Posts Tagged 'populism'

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.

Spoiled by the gods

Photo by Harry van Versendaal

By Harry van Versendaal

What does not kill you can make you stronger, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote. Or, at least, a little bit richer.

Last week, Ukraine announced that the area around the Chernobyl power plant, the site of the 1986 nuclear disaster, will be officially opened to tourists. The former Soviet republic’s emergency situations ministry, the Guardian reported, is planning to offer visitor tours inside the 30-mile no-go zone set up after reactor number four of the powerhouse exploded on April 26 , 1986, sending a radiation cloud over much of Europe – and swarms of panicked consumers here in Greece to the local supermarkets as tons of Dutch-made tinned milk flew off the shelves in just a few hours.

Perhaps Ukraine’s toxic theme park might have a lesson or two to offer us about how to turn disaster into opportunity. Sure, Greece is not some deserted wasteland quite just yet, but it has long been in the “accident-waiting-to-happen category.” A mammoth 110-billion-euro bailout package signed with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund earlier this year was generally seen as a last gasp effort to prevent this once-proud eurozone member from defaulting – a lot like patching up a nuclear plant’s cracked sarcophagus. Will the patches hold? No one knows for sure.

One thing everyone agrees on is that the nation has all but hit rock bottom. It is, therefore, all the more surprising that so many of us still refuse to change the way we do things. The crisis, the biggest since the end of the military dictatorship in 1974, has presented us with an unprecedented opportunity to break with the rigidities, habits and babble of the past. But very few people have seen the crisis as an opportunity, or better, the opportunity behind the crisis.

Our gods are dead, as Nietzsche would have it. But, as the late German philosopher would also say, zero-hour moments like this are not necessarily a cause for despair, but, instead the first step for a reevaluation of our old values. Sadly, no inner readjustment appears to be in the cards here as we still look to the same old gods for succor: populism, nepotism and self-interest.

Take the education sector, traditionally a test site for political experimentation by socialist and conservative governments alike, which is once again being shoved into surreal territory. Only this time it’s the fingers of the academics that hover over the self-destruct button. A government campaign to overhaul the administration of the country’s higher education system is going nowhere as university rectors have rejected every single proposal put forward by the Education Ministry. Rectors said they will not accept any new measures unless these also guarantee a free flow of funds and full independence for the recipients of the cash, i.e. themselves. Rectors, in other words, demand that the state has no say over where its own money goes. The rectors – yes, the nation’s intellectual elite, not some bunch of heavily indoctrinated Communist Party activists – went even further by warning that if the state decides to put its proposals into law, they will refuse to implement them. Adhering to the law, we are told, is a matter of personal preference.

So, before signing a financial memorandum, the Greek government should perhaps have first signed an educational memorandum obliging us to modify the anachronisms that have reduced state schools and universities to a pathetic mess. That does not mean to say that the measures requested by Greece’s lenders – a daunting mix of tax hikes and wage cuts – are not painful, and even brutal at times. In fact, the innocent are the first to suffer as too many babies are being thrown out with the bath water. Like modern-day Stakhanovites, we are told to work harder, for less. But even so, it’s hard to see how we can trim spending and raise enough money to fix the situation, when we have failed to pocket the money that was offered to us in the first place. Last month Greece received a final written warning from the European Commission – the last step before legal action – over hundreds of illegal landfills that are still in operation across the country. Despite the looming fines and an offer by the European Union to fund the construction of new sanitary landfills, Greece has so far failed to deliver. Last week, the dump saga took an ugly turn as angry residents of Keratea, southeast of the capital, clashed with riot police in a bid to halt plans for a landfill. Keratea and Grammatiko, northeast of Athens, were designated some 10 years ago as the sites where Attica’s new landfills would be built, but the projects have been stalled by legal wrangles and local protests. As a result, Greece is in serious risk of losing the European funds. One would hope that our ostrich-like bureaucrats would, at least, be able to dig a hole in the ground.

