranationalist thugs spread and diversify, people like Stratoulis may eventually come to develop a more inclusive understanding of violence, condemning it in every form: whether racial, sexual or political.

Twilight of the idols

By Harry van Versendaal

The most poignant message to come out of Greece’s latest ballot was that Golden Dawn, the xenophobic party with the meander emblem that closely resembles the swastika, is here to stay.

Many people had hoped that a number of high-profile, controversial incidents that occurred after an inconclusive vote last month would put voters off by exposing the true character of the party.

They were wrong. Golden Dawn eventually managed to hold its ground and once again secure some 7 percent of the national vote, vindicating those experts who claim that the structural conditions are in place to guarantee that the Greek neo-Nazi party won’t be just a flash in the pan. This would mean that even if the economic crisis were to disappear, the extremist threat would remain.

“I think that Greece’s historical conditions and institutional shortcomings have played a more important role in the party’s rise than the economic crisis,” says Vassiliki Georgiadou, a political science professor at Panteion University in Athens. “Golden Dawn has been strengthened by the collapse, or in any case perceived collapse, of the country’s party and political system,” she adds. The party has tried to exploit this by relying on anti-systemic, highly divisive discourse to attract support. “I’d like to thank the hundreds of thousands of Greeks who did not ‘correct’ their vote, as they were urged to do by paid journalists and propagandists, and stayed on the side of Golden Dawn,” party boss Nikos Michaloliakos said in a televised message after Sunday’s vote.

Over the past 10 years, public surveys have consistently found Greeks to have among the lowest rates of trust in political institutions when ranked with their European counterparts. Asked to rate their trust in politicians on a scale of 0 to 10 in a European Social Survey in 2002, 80 percent gave responses from 0 to 5. By 2010, this percentage had gone up to 96 percent.

The economic crisis has been a catalyst that has accelerated the dismantling of a deeply dysfunctional political status quo. Greece, which depends on a EU/IMF bailout to stay afloat, is currently in its fifth year of recession. Brutal salary and pension cuts, and a significant drop in the minimum wage to under 400 euros, have failed to put the brakes on unemployment, which skyrocketed to a record 22.6 percent in the first quarter of 2012. Textbook stuff. The tumultuous economic environment and soaring crime, in part a result of unchecked immigration into the country, have pushed big chunks of disenchanted, angry or simply insecure people to the far right. The Golden Dawn party was elected on a platform of kicking all immigrants out of the country and placing land mines along the Greek border with Turkey.

“The degradation of public order, the ghettoization of large parts of downtown Athens, and the rise in crime and insecurity are the primary vote-getters for Golden Dawn in Greece’s urban centers,” says Stathis Kalyvas, a political science professor at Yale.

With the exception of multiculti idealists on the left, most people here are ready to acknowledge the disruptive fallout from the massive influx of clandestine immigrants. According to Frontex, the European Union’s border agency, 57,000 illegal immigrants — from Africa, Asia and the Middle East — were recorded trying to cross the Greek borders in 2011. More than 1 million are believed to live in Athens today. Under the EU’s Dublin II regulations, Greece has to accommodate all migrants entering the bloc via its borders; transit to other EU countries is not permitted. With the economic downturn resulting in a lack of jobs, many of them are stuck in limbo, unable to move into another European country or back home. Some resort to crime to survive.

Greece’s handling of the problem leaves a lot to be desired. Chronic neglect has been interrupted by sporadic, knee-jerk campaigns — mostly publicity stunts aimed at appeasing voters. Prompted by the rise of xenophobic, anti-immigrant sentiment, bigger parties have cynically toughened their rhetoric and signed up for heavy-handed measures like the construction of a 12.5-kilometer razor-wire-topped fence along the Turkish border in the northeast. Critics say that government policies such as so-called sweep operations and the construction of detention camps have legitimized hardline policies, while often making xenophobic phraseology part of the political mainstream.

“Politicians have in the past couple of years appeared to aim to further polarize the migration issue, as if they were trying to deflect people’s attention from other issues. But the policy has backfired,” blogger Achilleas Plitharas says. That said, he is less willing to share another oft-heard view, mostly shared among centrist liberals here, that leftist tolerance of anti-establishment acts and language — like the makeshift gallows in Syntagma Square and slogans about the 1967 military regime — in fact helped prepare the ground for the rise of Golden Dawn.

