Posts Tagged 'politics'

Bulgarian postman with a noble message

The Good Postman

By Harry van Versendaal

Ivan, the postman of a mostly deserted Bulgarian village on the border with Turkey, is running for mayor on a rather unconventional message: If he wins the election, he will welcome Syrian refugees, who now creep silently through the rural terrain, so they can settle in the village’s many vacant, dilapidated properties and breathe new life into the settlement.

Golyam Dervent (pop. 38) – known as as the “great gate” due to its location – is the setting of Tonislav Hristov latest documentary “The Good Postman,” which is screening at the ongoing Thessaloniki Documentary Festival and resembles a microcosm of the drama that has been unfolding in Europe since the outbreak of the Syrian refugee crisis. Bulgaria has joined other nations in the Balkan region in taking a hardline response to the influx of migrants and asylum seekers into the continent. Less than two decades since removing a massive border fence designed to keep people in, authorities in the former Soviet satellite have built a new one along the border with Turkey – this time to keep people out.

Shot over the course of a regional election campaign, the camera follows Ivan, a gentle-mannered, silver-haired man who lives alone, pitting his inclusive, progressive vision against the xenophobic, we-had-it-better-under-communism alternative put forward by his rival, who resembles a washed-up Hollywood has-been. (In what is probably the film’s most funnily surreal moment, the latter delivers a confused speech from the village cafe patio overlooking a vacant field to the futuristic sounds of a vintage Casio keyboard synthesizer). The elderly villagers’ reactions are mixed.

“The Good Postman” premiered in 2016 at Amsterdam’s International Documentary Film Festival (IDFA), where it was nominated for Best Feature-Length Documentary, before screening at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Beautifully crafted, with stunning wide-screen cinematography and a wonderful score by Petar Dundakov, Hristov’s documentary, his fifth, exposes the strange world of small-town politics, the estrangement of the political elites, the stinging poverty in the EU’s backyard, the harrowing misinformation surrounding the migration debate, and the nuances of the human character.

“I heard on the news that they’re bad people who kill Bulgarians,” a young girl is heard saying on a TV news bulletin playing in the background. “But maybe not everyone is bad,” she adds.

One thing bound to draw protests from purists is that the Bulgarian filmmaker, and writer Lubomir Tsvetkov, appear to have staged at least some of the scenes. “Minimal interference doesn’t mean maximum reality. It can actually be the total opposite. Sometimes you have to interfere to get as close to the truth as possible,” Tsvetkov said in a recent interview.

The election result (spoiler alert) is not what any of them would have hoped for. Although it’s hard to see how things could change in Golyam Dervent. Ten years after joining the European Union, Bulgaria remains one of the bloc’s poorest and most corrupt members. Meanwhile, public opposition to immigration is strong. In a recent survey, 73 percent of Bulgarians said they would back a total ban on citizens of Muslim-majority nations entering their country. The same poll found that 77 percent view immigration as a threat to the country, up from 47 percent in 2015.

The Swiss guards of EU border agency Frontex seen patrolling for migrants traipsing through the rural terrain are unlikely to move out anytime soon.

Advertisements

Rewinding to the era of analog politics

zavos

October 1988. An ecstatic crowd waving PASOK flags cheers Andreas Papandreou, then prime minister of Greece, on his return to Athens, at the now-defunct international airport in Elliniko. Papandreou had been admitted to Harefield Hospital in the UK for treatment for the heart complaint that plagued his later years. The moment went down in history for his gesture to Dimitra (Mimi) Liani, an Olympic Airways stewardess who was to become his wife, urging her to come down the stairs. Playmobil installation from the ‘GR80s’ exhibition at the Technopolis complex

By Harry van Versendaal

Although defying any single interpretation, the 1980s was certainly a transitional and transformative period for Greece, which had only just emerged from a traumatic seven-year dictatorship.

The ongoing “GR80s” exhibition at the Technopolis cultural complex in the downtown Gazi district is an unprecedented as well as ambitious attempt to deliver a political, economic, social and cultural anatomy of that decade.

Political scientist Lamprini Rori, a postdoctoral researcher at Oxford University and co-curator of the political segment of the exhibition, talked to Kathimerini English Edition about the main sociopolitical characteristics of that era, its contradictions and a legacy often lamented as the roots of Greece’s current conundrum.

What differentiates the 80s in Greece from the previous and following periods?

On a symbolic level, it was PASOK’s rise to power and the consolidation of its hegemony. The 1980s shaped the key characteristics of the Third Greek Republic. First of all, Greece gained membership of the European Economic Community (EEC), a fact which, notwithstanding the tactical anti-European rhetoric of the early PASOK, led to a significant flow of European funds into the country. However, it was also the decade that saw the consolidation of the country’s mainstream parties, the sweeping renewal of political personnel, the strengthening of political participation, the introduction of measures in the direction of social liberalization, the deregulation of the radio and television landscape. Economic prosperity encouraged the rise of individualism, the recognition of minority rights and identities, the consolidation of social cohesion. The populism and polarization brought by the ascendance of PASOK gradually ebbed over the next decade, the positions and the discourse of the two main parties gradually converged, while the economy underwent a gradual modernization, as several sectors passed over to the free market.

