Posts Tagged 'socialist'

Samaras: too small for his boots?

By Harry van Versendaal

“A foolish consistency may be the hobgoblin of little minds,” R.W. Emerson said, but — as Antonis Samaras has found out — too much inconsistency can be politically damaging.

In 2009, the 61-year-old conservative politician took over a broken New Democracy party promising to rebuild it around the idea of “social liberalism.” It was an exclusive concept that moved the party further to the right on Greece’s political spectrum by embracing such values as national pride, Orthodoxy and skepticism of the markets. Awkwardly echoing Bismarck, the Greek politician claimed he could hear the distant hoofbeats of history.

A few months later, ND came out against the bailout deal that George Papandreou’s Socialist government signed with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. Samaras went on to oust Dora Bakoyannis, the centrist former foreign minister who had earlier challenged him in the party leadership race, for backing the aid package in Parliament. Bakoyannis, in turn, formed her own pro-bailout splinter party, taking some of her ND colleagues with her. Strangely, Samaras had done the same in the early 1990s, as he left ND to form his own party, Political Spring, bringing down the government of Constantine Mitsotakis, Bakoyannis’s father, in the process.

As a result of his tactics, Samaras drove away the party’s middle-ground supporters who had been key in handing his predecessor, Costas Karamanlis, victory in two parliamentary elections.

His opposition to the memorandum was short-lived. Faced with bankruptcy, Greece earlier this year had to sign a second bailout deal worth 130 billion euros to keep the country afloat until 2014. In his most controversial U-turn, Samaras asked his MPs to support the aid package. The decision prompted a great deal of controversy in the right-wing anti-bailout camp inside and outside the party as epithets ranged from “flip-flopper” to “traitor.” Some 20 deputies refused to back the deal in the House and were as a result expelled from the party. One of the rebels, Panos Kammenos, went on to form the populist anti-bailout party Independent Greeks, sucking a great deal of support from ND on the right. After turning his back on the political center, Samaras had now disaffected a large portion of the right.

ND’s role in the power-sharing government that followed Papandreou’s clumsy exit from the driver’s seat only gave voice to Samaras’s critics. Although pledging to support the implementation of the bailout deal, he undermined it at every step of the way while constantly bleating for a snap election.

On May 6, Samaras finally got what he wished for. But, in yet another instance of political miscalculation, the outcome of the ballot was a far cry from what he had hoped for. His party came first in the vote, but the result was a Pyrrhic victory as Samaras had spent a good part of the campaign calling for a clear conservative majority. The numbers were painful. Samaras had inherited the worst support in the history of ND — Karamanlis’s 33.5 percent in 2009 — and managed to drive it even lower, scoring an embarrassing 18.8 percent. The party lost more than a million voters in less than three years, during which it was not even in government.

Like a pupil resitting exams again and again, the poor marks have prompted Samaras to rebrand his politics. Now he wants to build a “grand center-right front.” The results of his overture have been mixed. Most of the smaller liberal parties, including the pro-reform Drasi, turned down the offer. Ironically, it was his bitter political rival Bakoyannis that was this week duly welcomed back into the fold as the two announced they were joining forces in a “patriotic, pro-European front.” And as his acceptance of defectors from the disintegrating nationalist LAOS party into ND demonstrate, there is hardly any ideological or quality filter to Samaras’s attempts to broaden his party’s appeal.

As conservative ideologues would be the first to admit, the political horse-trading of the past few days smacks of unscrupulous opportunism. As it happens, cliches have their place. A true leader must be proactive, he must shape events and not just be blown about in different directions by them. But if the ability to inspire a unifying national vision is a safe measure of a politician’s greatness, then Samaras has proved to be a political pygmy.

ND may well recover by June 17. But Samaras will only have SYRIZA to thank as the leftist party’s fuzzy economics and pie-in-the-sky rhetoric is making many people afraid that Alexis Tsipras’s vision of a bailout-free utopia will lead the country out of the eurozone.

Unlike his new archrival, however, the ND boss lacks an ideal — and that may prove to be his undoing. Samaras may have changed his political tune one too many times for Greek voters to give him the mandate he so desires.