“I don’t think that the vast majority of those protesters went down some neofascist path. Nor do I believe that the Indignant movement pushed people toward Golden Dawn,” Plitharas says of the massive anti-austerity demonstrations in Athens last year, adding however that the extremist party has tried to exploit the tense political environment.

Youth magnet

Unlike mainstream political parties that seek to establish a balanced organizational presence across the country, Golden Dawn always tries to first establish itself in specific areas where it finds fertile ground. “They seek to establish strongholds first; they then try to diffuse their power across the country. Now we’re in the diffusion phase,” Georgiadou explains. The party, which will now be entitled to some 3.5 million euros in state subsidies, scored its biggest shares of the vote in the center of Athens, Piraeus’s second constituency and in other smaller urban centers across the country including Laconia, Messinia and Corinthos, where it grabbed a stunning 11.1 percent.

Golden Dawn has been a magnet for young voters, placing second in the 18-24 age group. Experts attribute its strong appeal to the declining influence of ideology among younger generations and to a weak historical consciousness. “Younger generations are not aware of the negative repercussions that authoritarian regimes have had on the country. I am not sure if the ’junta’ means anything to a 18-year-old today,” Georgiadou says. Commentators have been surprised to see the party, which officially denies any Nazi leanings, attracting votes in places of WWII atrocities like Distomo, Kalavryta, Kaisariani and the village of Kommeno in Arta.

In a world where traditional institutions of authority have lost their sway and credibility, Golden Dawn understandably offers a vigorous, vitalist alternative that strikes a chord with young people. “Its emphasis on collective action, uniform-like garb, and a local presence supplies elements of structure to many youths who feel dejected, aren’t inspired by what they see as a cynical culture around them, and are no longer able to accede to the consumerist culture that had come to dominate Greek society,” Kalyvas says.

Six weeks elapsed between the two ballots as Greece struggled to find its political footing. Local media and journalists who had previously snubbed the extremist party altered their stance in a bid to expose it in the eyes of a purportedly misguided electorate. But pollsters were surprised to discover that a number of controversial incidents, most infamously the attack by Golden Dawn spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris against two female leftist deputies during a live televised debate, actually worked in the party’s favor. As one commentator put it, when it comes to fascists, violence is porn.

“What took place between those two elections was pretty much inconsequential,” according to writer and blogger Thodoris Georgakopoulos. “Golden Dawn voters applaud violence and hate speech. Those vulgar displays only reinforced a choice they had already made,” he says.

After the election on May 6, which saw the party enter Parliament for the first time, attacks on immigrants by suspected right-wing extremists have become a regular occurrence. A Pakistani man was stabbed at Attiki metro station, near central Athens, after the vote on Sunday. Police detained 25 people believed to have been involved in the assault but they were all set free after the victim failed to identify any of them. Victims have in the past been warned against identifying their attackers or face been beaten up. A quick browse through the social media reveals that the TV studio attack failed to invite universal condemnation. Even fewer Greeks would identify with the stabbed victim, a foreigner. “After all, such incidents are very rarely shown on TV and, as a result, many people may not even believe that they’ve even taken place,” Georgiadou says.

Free rein

Banning Golden Dawn is obviously not a solution. “Even if there were a way to disband this party immediately, its voters would still be there among us,” according to Georgakopoulos, who also falls behind the truism that hatred, racism and bigotry must be rooted out of schools as well as homes. Most liberal analysts would agree that it’s better to let extremists expose themselves to ridicule and historical scrutiny than pose as martyrs. At the same time, there is an equally important need to separate despicable ideas from criminal acts like organized attacks against immigrants. For Kalyvas, “Golden Dawn benefits from both the tolerant ethos of the Greek polity and the collapse of public order and the justice system.” After Kasidiaris struck Liana Kanelli of the Greek Communist Party, a prosecutor ordered his arrest on the grounds of attempted grievous bodily harm. The 31-year-old former commando lay low until the arrest warrant expired while police launched a rather unconvincing manhunt to trace him. Allegations of police bias are not uncommon. Questions have been raised after footage from demonstrations emerged showing members of the party and policemen on friendly terms. Figures indicate that an unusually high percentage of Athens police officers — some reports put it at up to 50 percent — voted for Golden Dawn in the past two elections.