It is often claimed that the roots of Greece’s current woes lie with the 1980s. If that is true, how do you account for today’s nostalgia for the era?

Demonizing or idealizing the 1980s are both distorted interpretations of the impact of events during that period. The main millstones which surfaced in the 1980s and which we are still – to a bigger or smaller extent – dragging along today, are the hijacking of the state by vested interests, populism, the understanding of politics as a zero-sum game, and fiscal derailment. Statism and clientele ties were less so, not because they did not affect the present situation, but because they were around before the 1980s, only to basically balloon during that decade. To be sure, we should not forget that between that time and the present, the country had various opportunities to modernize itself and correct many of the distortions of the 1980s. These were not seen through.

At the same time, however, the decade was a milestone for social mobility, the redefinition of identities, and the foundation of the middle class in the economic, political, social and cultural fields. It was in a sense the decade of security, not so much in the geopolitical sense – despite the fact that its end also marked the end of the Cold War – but more in the psychosociological sense of the term. This is the root of today’s nostalgia, given the fact that this era came to a close with the onslaught of the financial crisis.

There is a certain contradiction about the 1980s, as the anti-Western, anti-capitalist rhetoric of PASOK appears to have been accompanied by the rise of pop culture and consumption. How do you account for that?

Although [late Socialist prime minister] Andreas Papandreou promoted the idea of Greece as a country of the semi-periphery dependent on the capitalist centers of the West, PASOK’s anti-Americanism in the political arena was mainly founded on the relationship between Greece and the USA following the civil war and, above all, on the role of the USA in the 1967-74 military coup. PASOK’s anti-Westernism did not so much have a Marxist twist, but a historical and nationalist one, allowing it to forge a coherent narrative with anti-Turkish and pro-Arab dimensions.

At the same time, the rise of the middle class, the mass contact with Western models through the mass media and the process of individualization which unfolded on the level of values and lifestyle allowed strong influence from the centers of the by then postmodern West, at least in terms of cultural models. Historical anti-Americanism and cultural pro-Westernism effectively coexisted among individuals and across society, legitimating pop culture and consumerism among the local population. Greeks did not just accept these elements, but adopted them en masse. Gradually, the Westernization of cultural production overpowered the widespread rhetoric of anti-Westernism.

“GR80s: Greece in the 80s at Technopolis,” 100 Pireos, Gazi. The exhibition runs to March 12.

Potami runs dry as support flows to main parties

By Harry van Versendaal

Sunday’s snap vote saw To Potami (The River) fall from would-be kingmaker to bit player, putting its political future in doubt.

The centrist pro-market party won 4.09 percent, about 2 percent down on its previous result eight months ago, and far from the 10 percent target set by its leader, Stavros Theodorakis. In absolute numbers, it lost 151,780 votes compared to January’s elections. Potami was reduced to sixth place, behind neo-fascist Golden Dawn, the left-of-center PASOK socialists and the Greek Communist Party (KKE), as well as front runners SYRIZA and ND.

Exploring the reasons behind the party’s poor performance reveals a mix of political circumstance, character, strategy and ideological credo. Some of the traits have plagued other liberal projects in recent years.

Polarization

Extreme polarization – partly because opinion polls had pointed to a tight race between SYRIZA and New Democracy (ND) – no doubt stole a considerable chunk of votes away from Potami. Early exit poll data indicate that 17.2 percent of those who voted for the party in January defected to SYRIZA, while another (surprisingly smaller) 14.5 percent went to ND. Just over half of those who voted for Potami in January renewed their support. In the end, and much to the embarrassment of most pollsters, the leftist party of Alexis Tsipras went on to win the vote with a comfortable 7.5 percent margin.

Potami’s purportedly pragmatic strategy to announce that in order to “save” the country it would be willing to join either a right-wing or left-wing government and serve as the balancing force did not seem to resonate with voters.

“The deeply nonpartisan message ‘I can cooperate with ND and SYRIZA if it means preventing the country from being left without a government’ eventually backfired. ‘In that case,’ voters said, ‘why not give my vote straight to ND or SYRIZA?’ And this is what they did,” Potami candidate Petros Tatsopoulos said on Facebook. Perhaps more controversially, Tatsopoulos said the party should shed its pretentions of being the “virtuous loner” and seek to join forces with PASOK.

Populism

Founded in February last year, Potami found itself slap-bang in the middle of a tectonic shift in the Greek political landscape caused by the devastating debt crisis. As the two mainstream parties PASOK and New Democracy lost their supremacy, smaller movements began mushrooming along the bailout fault-line, aligning themselves either for or against.

But Potami positioned itself as a post-bailout and post-political movement firmly anchored in the European Union and the eurozone. It shunned the typical trappings of Greek politics. Instead of flag-waving rallies, its leader, a former TV journalist, opted for small town-hall meetings with a seated audience.