The list is endless. This deleterious mix of incompetence, corruption and malgovernance has left nothing unaffected: the judiciary, military, police, church, media, soccer and this miserable excuse for a city – everything is bankrupt. Nietzsche liked to describe truth as “a mobile army of metaphors.” This is something our homegrown bureaucrats know all too well. For years, they have used myth to sustain their mojo, cynically clawing their way up the greasy pole of politics. They were not alone in this. It took a huge army of cheerleaders that eagerly blocked streets, waved cheap plastic flags and packed public squares and smoke-filled conference halls, basking in the glow of the like-minded. Now the party is over. But some are still dancing to the tune of yesteryear.

The others

By Harry van Versendaal

The Aristophanic word folds, stretches, groans, it’s made contemporary: “The thieves roam free,” declares the fustanella-wearing man with the mohawk hairdo from the orchestra.

It was Saturday night and over 10,000 people had swarmed to the Ancient Theater of Epidaurus to watch the National Theater of Northern Greece’s production of “The Acharnians,” directed by Sotiris Hadzakis. In a rather predictable twist, it’s not Stamatis Kraounakis playing the character of Dikaiopolis, but, rather the other way around. From an Athenian farmer, spent and fed-up with the Peloponnesian War, Aristophanes’ hero is transformed into a harried modern-day Greek who’s pissed off at the decline of the left-wing movement, the rotten politicos who govern us, the fiscal straitjacket of the IMF.

Chicken thieves, wannabes, criminals, tax dodgers, pissant MPs, managers of the big debt business… those responsible for the death of a country, the killers roam free.”

Free they may be, but they certainly were not among the audience at Epidaurus, which endorsed en masse the ranting of the exuberant protagonist, again and again, with thundering applause. Flattered and vindicated, the audience succumbs and is enraptured as the troupe resorts to one of the most favored ploys of the suit-clad enemy: populism.

The time has come to tell it to their face: This is the country of poets… Don’t let go of your poets, Greece. Most importantly, don’t let go of your poet of comedy for it is our moral blueprint, the only independent authority that tells the truth; it is the spirit of the truth. Comedy, satire, real steamrollers that crush every skunk, coward and scoundrel,” promises Lamachus (played by Grigoris Valtinos), in yet another parabasis.

The audience at Epidaurus was moved and got to its feet once more when the Chorus held up photographs of poets, heroes of the Greek Revolution and, most prominently, one of Grigorios Lambrakis holding a banner with the word HELLAS printed in capitals and surrounded by peace signs.

The protagonist howls about justice that was never meted out. “I don’t want to name names at the theater. People talk about them at home. Those responsible need to pay.” “Hallelujah!”, says a female voice in the audience.

How we love it, how we clap our hands when we’re told that others are to blame for our problems, our wretched state – not us.

The right answer is no

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

By Harry van Versendaal

Fancy rhetoric is no mask for a banal idea. New Democracy’s three-day party congress in Athens certified Antonis Samaras as the top dog but offered woefully little in the way of concrete ideas or actual policy.

Nine months since the general elections that saw the scandal-ridden conservatives of Costas Karamanlis crash out of power, and despite the severe belt-tightening measures imposed by the socialist government in return for an EU/IMF aid package, ND’s approval ratings remain deep in negative territory.

Once a persona non grata among the conservatives – after all, he defected from ND before going on to bring down the conservative government in 1993 – the 59-year-old Samaras is now charged with the task of dragging the damaged and directionless party back to electability.

First he took care of the internal competition. A few months after his stunning election as party leader by the party base, Samaras went on to expel Dora Bakoyannis – daughter of former premier and his own political nemesis, Constantine Mitsotakis – deeming that her political ego was too big to accommodate under the same roof. ND’s third pole, the fuzzy centrist Dimitris Avramopoulos is slated for the new position of vice-president after throwing his weight behind Samaras in the party leadership race.