Plitharas expects that Golden Dawn’s presence in Parliament, where it won 18 seats, will help undermine its influence. “It will be like exposing a vampire to light,” he says. But it won’t be enough. After all, he says, the biggest problem with Golden Dawn is not its presence in the House during the day but rather the legitimation of its free rein in the streets of the city during the night. “If you can freeze the organization’s nighttime activity, it will then be easier to curb its dynamism; it will be like its blood transfusions have stopped,” he says, emphasizing that the first step of the authorities must be severing the party’s ties with members of the security forces. At the same time, he says, the government must take pragmatic steps to cope with the security void around city neighborhoods and, of course, push its European peers for a change to Dublin II treaty to ensure fairer burden-sharing over unregistered migrants.

That’s a tall order, no doubt, for Greece’s political class. Their response will decide nothing less than the future shape of the nation, and their own place in it.

The man who wasn’t there

By Harry van Versendaal

It was a delicious irony. The two parties that have vowed to negotiate a better deal with the country’s foreign lenders failed to negotiate the simple matter of setting up a television debate.

True to form, New Democracy and SYRIZA exchanged accusations over who was to blame for the impasse. ND claimed it had agreed with SYRIZA on almost all the details for a Samaras vs Tsipras debate but that the leftists scuppered the deal by issuing two statements outlining their conditions for the discussions. SYRIZA, which appeared to want two separate debates, alleged that ND was simply looking for excuses to avoid a televised duel. However, it seems that, as with PASOK boss Evangelos Venizelos before the May 6 elections, Samaras once again got cold feet.

It may prove to be a wise strategy. The conservative leader’s spin doctors know that a debate between the 60-year-old Antonis Samaras and 37-year-old Alexis Tsipras has the makings of a disaster. Given the strict format of a discussion that leaves no room for substantive arguments that could expose sexy Alexi’s fuzzy utopia, the conservative leader’s schoolmarmish moaning and finger-wagging is bound to be outshone by Tsipras’s youthful conviction and upbeat assuredness.

Inferior style and a dismal message are not the only things Samaras — who has systematically shied away from the international media — has against him. The fact is that he has consistently failed to deliver as the leader of one of Greece’s dominant parties. Samaras took over after ND’s thrashing at the hand of the voters in 2009 and managed to drive the conservative party even lower in the May 6 snap polls that he called for. His awkward combination of stubborn posturing and endless flip-flopping has left the party directionless and politically damaged. Despite his opposition to the nation’s first bailout agreement with the EU and the IMF, and despite the fact that history has largely vindicated his gloomy economic forecasts about the growth-killing capacity of austerity, ND has come to be identified with the memorandum as much as the PASOK socialists who initiated the deal.

Many analysts believe that ND would be better off with a new leader — and would score a comfortable victory in this crucial election with someone more adept at its helm. But, like they say, you don’t change horses in midstream, especially when you have no horse to replace it with.

Violently happy

By Harry van Versendaal

The seemingly subdued reaction to the deaths of three bank employees during a demonstration against austerity measures in central Athens on May 5 indicates that it’s not just the protests which are seen as natural in Greece but also the violence that accompanies them.

Stathis N. Kalyvas, a professor of political science and director of the Program on Order, Conflict, and Violence at Yale University, talked to Athens Plus about the cultural roots of the rioting and destruction, the misguided role of the left and the long-term impact of recent developments.

Contrary to the massive protests in the wake of the police shooting of Alexis Grigoropoulos in December 2008, recent demonstrations in protest of the three deaths at Marfin Egnatia Bank on May 5 have been extremely modest in size (a recent demo on Syntagma Square, which had no political affiliation, only gathered some 150-200 people). What is the reason for this?

For a number of historical and political reasons, Greek society remains very sensitive to loss of life caused by agents of the state compared to other types of victims. In turn, this sensitivity is further reinforced by the capacity of various leftist parties and groups to mobilize people whenever state forces are seen as exceeding their authority. Indeed, this type of situation is critical for these groups, as it provides a unique recruitment opportunity for them. Lastly, the mass media, staffed by many journalists who came of age politically right before and after the fall of the Colonels’ dictatorship, in 1974, are happy to reinforce this type of sentiment through a highly emotional coverage.
In contrast, no political organization called for, let alone, organized public protests for the three deaths at Marfin Egnatia Bank; likewise, the emotional reaction of the mass media was much less intense. In fact, there were several attempts to displace a part of the blame for these deaths toward the bank management, using a perverse way of reasoning — it was argued by some the bank building lacked effective fire protection.
I think that this biased attitude also explains why no one seems to care much about the tens of deaths caused on Greek roads by avoidable traffic accidents and other similar instances.