Instead of creating a youth wing replete with chants and slogans, Theodorakis wandered around beaches passing out portable ashtrays to smokers and set up eco-friendly camping tents as campaign kiosks to attract disenchanted urban voters. He preached pragmatism, reason and common sense while calling for radical reform of the country’s dysfunctional public sector. Around him, he gathered a motley crew of academics, businessmen and nonpolitical individuals.

Less than a year after its creation, Potami seemed to have succeeded where other liberal-leaning parties had failed after gaining 6.05 percent and 17 seats in Greece’s Parliament. But then things turned sour.

The aversion to populism was key to the party’s failure, according to Stathis Kalyvas, professor of political science at Yale. Given Theodorakis’s visibility and popularity, Kalyvas says, the absence of populism meant that his appeal would find a limited market mostly consisting of intellectuals and intellectual professionals.

“There are just not as many of them, especially in a time of crisis when downwardly mobile intellectuals tend to be particularly spiteful and hence not open to the serious and optimistic message of Potami,” Kalyvas said.

However, its cerebral message was not Potami’s only impediment.

In Parliament, with few exceptions, Potami MPs seemed muted and awkward. Despite its abhorrence of populism, the party’s most visible MPs, apart from a former general secretary of revenues, became a second-rate actor and a former travel show presenter – neither academics nor intellectuals. Its slick marketing was not accompanied by a clear political message. And Theodorakis himself lacked political gravitas, often giving the impression he was acting the part of a political leader, reading his lines in his smooth TV presenter’s voice.

To make matters worse, Theodorakis’s dispassionate everyman was obliterated by the supernova of Alexis Tsipras, the youthful, magnetic leader of SYRIZA who was convinced – and convincing – that he was on a mission to save Greece and change Europe.

“Even if Theodorakis had picked populism, the niche was already taken by the time he emerged, and SYRIZA had a first-mover advantage,” Kalyvas said.

Elitism

Although Theodorakis assumed responsibility for the poor electoral result, he did seem to claim the high ground, feeding allegations of elitism.

“Maybe in times of crisis society is not in a position to make a cool assessment of the situation and to give its support to a party that represents reason and progress,” said Theodorakis, lending weight to critics bothered by the party’s alleged elitism and intellectual snobbery.

Writing for the website Protagon in the wake of election day, liberal author and former Potami member Nikos Dimou too appeared to suggest that the root causes of defeat lay with the public, and not the product.

“Everyone, even rivals, agreed [Potami] had the best officials. But that too was destroyed by this abhorrence of excellence. You put a man like [constitutional expert] Nikos Alivizatos in a prominent position? You’re asking for it. A party ruled by excellence and reason has no business in a Roman bazaar,” he wrote.

Network

Much in keeping with its post-political profile, Potami decided to skip local party organizations across the country, a standard but costly tradition for Greece’s mainstream political parties. Instead, Potami relied for the most part on an Internet-based campaign that affected its influence – particularly in the Greek countryside.

“In a low-turnout election, where MPs were elected according to their position on the lists of party candidates [rather than the ‘crosses,’ or votes, each received], campaigning is crucial. As a result, Potami’s presence was weak outside Athens,” said Spyros Kosmidis, a political expert at Oxford University.

On top of that, Potami was damaged by low turnout among young voters, the party’s main reservoir of support.

Vanity

None of the liberal parties launched in Greece in the past 15 years – including the Liberals of Stefanos Manos, Drasi, Democratic Alliance and Dimiourgia Xana (Recreate Greece) has been able to break into the mainstream. Analysts tend to point out Greek liberals’ inability to communicate their message, to do single issue politics and get involved in the daily grind of Greek politics. Another reason is the vanity of small differences: Despite their similar platforms, parties are unwilling to compromise on basic issues, leaving the country without a meaningful center-left.

It is happening again. As Potami’s licks its wounds, the once-dominant PASOK is waiting around the corner. A subtle overture from Socialist officials on Wednesday was turned down by Theodorakis, who said that the party would either “remain independent or break up.” He said he was not willing to see the party “become an appendage to New Democracy, PASOK or SYRIZA” and called a congress for the beginning of December, where members are expected to debate what went wrong during the election campaign.

“I find it hard to believe that PASOK and Potami would join forces so long as Theodorakis remains in charge of the party. Timing will certainly play a key role in any future move,” Kosmidis said, adding two more critical factors: the identity of ND’s next leader and the trajectory of SYRIZA’s popularity.

Purists certainly fear that a merger would pollute Potami beyond recognition. The recent election of Fofi Gennimata, an old-school PASOK apparatchik whose father was a senior party official, as the Socialist leader, has fed to skepticism. On the other hand, analysts say a collaboration would bring together the newcomers’ know-how and intellectual seriousness with the Socialists’ far-reaching network of local organizations.

For Alexandra Patrikiou, an expert in political history, a merger would be a boon for the country’s fragmented center-left. But it also seems inevitable for Potami.