Having debunked talk of the “middle ground,” the once-hyped, post-ideological catch-all theorem that propelled Karamanlis into power, Samaras has sought a credo to galvanize an electorate put off by consensual centrism. This may satisfy party ideologues but it’s hard to see how it will prevent potential leaks on the right and the left of ND. Giorgos Karatzaferis’s ultranationalist Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) is a magnet for voters on ND’s boundaries on the right, while Bakoyannis is preparing to launch her own centrist party.

Standing on an Obama-style low-level circular podium surrounded by young party supporters, Samaras repeated his commitment to “social liberalism” while expressing his aversion to chameleon tactics. “Our political beliefs are not a beach umbrella that we can move more to the left or right to account for those who desert PASOK or any other,” he said as an overhead panel flashed slogans on a backdrop of changing colors. Ideological purity is strength, Samaras appears to suggest, but so far his dogma has been dogged by a suspicious level of generalization.

In fact, talk of “social liberalism” seems to be rhetorical camouflage for the old-fashioned popular right which has historically come with an emphasis on patriotism, respect for traditional values and suspicion of the “unfettered” free market. Whatever Samaras’s “social liberalism” is, it smacks of populism articulated in the form of blanket rejectionism. Despite early assurances that ND would adopt the constructive, consensual policy warranted by the country’s fiscal misery, Samaras has already said “no” to Kallikratis, an ambitious plan to redraw administrative boundaries and overhaul local government; he has said “no” to the country’s bailout plan signed with the EU and the IMF; and he has signalled that ND will vote against pending labor and pension reforms – not a lot there separating his agenda from the nihilist yens of the “disobedient” KKE communists of Aleka Papariga.

Defeating even the most moderate expectations, Samaras has already pulled ND into a political safe zone. That does not necessarily mean that he will pay a price for it. After all, nay-saying in this part of the world has proved a safe bet for many an opposition party that set their sights on power.

Cut the Krapp

By Harry van Versendaal

Elbowing my way through the PAME troops rallying in scruffy Omonia Square, I felt tempted to walk back into the metro station. Looking at these hordes of KKE labor unionists, greater in size and passion than at any other time in recent history, I could not help but ponder the root causes of much of Greece’s current ills: populism, opportunism and blanket rejectionism. And there I was, ready to take part in that same rally, prompted by the socialist government’s IMF-inspired austerity measures.

Torn. As Greece spirals into crisis, it has become clear that we need new tools, and perhaps a new vocabulary, to explain the world; for the old dividing lines, the old camps are no more. Haunted by the specter of a “lost generation,” Greece’s 30-somethings can feel little solidarity with the generation of their parents. Politically and socially bankrupt, the so-called generation of the Polytechnic (a reference to the 1973 student uprising against the 1967-74 military dictatorship) is now struggling to hold on to their hard-won rights and perks. The problem is some of these are indefensible and, to a large degree, responsible for the current deadlock. So, frustrated masses, but not pulling in exactly the same direction.

And then came the violence, so uncomfortably predictable and so dreadfully tragic, to remind us that when it comes to death there are no gray areas – even though some seem to think otherwise.

As three bank employees choked to death after being firebombed by self-styled anarchists on Stadiou street on May 5, dozens of angry demonstrators marched past the burning building firing barbs against the trapped men and women: “Let the scabs burn!”

This was an accident waiting to happen. In fact the biggest surprise was that there had been no victims so far. If you play with fire you will, eventually, get burned. And the truth is that on the issue of violence the country’s left-wing parties have been unashamedly pro-blur. This was the case when the variegated and ideologically nebulous Synaspismos Left Coalition sought to capitalize on the violent riots that swept the capital in December 2008 following the police shooting of teenager Alexis Grigoropoulos in Exarchia.

