Posts Tagged 'tsipras'

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.

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

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By Harry van Versendaal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The big shake-up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bridge building

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Moderate, pragmatic and unloved: Greece’s liberal parties

By Harry van Versendaal

“In Greece, a liberal is called a ‘neoliberal’ and is perceived as a ‘neoconservative’,” says Constantinos Alexacos, an architect who ran as a candidate with the Drasi party in the May 6 elections.

Big shocks change perceptions but the spectacular meltdown of Greece’s two-party system, dominant since the end of the military dictatorship in 1974, has failed to shake off at least one: mainstream distrust in liberalism.

Socialist PASOK and the New Democracy conservatives suffered a drubbing on Sunday, seeing their combined share of the vote sink to an all-time low of 32 percent. Nevertheless, none of the country’s liberal parties — Democratic Alliance, Drasi (which merged with Liberal Alliance ahead of the vote), or Dimiourgia Xana (Recreate Greece) — won enough votes to make it into Parliament. The three garnered a combined 6.5 percent, or 411,536 votes, as a huge chunk of support went to the anti-bailout parties away from the center of the political spectrum.

The poor showing has prompted a fair deal of frustration and soul-searching among self-described liberals in this debt-wracked nation. If there is one thing they all agree on it’s that their doctrine is a perennial victim of bad publicity. For a wide range of reasons, liberalism is still a dirty word for many, particularly those on the left.

“Like capitalism, liberal ideologies in Greece have been defined by their opponents, not their supporters. We’ve allowed others to tell the Greek population what we are, what we believe, who we are aligned with,” says Emmanuel Schizas, editor of the LOL Greece blog.

“Essentially, if you call yourself a liberal, the reasoning goes, you are pro-war, pro-monopolies, a corporatist, unfeeling and uncaring, and have a casual tolerance for corruption, inequality and the suppression of political rights,” adds Schizas.

It’s quite an exasperating situation for people who have traditionally espoused such values as individual freedom, rule of law, active but accountable government, free but responsible markets, and mutual toleration.

Most liberals have called for a smaller government, fewer civil servants, privatizations and further deregulation of closed professions. But the fact that liberal parties chose to back the deeply unpopular austerity policies attached to the EU-IMF bailout deal didn’t do much to promote their ideas. Worse, some liberal commentators say, the parties paid the price of endorsing ideas that were not, in fact, related to their political religion.

“Most liberals around the world have strongly opposed policies like those included in the memorandum,” says Tilemachos Chormovitis, a contributor for the liberal Ble Milo (Blue Apple) blog. “You can’t solve a debt crisis by accepting more loans. Instead of putting forward their own program against the tax-heavy policies of the memorandum and the stubborn statism of the left, liberals tagged along with the worn-out parties that backed the program,” he says.

To be sure, allergy to liberal ideas goes further back and has systematically been fed by the system of nepotism, clientelism and corruption that took hold of Greek society after populist PASOK rose to power in 1981. Any attempts to contain the country’s gigantic and profligate state ran against the interests of the ruling parties and their voters. Over time, liberal reforms were seen as coming together with a self-destruct button.

“There comes a point on the road to serfdom where so much of a country is dependent on government subsidies, government-sanctioned rents and government-upheld false economies, that liberalizing it will simply kill it,” says Schizas with a mention of F.A. Hayek’s 1944 classic.

Implementing liberal economic reforms, he says, was bound to take a hefty toll on the well-being of hundreds of thousands of people — at least in the medium term. “In an aged and inflexible society such as ours, people don’t bounce back from such setbacks; they stay down,” he says.

It’s hard to miss the uncomfortable truth at the core of the liberal creed: “The liberal parties are in the business of pointing out trade-offs; telling people they can’t have everything. That’s been a widely unpopular way of thinking in Greece since the ‘change’ of 1981,” says Schizas, referring to the late Andreas Papandreou’s famous campaign slogan which heralded the massive, but often misguided, program of wealth redistribution which was to follow.

The trade-off idea is a far cry from the populist, pie-in-the-sky idealism that has animated Greek parties seeking to appease an audience that had grown increasingly spoiled during the past 30 years. Furthermore, this cold, instrumental approach to politics, observers say, is out of synch with the all-too-human qualities of politicking. “Politics is not engineering. It’s chaotic, it does not follow a straight line. Just like life,” Kathimerini commentator Nikos Xydakis says, acknowledging SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras’s deft timing and political opportunism. “Politics requires Machiavellian ‘virtue,’ the ability to adapt to any given situation by doing whatever is necessary,” he says.