“The absence of a clear political identity was not necessarily a handicap. It made the party more flexible and more adaptable, at a time when that was necessary,” Patrikiou said.

“But this absence renders the party hostage to circumstance. It means that it will not be able to survive long-term unless it transforms itself into something different. Today’s strength will become tomorrow’s weakness,” she said.

Can shock value spur change?

By Harry van Versendaal

The decision by most mainstream Western news organizations last week to run a – now iconic – photo of a drowned Syrian boy lying face down on a Turkish beach generated a substantial amount of commentary and polarized views.

It is not the first time that broadcasters and print media have faced such a dilemma. Responsible editors – not the titillating tabloid type – regularly scratch their heads in seeking a path between maximizing truth-telling and minimizing harm. Harm, for that matter, can go two ways: offending the public that views these images as well as violating the dignity of those who are depicted in them.

Shoot

Professional photographers are, inevitably, the first to make the call.

Giorgos Moutafis, a freelance photographer who has over the years documented the struggle of Europe-bound migrants and refugees for several foreign publications, has no qualms.

“I would have definitely taken that picture. Perhaps I would not have shot it the way it was, but I would take it. All my images are made to be published, or I would not be doing this job,” he told Kathimerini English Edition.

That does not mean that anything goes, Moutafis says. Just like a story, a photograph too can be made in different ways. “You need to protect these people. Put your own moral values before the lens. It’s not always straightforward,” he said.

“The important thing is to document what happened, not to personify the incident. You have to make sure you stay focused on the facts. For me it is not just about one dead Syrian boy, it’s about the hundreds of people who perish on the way to Europe,” he said.

Viral

The image went viral on social media last Wednesday after at least 12 presumed Syrian refugees died trying to reach Greece’s eastern Aegean island of Kos – a popular gateway to Europe for thousands of people seeking to flee war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa. The boy’s body was washed ashore along with several other victims.

At first glance, the picture, taken on a beach not far from the Turkish resort town of Bodrum, is deceptively benign. It shows a dark-haired toddler wearing a bright-red T-shirt and shorts and lying prone in a sleeping position, soaked, with his head resting on the sand as the waves lap at his hair.

The photo sparked a barrage of photoshopped memes and tribute videos on Facebook and other social media.

A second, less jarring image that many news organizations chose to run instead portrayed a grim-faced police officer carrying the tiny body away from the scene.

The boy was subsequently identified as 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, from the war-ravaged town of Kobani in northern Syria, where Kurdish regional forces have fought against ISIS militia. His 5-year-old brother and their mother also drowned.

Share

Aris Chatzistefanou, an Athens-based journalist and left-wing activist, has often shared online graphic images of asylum seekers who died trying to enter Europe. He uploaded Aylan’s photo as well as a number of other, more graphic images from recent migrant tragedies. He defends publication on political terms.

“If journalists showed the world what really happens on the battlefield, then the idea of war would be unacceptable to all men,” Chatzistefanou said.

Warnings of compassion fatigue and claims that insensitive visibility risks sacrificing the dignity of the dead, he says, smack of irony and hypocrisy.

“These people were shown little respect while they were alive,” he said, slamming Western compassion over the dead bodies along the European border as hypocritical.

“We show compassion for political reasons: to evade criticism of the notion of Fortress Europe,” he said regarding the 28-member bloc’s migration and asylum policy.

Thousands of refugees drown each year in their desperate bid to reach Europe. The EU spends billions of euros guarding its borders as its member states squabble over which shoulders this undue and unwanted burden should fall on – a burden that is, at least in part, of their own making: It was Britain, France and the United States which backed the Syrian opposition in the early stages of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule and then left them to their own devices.

Confront

Lilie Chouliaraki, a media and communications professor  at the London School of Economics, is critical of what she calls “the distribution of witnessing ‘roles’ in the global distribution of images.”

More often than not, she argues, those who witness images of suffering are viewers in the West, while those who suffer belong to non-Western zones of war, disaster and poverty.

“Part of this global distribution is a particular regulation of the flow of images of death so that extreme images of distant others are kept away from Western public spheres on the grounds that the West needs to be protected from the potential trauma of seeing others suffer,” she said attacking the taboo of public visibility as “hypocritical.”

“It privileges the protection of those who safely watch over those who truly suffer; and it obscures the indirect responsibility of the ‘innocent’ West in the wars or disasters it is to be protected from,” said Chouliaraki, an expert on the mediation of disaster news and author of several books, including most recently “The Ironic Spectator: Solidarity in the Age of Post-Humanitarianism.”

“My view is that avoiding confronting the shock of a child’s death on screen or other similar spectacles runs the risk of turning Western publics into self-concerned, inward-looking and ultimately narcissistic publics who may show compassion for others like ‘us’ but don’t really think about or feel for the tragic fates of those far away,” she said.

The law

Publishing some of these photographs could be challenged on legal grounds, legal expert Niki Kollia notes, even though it would involve separate actions being taken in each country the image has appeared.

In Greece, the law foresees imprisonment of up to six months for anyone charged with disrespecting the memory of the deceased.