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Seeing is believing

Photo by Joseph Galanakis

By Harry van Versendaal

When Thimios Gourgouris first caught the news of furious rioting in downtown Athens in December 2008, he reached for his Nikon camera. As the Greek capital surrendered to an orgy of violence and looting sparked by the fatal shooting of a teenager by police, the curious young man from the suburbs took to the debris-strewn streets to document the mayhem.

Three years later, the number of people like Gourgouris have skyrocketed. As public rallies against the Socialist government’s austerity measures — sanctioned by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, the debt-choked country’s foreign creditors — keep coming, more people seem to have set aside the traditional flag and banner for a more versatile medium: the digital camera. Just type “Greek protests 2011” into Google Images and you’ll get more than 5 million results.

This burst of interest in user-generated content is propelled by more than one reason. But, like elsewhere around the world, it is principally born out of public skepticism toward conventional media.

“I want to see with my own eyes what is happening out there. I stopped relying just on the stuff I was being fed by television,” Gourgouris, a tall man with a dark beard and expressive eyes, said in a recent interview.

Greece’s mainstream media have not escaped unscathed from popular criticism of the country’s institutions. Television channels and newspapers — traditionally associated with the nation’s political parties — are seen as pandering to political and business interests.

“I only trust what I see,” Gourgouris said.

Born in 1980, Gourgouris has never belonged to a political party. A former graphic designer who now works as a commercial representative in Elefsina, a small town west of Athens, he dreams of one day becoming a war photographer. The streets around Syntagma Square make good training ground, he jokes. When venturing into the urban scuffles, he wears gloves, body armor and a green Brainsaver helmet equipped with a built-in camera. “Last time a piece of marble hit me on the right shoulder,” he said.

Gourgouris makes a point of sharing all of his pictures on Flickr, the image- and video-hosting website. All his photographs are free to download in high resolution. One of his shots from the latest riots shows a riot policeman trying to snatch an SLR camera from a man standing in Syntagma Square. A woman reacts to the scene while trying to protect a fellow demonstrator who appears to be in a state of shock.

“If I had to keep a single image from the protest, it would have to be that one,” he said.

Protest 3.0

Around the globe, protests are reshaped by technology. Ever-cheaper digital gadgets and the Internet are transforming the means and the motives of the people involved in ways we are only starting to witness.

Last spring, the twitterati hailed the “social media revolutions” in Tunisia and Egypt as protesters made extensive use of social networks to bring down their despotic presidents. Facebook and Twitter played a key role in fomenting public unrest following Iran’s disputed election in 2009. Like Iran, Libya showed the same media are available to the autarchic regimes.

Greece is not immune to social and technological forces. In May, thousands of people responded to a Facebook call by the so-called Indignant movement to join an anti-austerity rally at Syntagma and other public squares across the country. Demonstrators, who have since camped in front of the Greek Parliament, use laptops to organize and promote their campaign through the Net.

When individuals’ behavior changes, mass protests also change. Gourgouris says that whenever he sees the police arresting a demonstrator, he feels that by running to the scene an officer will think twice before exerting unnecessary physical force.

“When everybody is filming with their cell phones, you’re not going to beat the hell out of that person,” he said.

Switching places

Technology is also transforming the news business, as ordinary folk get involved in the gathering, filtering and dissemination of information.

“It’s evolution,” said Pavlos Fysakis, a professional photographer in his early 40s. He says that this type of guerrilla journalism may not guarantee quality, but it is certainly a force for pluralism.

“The news now belongs to everyone. It comes from many different sources, and it is open to many different interpretations,” said Fysakis, who is one of the 14 photojournalists to have worked on The Prism GR2010 multimedia project, a collective documentation of Greece during last winter that is available on the Internet.

If there is one problem will all this input, Fysakis says, it has to do with the diminishing shock factor. With all the imagery out there, he warns, audiences as well as photographers risk getting a bit too accustomed to graphic images.

“Violence is demystified. We almost think it’s normal to see a cop beating up a person on the street. The image is everywhere, as if [the event] is occurring all the time,” Fysakis said.