Wrong leaders, wrong audience

Analysts also voice reservations over whether Drasi leader, veteran politician and ex-minister Stefanos Manos and former New Democracy heavyweight Dora Bakoyannis, who now heads Democratic Alliance, are the right people for the job.

The biggest handicap, journalist and urban activist Dimitris Rigopoulos suggests, is that the vast majority of voters see them as part of the problem, not the solution. “Manos and Bakoyannis are both associated in the collective consciousness with Greece’s discredited political establishment,” he says.

Parallel to this, experts say, there’s an issue with the audiences that these parties have chosen for themselves. Drasi, which likes to see itself as the ‘orthodox’ libertarian party, tanked outside the main urban centers while drawing a disproportionate share of the vote from the alumni of elite schools. One of the most common criticisms against liberals is that they are haughty and elitist.

“You get the impression that many of these people feel unfortunate to have been born in Greece and often treat their compatriots with disdain. Naturally, they have failed to identify with the masses and the biggest chunk of support comes from posh districts like Filothei or Kolonaki,” Chormovitis says.

Meanwhile, most of the support for Democratic Alliance appears to come from the reservoir of voters connected to Dora Bakoyannis’s family — which includes her father and ex-Premier Constantine Mitsotakis and her late politician husband Pavlos. “If we’re being charitable, it would be best to say that not all of them care about liberal this and liberal that; they have personal loyalties,” says Schizas.

Still far from tipping point, but…

Some observers are rather reserved about the future of Greece’s liberal movement. “Greeks — at least those who did not vote for the leftovers of the old system and those who didn’t abstain — voted for sterile reaction and conservatism,” says journalist and blogger Thodoris Georgakopoulos.

The ballot, he says, shows that Greece’s creative minority — those who find solutions to the challenges, which others then follow — is still far from reaching what writer Malcolm Gladwell calls “the tipping point” – “that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire,” bringing about disproportionate change in society.

“If Greece’s creative minority had really reached the tipping point, the country wouldn’t have gone bankrupt in the first place,” Georgakopoulos says.

But true to their creed, liberals remain optimistic about the future. For Rigopoulos, a journalist with Kathimerini and founding member of the Atenistas citizens’ group, Greece is for the first time witnessing the conditions for the emergence of a genuinely liberal, reformist movement.

“Until five years ago, the so-called liberal front was reduced to a mostly isolated, demonized faction inside New Democracy plus a few scattered voices inside PASOK — the legacy of Costas Simitis, as it were,” he says in reference to the former modernist-minded premier. As intense polarization fades, new forces are being unleashed — “for better or for worse,” he says.

But unless they decide to join forces, liberals will find it hard to reach the tipping point. Ironically, although they are proud of their pragmatism and consensual habits, Greek liberals were in these elections represented with three distinct groupings. While bigger parties are struggling to form a unity government, liberal party officials have over the past few days been in talks to cooperate ahead of possible new elections. “Working with other people and parties has always been part of the solution as far as Drasi is concerned,” says Alexacos.

Others are less sure about the prospect. Chormovitis, for one, questions whether a liberal coalition would in fact succeed in even amassing the combined 6.5 percent won by the three parties on May 6.

“I am not so sure that Bakoyiannis’s election base in Crete or Evrytania would vote for a liberal coalition party that would not feature herself as leader, or that the fans of Manos and Tzimeros would throw their weight behind one of the most worn-out politicians of the post-1974 period,” says Chormovitis in reference to Thanos Tzimeros, the young advertiser who led Dimiourgia Xana, the surprise package among smaller parties.

Schizas insists parties should call on their supporters to discuss and approve a common platform first. “The liberal parties have never tried to develop a potential common policy platform and are instead focusing on horse-trading among themselves,” he says.

But whether they choose to cooperate or not, Schizas says, Greece’s liberals must above all reach a point where they are defined not by association, but by their actual program. “As long as we are the pro-banker people, the pro-gay people, the pro-bailout people, the pro-privatization people, the anti-minimum-wage people, we are easy prey.”

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.

The asylum

By Harry van Versendaal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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