But Kollia believes that this is wrong when the photograph is taken in the context of reporting the news.

“Banning these images for ethical, political or religious reasons would deal a hefty blow to journalism,” said Kollia.

Empathize

But critics warn against giving in to what has been called “the pornography of pain” and the superficial, self-satisfied feelings of sadness and morality when sharing a grisly picture on social media.

Alexia Skoutari, an Athens-based activist who works with refugees, is skeptical of the use of visceral imagery even if that is employed in a bid to awaken people to humanitarian disasters. Resorting to emotionalism instead of thoughtful discussion is an unwelcome sign.

“It shocks me that it would take pictures of a dead toddler to mobilize empathy. Why would you need to see something so brutal to feel compassion and understanding about another man’s plight?” she said.

Impact

Do the people who saw Aylan’s pictures have a better understanding of the situation than they did before? Can the image of a lifeless boy on a beach change the refugee debate?

During his annual State of the Union address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced proposals for a radical overhaul of the bloc’s migration policy, including the opening of legal channels to coordinate arrivals in Europe and permanent systems for distributing the influx of refugees across the continent.

For Chouliaraki, dramatic footage has the power to raise awareness and donations, as well as put pressure on urgent and more efficient measures to tackle the refugee crisis. But it can do little insofar as it concerns tackling the broader causes of the crisis.

“This is a matter of geopolitical and economic interests and it would be naive to believe that images have the power to decisively affect global politics,” she said.

The truth is that rarely has media coverage of humanitarian disasters managed to prompt Europeans to action.

In October 2014, a boat went down off the Italian island of Lampedusa, killing 366 migrants and asylum seekers on board.

“Back then, again, European leaders were shocked,” said Eva Cosse, an Athens-based expert with Human Rights Watch.

“But did they replace the persistent emphasis on border enforcement with the imperative of saving lives and providing refuge to those in need? No, they didn’t.”

Austerity pinch, SYRIZA breakup threaten Tsipras’s teflon suit

Teflon Tsipras. Despite the near-collapse of the domestic economy and a spectacular U-turn on austerity pledges, Greek Premier Alexis Tsipras’s popularity remains unchallenged.

Teflon Tsipras. Despite the near-collapse of the domestic economy and a spectacular U-turn on austerity pledges, Greek Premier Alexis Tsipras’s popularity remains unchallenged.

By Harry van Versendaal

Less than a week after Greek lawmakers voted through the country’s third massive international bailout, Antonis Bertsos, a 69-year-old retired businessman who lives in Athens, has no regrets about supporting SYRIZA in January’s general election. He says he would happily do so again even though the party had to abandon its policy pledges.

“Tsipras is alone among Greek politicians to have truly negotiated with the nation’s creditors,” he told Kathimerini English Edition.

Bertsos, who used to work for a German multinational firm, has seen his pension drop by 43 percent since 2010 due to a series of cuts demanded by Greece’s creditors. A former supporter of the socialist PASOK party, he later migrated to the more business-friendly conservative New Democracy: the two parties that dominated the country’s post-dictatorship politics. Now, Bertsos justifies his newfound preference by pointing to SYRIZA’s moral advantage and its youthful leader’s unblemished political record.

“He has never put his hand in the cookie jar,” Bertsos said of the 41-year-old Alexis Tsipras, a former member of the Communist party youth movement who became Greece’s youngest party leader at the age of 33.

During Tsipras’s tumultuous tenure as premier, the country has fallen back into recession, sunk deeper into debt, and introduced stringent capital controls as banks shut down for three weeks. On top of that, after the country’s economy all but shut down, Tsipras, elected on a pledge to end austerity, signed up for a 86-billion-euro cash-for-reforms rescue agreement a mere week after Greeks massively backed his plea to reject a less brutal deal in a controversial, nationwide referendum.

But this devastating record does not seem to have put a dent in SYRIZA’s popularity.

A poll by Metron Analysis conducted late last month found that 63 percent of voters deemed that reaching an agreement with lenders was the right move. The survey put voter preference for SYRIZA at 33.6 percent, leaving main opposition New Democracy in the dust on 17.8 percent, or trailing 15.8 percent.

Fresh opinion polls are expected after the summer lull.

The government’s scattergun technique and dismal record, analysts say, has not prevented SYRIZA spinmeisters from building a strong narrative of defiance and victimhood.

“While in opposition, SYRIZA succeeded in tweaking public perception of the bailout agreement. Far from an imperfect, even problematic, remedy to a problem, the memorandum came to be seen as the very source of the Greek crisis,” political expert Elias Dinas told the newspaper.

In the process, SYRIZA casually slipped into nationalist language at odds with its previously progressive rhetoric to attack its conjured enemies. They were, by and large, mainly to be found at home, and were made up of all Greek administrations between 2009 and 2015.

SYRIZA stuck to a similar strategy after climbing to power and winning the January 2015 election. But the strain from trying to keep promising its outrageously untenable campaign pledges, a manifesto known as the “Thessaloniki program,” meant that SYRIZA had to scramble to find a new target. They did not have to look far.