User-generated footage of the June 29 demonstrations depicted riot police firing huge amounts of tear gas and physically abusing protesters, including elderly men and women.

The apparently excessive use of force by police is the subject of a parliamentary investigation. Meanwhile, a prosecutor has brought charges against the police for excessive use of chemicals and for causing bodily harm to citizens. Amnesty International has also condemned the police tactics.

Exposed

For Liza Tsaliki, a communications and media expert at the University of Athens, crowdsourced content “is laden with democratic potential.”

“Civilian footage of the riots has widened our perspective and understanding of what actually happened,” she said of the June demonstrations.

A few hours after the protests, the Internet was churning with footage apparently showing riot squad officers escorting three men who had covered their faces and appeared to be wielding iron bars, prompting suggestions that the police had either placed provocateurs within the protesting crowds or that the force was offering protection to extreme right-wing protesters who were battling leftists.

However, an official reaction (a statement by the minister for citizens’ protection that left a lot to be desired) only came after television channels had aired the controversial video.

Trust them not

To be sure, citizen journalism is far from perfect. A lot of the rigor and accuracy associated with traditional news organizations inevitably flies out the window. Ordinary people cannot perform, or are insensitive to, the (meticulous but costly and time-consuming) fact-based reporting, cross-checking, sourcing and editing of newsrooms proper.

A survey conducted in the UK a few years ago found that 99 percent of people do not trust content on blogs and forums uploaded by their friends and the rest of the public.

Lack of verification and eponymity is not the only problem, as input from non-journalists is not necessarily synonymous with objectivity.

Writing in Kathimerini about the controversial video, liberal commentator Paschos Mandravelis criticized social media users for unquestioningly embracing what seems to confirm the views they already hold.

“The T-shirt he was wearing to cover his face, which is usually offered by every protester as a sign of innocence (‘I was wearing it to protect myself from the tear gas’) was, in this case, used as a sign of guilt (‘It’s obvious. These are the hooded troublemakers’),” Mandravelis wrote.

Tsaliki agrees that not everything captured by amateur journalists is necessarily benign.

“Even in these latter cases, a certain alternative reality can be constructed under the guise of the non-mediated experience,” Tsaliki said.

“All you need is a certain choreography, some volunteers and a smartphone,” she said.

But the speed and diversity of social media is hard to beat. After all, it was a Pakistani Twitterer grumbling about the noise from a helicopter that gave the world live coverage of the American raid that resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden in May.

Before that, it was some blurry footage of Alexandros Grigoropoulos’s murder in Exarchia, captured with a phone camera by a resident standing on a nearby balcony, that fanned Greece’s 2008 riots.

Traditional media have tried to take advantage of the trend, launching citizen journalism platforms of their own — CNN’s “iReport” or Al Jazeera’s “Sharek,” for example. And as suggested by Al Jazeera’s mining of the social media during the Middle East uprisings, the use of citizen-produced material can help commercial networks come across as the “voice of the people.”

“They overtly take the side of the protesters against these regimes. And their use of social media and citizen generated content gives them the ammunition and credibility in that campaign,” blogged Charlie Beckett, founding director of Polis, a journalism and society think-tank at the London School of Economics.

Preaching to the converted?

The Internet has changed the way people organize themselves and protest, but has it really helped expand the reservoirs of activists on the ground? Experts are divided on the issue.

For one thing, cyber-pessimists are right that support-a-cause-with-a-click attitudes produce great numbers but little commitment. Web-powered activism, Tsaliki adds, is still a lot about preaching to the converted.

“The Internet will chiefly serve those activists and groups that are already active, thus reinforcing existing patterns of political participation in society,” she said.

But Gourgouris is confident that simply by recording and sharing the message of a demonstration, you are increasing its impact.

“The world isn’t beautiful. I record the ugliness so I can put it out there and — to the extent that I can — fix it. I am trying to raise awareness. I am saying, ‘Here’s the violence of the people behind masks’,” he said.

As always, some people out there prefer more direct forms of engagement. As photographers zigzagged through the infuriated crowds at a recent demo, one hooded youth shouted at them to “put down the cameras and grab a stone.”

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.


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