Some commentators have branded the events of December 2008 a “popular uprising.” Do you agree with that description?

If by “popular uprising,” we mean a sustained mass protest seeking to challenge a political regime, as is now the case in Thailand for example, then it is pretty clear that the events of December 2008 fail to meet this definition. What happened in December 2008 was a convergence of two distinct events. On the one hand, many high-school students protested peacefully against what they perceived, with good reason, to be the unjustified killing of one of their peers. On the other hand, several extreme leftist groups used this opportunity to generate widespread mayhem and destruction. They were helped in this by the fateful decision of a fearful government not to challenge them.

Some analysts appeared to read too much into the December 2008 protests, while certain politicians on the left sought to capitalize on the events. What degree of responsibility do they share for the current violence?

In my opinion, they share a considerable degree of responsibility. By fanning the flames, they sought to gain political advantage. The electorate thought otherwise, however, as indicated by the results of both the European and general elections, which sanctioned these politicians.

Greece’s left lost the Civil War but it seems to enjoy a peculiar type of political and cultural hegemony, which has made it largely immune to criticism from the right. Would you agree with this?

Yes, this is correct. The collapse of the dictatorship in 1974, which had appropriated the right-wing narrative of the Civil War, caused the total delegitimation of this narrative. Almost by default, the counter-narrative of the left became the official version of the history of the Greek Civil War, further enshrined in books, school textbooks and art. However, because the left-wing narrative is so closely associated with the so-called “metapolitefsi” period, i.e. the post-authoritarian era, it is unlikely to outlast the present economic crisis, which has brought this era to an end.

It has been argued that Greece has a “culture of violence.” Is violence in Greece seen as a legitimate part of the political game? Could violence be legitimate under a particular set of circumstances?

It is true that a certain culture of violence persists in Greek politics. This culture is primarily verbal and highly ritualized. Insofar as it is physical, it generally targets objects rather than people. Terrorist activity remains, on the whole, beyond the pale, even when it is not condemned as vigorously as it could, and should, be.
I find it very hard to think of circumstances that would justify the use of violence under a democratic regime. The biggest achievement – indeed the very content – of democracy has been to decouple conflict from violence.

Does violence in Greece stem from the flawed relationship between the state and citizens?

There is, indeed, a flawed relationship between the state and its citizens in Greece – but it is also a contradictory one. On the one hand, several studies have shown that Greek citizens view the state with distrust. On the other hand, the same people expect the state to also employ them and assist them with all kinds of high-quality services. This flawed relationship can be traced to a history of polarized conflict and the domination of the state in political and economic life.

Do you agree that – much like homegrown terrorism – anarchist violence is, first of all, a question of social tolerance?

Absolutely. How else to explain the impunity that allows this type of violence to go on? According to recently released police data, there have been 5,952 firebombings during the last 12 years; and yet, one only finds 20 convictions during the same period. It is difficult to find another explanation for this type of impunity than social tolerance sanctioned by political decision. However, I think that the Marfin deaths may mark a turning point in this respect: There may be support now for the application of the law.

Do you think that lingering economic and political crisis will turn ours into a more violent society?

Only if these extremist groups are allowed to continue to operate with impunity. Controling them should not be a difficult problem; after all, their numbers are small. If these groups are placed under control, the crisis will likely generate only peaceful protests, not violence — unless, of course, a huge shock, such as a bank run, takes place.

Do crises like the current one expose the primal elements of a nation’s psyche?

Not necessarily. Take the recent violence: There is nothing new about it. Four people died in a similar incident, during protests that took place in 1991. There have been several close calls since then. Street violence in Greece has been a constant, not a variable. This is what many foreign correspondents seem to miss when they attribute the violence to the crisis.

Do you see the recurring riots leading to a more aggressive police state?

Only if the street violence problem is not addressed. Indeed, the issue is not to move toward a more aggressive state but toward an effective state — one that applies the law. Failing that, there is a point where a majority will demand order at any cost. There is no question that this would be a negative development.

The asylum

By Harry van Versendaal

In “Dogtooth,” Yorgos Lanthimos’s much-applauded last film, three walled-off kids are subjected to the perverted language games of their uber-controlling parents: hence a large armchair is “the sea,” a lamp is a “white bird,” a cat is “a life-threatening animal.”