“The villain was now the Germans, [German Finance Minister Wolfgang] Schaeuble, [Chancellor Angela] Merkel, the vaguely defined conservative circles and elite groups inside the European Union,” Dinas said.

“The ideological content of these targets is secondary to the nationalist dimension: They are portrayed as enemies of the Greek people and this generates emotional responses that, of course, favor the government,” he said.

Poor competition

Another reason that Tsipras and his ministers were able to dominate the political scene despite some of the biggest flip-flops in recent memory was the stark absence of a convincing alternative.

“There is simply no viable opposition party that could gain votes from SYRIZA,” said Spyros Kosmidis, an expert on elections and public opinion.

“This leaves a lot of wiggle room for mistakes and delays,” he said.

Following former Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’s ignominious exit, New Democracy seems pretty much locked in existential mode. The conservatives recently voted Vangelis Meimarakis as their new leader. He is a no-nonsense party stalwart who is popular across the political spectrum but whose presence at the helm reflects the lack of alternatives for the main opposition party. Its most recognizable faces are also those that took part in the ND-PASOK coalition that suffered a landslide defeat in January. It will take time until ND manages to present itself as a real competitor to SYRIZA.

In the Socialist camp, the party’s spectacular decline was sealed by the election of the underwhelming Fofi Gennimata as its new leader. Her sharp jibes at Tsipras have fallen on deaf ears, and the extinction of the most dominant force in Greek politics has left a vacuum at the center.

Seeking to fill this vacuum, the pro-European, pro-business Potami party, which was launched last year, represents the most serious bid to energize reformist voters, yet it does not have what it takes to occupy the middle ground.

And for a large chunk of voters who abandoned longstanding ties with other parties, it doesn’t even matter whether someone else would actually be better for the country – it would be hard to accept that the change they believed in could turn out to be false.

“These voters will be rationalizing their choice for quite some time,” Kosmidis said.

Nascent impact

Although SYRIZA’s ratings have escaped relatively unscathed, Tsipras’s teflon suit could start to wear uncomfortably thin as voters begin to feel the pinch of the mounting austerity measures.

Studies estimate that the total burden on the average household from changes to VAT rates will reach 650 euros on an annual basis.

After trying to shirk responsibility for the six-month economic decline, SYRIZA is likely to try the same on the impact of the third memorandum.

“Attributing blame to creditors or the previous governments can be a successful strategy, but it has a short expiry date,” Kosmidis said, adding that the fallout, especially on employment, will inevitably hit the government’s popularity.

“When that happens, the ‘bad Europeans’ narrative will no longer work,” he said.

But then again, maybe we won’t see a sharp drop in the popularity of SYRIZA and Tsipras. PASOK, after all, went on to win the 2010 local elections six months after the first bailout agreement.

“SYRIZA’s decline will be gradual and linear to economic outcomes. The opposition’s support for the third bailout agreement will help them maintain some support,” Kosmidis said.

Yawning divide

Experts deem that the most likely factor to accelerate popularity loss is the nascent split within SYRIZA – officially known as the Coalition of the Radical Left.

Tsipras has on three separate occasions relied on votes from ND, PASOK and Potami to pass legislation mandated by creditors as SYRIZA MPs rebeled. The process has exposed the party’s pre-existing division between a majority of pragmatic MPs and a vociferous minority of dissidents spearheaded by former energy minister and head of the mutinous Left Platform Panayiotis Lafazanis. A day before Greek lawmakers endorsed the bailout deal, Lafazanis announced that he would help set up a new, anti-bailout movement.

The fracture has made elections unavoidable, but it is still unclear whether Tsipras will hold a vote of confidence to trigger a snap vote, as some of his close aides have advised him, or choose to first pass the bulk of legislation implementing reforms Athens has committed to by the end of September.

New dichotomy

In any case, SYRIZA will most likely seek to transform the pro- vs anti-bailout cleavage that has animated Greek politics into a pro-euro versus pro-drachma one.

“It is ironic that the party which built its popularity on this dichotomy will now try to abandon it, but nothing is written in stone when it comes to electoral politics,” Dinas said.

Although it should not be ruled out, a collaboration between SYRIZA and center-left parties, including Potami, is unlikely.
It is also not necessary, experts say, as SYRIZA still has room to play the critical pro-bailout force without deviating into center-left territory.

“SYRIZA’s populist discourse has a nationalist component that enables the party to draw support from the non-leftist section of society without having to approach the median voter in ideological terms,” Dinas said.

“This is thanks to a populist tradition that goes a long way back, but one that SYRIZA has served very well since the beginning of the crisis,” he said, indicating the decision to join forces with the populist nationalist Independent Greeks (ANEL).

Shrugging off the repercussions of the fresh barrage of cost-cutting measures, Bertsos suggested that the source of most woes is, in fact, far from home.