Some degree of mourning and soul-searching for the Marfin bank deaths would again have been more appropriate. But the typically opportunistic Alexis Tsipras was quick to point a finger at the “agents provocateurs” who aim to disorient public opinion and undermine the people’s movement. A crime like this, the argument goes, can only have been committed by those who benefit from it. Tsipras’s party is not the only one to find scapegoating easier than change.

The Communist Party of Greece, which has never taken the trouble to denounce its Stalinist legacy, is singing from the same hymnal. After demonstrators carrying PAME flags assaulted the Parliament during the May 5 protest, KKE General Secretary Aleka Papariga provided the good old anti-capitalist reflex reaction, handily blaming the carnage on outside forces.

In the world of the willfully amnesiac KKE truth is not based on accuracy, but ideology. All this should come as no surprise from a party that is openly allergic to “bourgeois democracy” – a party in fact that has repeatedly been seen to mistake democracy for capitalism. A KKE spokesman recently said that the party does not recognize the Constitution because it did not vote for it, while PAME unionists last month blocked the port of Piraeus, preventing some 1,000 foreign tourists form boarding their cruise ship.

True to their Marxist DNA, Greece’s communists, who garnered just over 7 percent in the last general election, do not hide their metaphysical pretensions as they claim exclusive access to the “true interests” of the people. A political minority sees the right to elevate people’s “true interests” above national law – an extremely perilous concept and one which has played a part in nourishing the country’s culture of violence.

On Sunday evening, a silent demonstration organized by citizens via the Internet could hardly claim to have drawn more than 150-200 people – the fact that death did not come from a police bullet did not seem to help much. A note stuck on the wall of the fateful bank, addressing the killers and all those who allowed them to be, reminded everyone how too much relativism can be unbearably nihilistic: “Back in December [2008] your slogan was ‘you talk about broken shop windows, we talk about human lives.’ What do you have to say now?”

Watching Samuel Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape” on an Athens stage later in the day evoked some unsettling patterns. Lonely old Krapp, played here by Bob Wilson, relives his past by listening to tapes of his young, confident self. The man will soon go down in a sea of doubt and despair about his life choices and the devastating realization that nothing can change anymore.

Let’s hope it’s not too late for the rest of us.

Blond ambition

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

By Harry van Versendaal

Almere, a relatively new, middle-class polder city east of Amsterdam, was virtually unheard of outside the Netherlands – until last week, when it made Europe’s headlines for all the wrong reasons.

The party of Geert Wilders, by far the country’s most controversial figure, won municipal elections there. His Party for Freedom (PVV), which also came second in The Hague, the other of the two municipalities it contested, will be in control of a Dutch city for the first time. More shockingly, Wilders could be kingmaker in the upcoming general elections.

“The result is troubling but was bound to happen,” Sjoerd de Jong, deputy editor-in-chief at NRC Handelsblad, told Athens Plus. “Wilders had already shown his electoral strength in the European elections. The premature demise of the government only helped him cash his cheque.

“The Dutch electorate in general is growing tired of its traditional leaders, which is apparent in the wildly divergent election results of the last 10 or 15 years,” de Jong said of a country once the synonym of political stability for much part in the form of so-called “purple coalition” governments of Christian and social democrats.

PVV’s victory also has symbolic content emblematic of the gradual transformation of the Netherlands, a former colonial nation long seen as a bastion of tolerance and liberal values by account of its soft policy on drugs and prostitution and decades of open-door policy on immigration.

“Wilders’s message of cultural nationalism and protectionism appeals to vague but broad concerns in Dutch society, not only in the working class but also in middle-class areas and cities, like Almere,” de Jong said.

Nicknamed Mozart or Captain Peroxide for his trademark platinum-dyed hairdo, Wilders is in many ways the political heir to conservative populist Pim Fortuyn. Fortuyn, who was gunned down by a deranged animal rights activist in 2002, was the first politician to challenge the orthodoxy of the Dutch political establishment, which he liked to scoff as the “left-wing church.”