Greeks, of course, are no strangers to linguistic abuse. “University asylum,” a law that bans police from campuses so as to safeguard “the free dissemination of ideas,” has started to feel much like the opposite.

Professors and students are regularly bullied and physically abused by groups of non-students, ranging from self-styled anarchists to ultra-leftists. Threats and destruction of public property are often accompanied by beatings. University-owned buildings are occupied by outsiders who use them for private purposes such as hosting publishing centers, radio stations and websites like the “bourgeois”-bashing Indymedia network. During clashes with the police, protesters use the premises to regroup and to renew their supplies of petrol bombs before getting back to the streets. Although some education is involved in all of that, it surely is not of the sort the lawmakers had in mind.

The asylum law was established in the early 1980s by the late Andreas Papandreou’s socialist PASOK in a bid to forestall a repeat of the army raid that crushed the Athens Polytechnic uprising against the military junta in November 1973. The uprising is a watershed moment in Greece’s modern political history and many politicians have, often unscrupulously, capitalized on their part in it. Politics here is still much about managing symbols.

Hence it’s easy to see how the ongoing debate about whether to scrap asylum legislation has become a symbolic battlefield in a war that exceeds the old-style left-right divisions. The rampage following the police shooting of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos in the pock-marked Exarchia district last December caused cracks on the left between the motley crew of banner-waving radicals and the more sober elements who were put off by the orgy of vandalism and violence. Hundreds of cars were torched and shops destroyed or looted in the riots that cost some 100 million euros in damages as the conservative government ordered riot policemen to keep their batons sheathed for fear of justifying its right-wing bogeyman profile.

The riots exposed the cynicism but also the divisions and ideological confusion of the Greek left, as reactions ranged from delight and schadenfreude to sadness and despair. Voters eventually punished those who sought to exploit the backlash, none more so than SYRIZA chief Alexis Tsipras, whose reluctance to clearly condemn the violence quickly transformed him from socialist wunderkind to villain. His party, a coalition of radical left-wing factions, was seriously damaged in the elections that followed. Mainstream voters, once charmed by his ostensibly maverick style, did not like what they saw on their television screens.

The uncomfortable truth is that leftist activists are increasingly flirting with violence, prompting further soul-searching among their nonmilitant fellows. A number of professors, writers and journalists have over the past year been attacked on campuses and in bookshops, also in the ostensibly pluralist Exarchia. Even Soti Triantafillou, a self-described leftist author who lives in the area, was recently harassed during a book presentation by a group of men who threw eggs at her for being “a capitalist lackey.” The assailants warned Triantafillou, who has in the past received threats against her life, that she is a persona non grata in that part of town.

Decades of anti-rightist reflexes ensure that any move on university asylum will not go down easily. Even mild measures that go without saying in foreign institutions, like the introduction of university security guards and identity cards for students proposed by the Athens Law School last week, have met here with opposition from students – even those belonging to the New Democracy-affiliated group. Such ideological paradoxes expose vested interests that escape left-right dichotomies.

Critics of the asylum law claim it is a meaningless safeguard – and they are right. Any dictatorship’s first move would be to do away with the Constitution and, in that sense, it’s true that the asylum law does not carry much weight on a practical level. But symbols can have real power over people’s behavior. Green-lighting police patrols inside campuses risks causing more problems than it would solve. After all, scrapping university asylum altogether because you can’t stop a bunch of so called anti-establishment youths from using it as a base is to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

The law allows prosecutors to intervene when a felony is committed – but the police has only rarely, and only too late, taken action inside the premises despite the extensive wrongdoing. Anyone who lives in this country knows that keeping the law in place while preventing its abuse is a matter of political will. Ironically, this time the hot potato is in socialist hands. Perhaps it’s better that way. It took a socialist public order minister, the deft-handed Michalis Chrysochoidis, to launch a tough crackdown on troublemakers in order to prevent a repeat of the havoc on the anniversary of Grigoropoulos’s death.

Chrysochoidis, the man behind the dismantling of local terrorist group November 17, knows that, once again, much will depend on public consent. And as the 2002 terrorist crackdown showed, there is no better way of gaining this than by stripping wrongdoers of their heroic aura. The government will only manage to clean up the mess when the public comes to see university asylum for what it has been reduced to: an excuse for real, not theoretical, anarchy.


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