“Sure, Tsipras has made mistakes, but the pressure on him from outside was unprecedented. They [foreign creditors] really wanted to rip him to shreds,” Bertsos said, adding that Athens paid the price of antagonism between Brussels and Washington.

“When elephants fight, it’s always the grass that gets trampled,” he said.

Cynical SYRIZA puts its soul on the line

By Harry van Versendaal

If there’s one thing core SYRIZA voters were not prepared for before the January 25 ballot, it is the degree of cynicism that has come from the direction of the newly-installed administration.

Hours after winning a snap election that it triggered itself, the left-wing anti-bailout party of Alexis Tsipras went on to announce it would form a government with the populist right-wing party Independent Greeks (ANEL). The news broke so fast, mere hours after the conservative New Democracy party had conceded defeat, few out there had any doubts the deal had actually been sealed long beforehand.

Despite immense differences in overall ideology, the two parties have been united for nearly three years in their opposition to the country’s bailout agreements and the brutal austerity policies that came with them. Panos Kammenos, the ANEL chief who left New Democracy over the bailout program in 2012, stands for everything that makes a good old SYRIZA voter shudder: he is a nationalist, anti-immigrant, homophobic and devoutly Orthodox Christian. He was given the Defense Ministry portfolio, a dream job for the outspoken and short-tempered politician, while his appointment suited the leftist party, often accused of being soft on security and foreign policy. In one of his first acts in office, Kammenos caused Turkey to scramble fighter jets by flying in a helicopter over the uninhabited islet of Imia in the eastern Aegean over which Greece and Turkey came to the brink of war in 1996.

The alliance with ANEL left a bitter taste in the mouths of grassroots voters who have stuck up for SYRIZA from the time when it was still a miniscule political force (founded in 2004 as an umbrella party for several leftist groups, the Coalition of the Radical Left, SYRIZA’s full name, won just 241,539 votes, or 3.3 percent, in its first election later that year, just entering parliament). Many would have preferred to see an alliance with To Potami (The River) which ended up fourth in January’s election. Notwithstanding its fuzzy rhetoric and uncertain direction, the centrist newcomer sits closer to SYRIZA’s liberal, progressive values.

It did not take long before To Potami criticized SYRIZA’s hardline approach to debt negotiations that have now sparked warnings of a euro exit. Its reaction added voice to the more pragmatic folk within SYRIZA who had ruled out a collaboration with the party of Stavros Theodorakis on the grounds that bargaining for a better deal should be SYRIZA’s top priority and that an ambivalent, half-hearted To Potami would have no qualms about throwing SYRIZA under the bus. Once it has clinched a better deal, the argument goes, an empowered SYRIZA can win an absolute majority after calling a snap election.

The irony is that few SYRIZA voters really expected that the party would make true on its campaign pledge to clash with the nation’s foreign creditors. More, rather, had taken for granted that Tsipras would perform a “kolotoumba” (somersault, or about-face) the instant he took office. But they did not mind, as long as the despised New Democracy was swept from office.

Realpolitik was again at full play during this week’s presidential election – the political process that triggered Greece’s premature election in the first place. Once again, the party let down those who expected a leftist president – among them WWII resistance hero and SYRIZA MEP Manolis Glezos – to succeed Karolos Papoulias, a former PASOK minister. Despite rife speculation that he would nominate Dimitris Avramopoulos, a former conservative minister currently appointed at the European Commission, Tsipras picked Prokopis Pavlopoulos, a former interior minister and parliamentary spokesman for New Democracy.

Pavlopoulos, who was comfortably elected president earlier this week, has been accused of filling thousands of state sector jobs with conservative party cronies and acolytes during his stint as interior minister between 2004- 2009. He is as much a supporter of the bailout agreements voted in Parliament, as a symbol of the causes that forced Greece to sign them in the first place. He also was in charge during the massive riots that broke out in Athens following the police shooting of teenager Alexandros Grigoropoulos in December 2008.

During a speech to the party’s parliamentary group, Tsipras defended the decision to nominate Pavlopoulos saying it was aimed at forging “unity and consensus” in society at a difficult period. A better explanation might be that the nomination enabled SYRIZA to forge a split inside the traumatized New Democracy of ex-premier Antonis Samaras. At the same time, Tsipras made an overture (not the first one) to the conservative faction controlled by former Premier Costas Karamanlis, a moderate who won two consecutive elections in the 00’s by swaying Greece’s so-called middle ground.

All that could be forgiven (though hardly forgotten) if SYRIZA manages to come back with a meaningful result from tense negotiations in Brussels. If it clinches a deal, the party will gradually have to deliver on issues like police reform, immigration, justice and labor rights to reassure leftist voters. If it loses the bailout fight, the party may prove unable to win back its soul.

Far right tests Europe’s democracies

By Harry van Versendaal

Four-and-a-half years since the onset of a brutal economic crisis that radically changed Greece’s political landscape, most experts agree that the financial meltdown does not tell the whole story of Golden Dawn’s meteoric rise, but few would deny it was a catalyst.