Less charismatic than the over-the-top Fortuyn, Wilders also likes to take shots at the multiculturalist model, once the sacred cow of Holland’s consensus politics. The country’s mainstream parties, long in denial of the simmering tension, failed to address popular discontent with the hard-to-integrate chunk of the nation’s so-called “allochtonen” or foreigners – tension which burst into the open following the violent murder in 2004 of eccentric filmmaker Theo van Gogh by an Islamic radical.

That someone could be killed for speaking his mind, even if that meant mocking an alien religion, was an unprecedented shock for the Dutch. If you want to live here, the new motto goes, you have to live by our values.

“Society may be becoming less tolerant of minority eccentricities, especially of religious ones. There’s always been a strong Dutch urge to ‘act normal’ – meaning ‘like one of us’ – which has gained momentum in recent years due to the uncertainties of globalization and immigration,” de Jong said.

Holland is in many ways at the frontline of a pan-European populist reaction against the established political elites, which are being blamed for allowing mass immigration and, particularly, the Islamisation of European societies. At the same time, de Jong points out, Wilders, who started out as a punk youth in the early 80s, is “typically Dutch in his bluntness,” like in his proposal of a “kopvodden-tax,” a tax on headscarves that literally translates as a “head-rag tax.”

“My supporters say: ‘At last there is someone who dares to say what millions of people think.’ That is what I do,” Wilders has said echoing Fortuyn’s famous mantra: “I say what I think and I do as I say.”

Then again, de Jong remarks, many of his followers consider Wilders too extreme, certainly for Dutch tastes. “They voted for him primarily because they wanted to send a signal to the government: We’re concerned about where this society is going and we want you to take us seriously,” he said.

The idea of a disgruntled but silent majority bound by political correctness does not go down well with many analysts.

“This is not how populism works. It’s the other way round. I think Wilders tells people what to think. He exploits people’s fears. Populist parties actually shape people’s views,” said Andre Krouwel, professor of political science at Amsterdam’s Vrije University.

Reality, political expediency or, perhaps, both have pushed Dutch governments away from the live-and-let-live approach on immigration in favor of a tougher, assimilation-oriented policy. Newcomers must now take social integration courses and pass a language test within five years after arrival or risk deportation from the Netherlands, where 6 percent of the population of 16 million are Muslim.

That won’t do for Wilders, who has said he wants a ban on headscarves for civil servants, a halt on migration from Muslim countries and a moratorium on the construction of mosques in a bid to “stop the Islamisation of the Netherlands,” which he considers a threat to freedom. “Fitna,” an anti-Islamic short movie/manifesto made by Wilders, equates Islam with Nazism.

“Wilders has a simple explanation for everything. Migrants are to blame for everything, so if you stop migration, the problems will disappear,” Krouwel said.

Although most studies show that school-dropout, unemployment and crime rates are higher among immigrants, Krouwel said, the problems should be associated with income levels, not religion.

“What Wilders does is replace a social explanation with a religious, cultural one,” he said.

Wilders’s powerful PR machine and populist tactics have certainly helped him but so has the messy political situation. The Dutch government collapsed last month after the Labor Party, the junior partner in the coalition of Christian and social democrats, refused to extend the stay of 2,000 Dutch troops in Afghanistan whose mandate ends in August. Polls ahead of the June election predict an unusually fragmented distribution of power but also a doubling of the PVV’s electoral power to 27 seats, which would make it the second biggest party and potential kingmaker.

De Jong, an experienced journalist and author, is not too pessimistic about the Wilders effect. “His party, if successful in the general elections, will meet with opposition from the established parties but also from labor unions and employers who worry about possible negative effects of his success on the Dutch economy, for instance on exports to Islamic countries,” he said.

“But of course, he will be a force to be reckoned with and one that can certainly influence the course of Dutch politics, even from the opposition.”


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