“The problem [of far-right extremism] in Greece was intensified by economic and social conditions. People think they can improve their condition by turning to extremist parties,” said Ralf Melzer from the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES) in Berlin during a discussion at Impact Hub Athens on Monday.

“At times when people face existential threats, statistics indicate an increase in racially motivated attacks,” said Melzer during the FES-organized event marking the launch of the Greek translation (Polis publishers) of “Right-Wing Extremism in Europe,” a collection of essays on the topic edited by Melzer and Sebastian Serafin. He admitted that there is no absolute connection between social environment and political choice.

Vassiliki Georgiadou, a political scientist at Panteion University who wrote the volume’s chapter on far-right extremism in Greece, said that fast-paced developments triggered by the EU/IMF bailout agreements Athens signed in 2010 were fodder for Golden Dawn, which in the span of three years went from a fringe party, polling at just 0.3 percent, to electing 18 MPs.

“When things change at a very rapid pace, some people simply cannot catch up. They are scared. This situation created a window of political opportunity for Golden Dawn,” said Georgiadou, who has carried out extensive academic research into the party.

Greece’s recent history suggests that financial hardship is not a prerequisite for political extremism. In the 1990s, when Greece’s economy was in much better shape, it was the EU-inspired reformist mantra of the Simitis administrations that appeared to spawn the birth of LAOS, an ultranationalist, anti-globalization party with a strong emphasis on communitarian values and a Christian Orthodox identity.

Particularly in Golden Dawn’s case, Georgiadou said, several of the factors that caused its power to grow existed before the turning point in 2010. Waning trust in institutions, as recorded in a number of surveys in previous decades, the quality of the country’s political system, and deep polarization all benefited the rise of smaller, and sometimes extremist, parties.

“Intensifying political competition between smaller parties that were born out of the breakdown of Greece’s mainstream parties and ensuing polarization played into the hands of the far-right narrative of ‘the big, corrupt parties that only look after their own interests,’” she said.

The resurgence of far-right extremism is not unique to Greece, of course. Twenty-five years after the Berlin Wall crumbled into souvenirs, the political narrative in the “European Home” has not been one of unity. The turnaround was made brutally evident during European Union Parliament elections in May that were marked by stunning victories for Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration, anti-euro Front National and Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party, which advocates Britain’s immediate withdrawal from the EU. Far-right parties across the continent more than doubled their representation. Undaunted by the prosecution against its leader and most senior members, Golden Dawn went on to win 9.4 percent of the vote and emerge as Greece’s third-biggest party.

To ban or not to ban?

Experts at the FES debate inevitably set to work on the question of whether apparently anti-democratic parties should be tolerated within Europe’s liberal democracies. Haunted by its Nazi past, Germany has laws banning Holocaust denial and the public display of Nazi insignia. The country has encouraged European governments to introduce similar legislation.

Last year saw a renewed bid to outlaw the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) after Germany’s 16 regional governments filed a motion with the Federal Constitutional Court arguing that the NPD espouses Nazi values and wants to overthrow the democratic order through violence. A previous bid in 2003 failed after top judges ruled that the government’s case rested on testimonies by NPD officials who were found to be agents of the German intelligence service. Support for NPD went up after the botched bid.

“Sometimes a ban is necessary, but you also need to make a serious effort to deal with the problem on a social level,” said Melzer, who also referred to contacts between NPD and GD officials.

Studies by German experts quoted in the publication show that about 30 percent of people who support far-right parties and organizations abandon these groups when authorities investigate them in connection with a possible ban on their operations.

“Prohibitions are not a panacea,” Georgiadou said, warning that rather than curb the power of an ultranationalist party, a ban can actually result in the party gaining popularity. The victimization factor seems to have played a role during the early stages of the judicial clampdown on Golden Dawn, which failed to diminish its popularity.

“It was a mistake to believe that the launch of the judicial investigation into Golden Dawn would automatically drain support for the party. Big shocks take time to register with voters,” Georgiadou said, adding that more recent surveys, particularly following a barrage of investigative reporting into GD’s criminal activity and Nazi affiliations, have documented a slow albeit steady decline in support for the party, which is now polling around 6 percent.

Golden Dawn did not face an NPD-style ban threat. Its members were instead prosecuted for alleged violations of the country’s criminal code. Last month, the prosecutor handling the investigation into GD proposed that all the party’s 16 MPs, as well as two deputies who have quit and dozens more GD members stand trial on a string of charges ranging from running a criminal organization to murder and weapons offenses. In a 700-page report, the prosecutor said that none of GD’s MPs can claim convincingly that they were unaware of the criminal acts that were consistently carried out over a long period of time in the name of the party.

Georgiadou said that although a great effort was being made to tackle GD on a judicial level, very little was being done on a political level. “What have our education ministers been up to all this time?” she said.

Prompted by a wave of xenophobic attacks, the Greek Parliament in September passed a bill toughening anti-racism laws and criminalizing Holocaust denial. The new laws will not apply to GD members during their upcoming trial.


Latest Tweets

#oaka #oaka #oaka

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 29 other followers