Voters rejected politicians, not politics

The chattering class is obsessing over the unprecedented stayaway in the European Elections of last Sunday, with dire predictions of an alienated population drawing away from politics and leaving the field of government open to various dark forces. Others shrug their shoulders and comment that just as Greek living standards have risen to approximately the EU average, so Sunday’s turnout of 53.63 percent was close to (but still better than) the EU average of 42.94 percent. The cynics have a point: perhaps it is not such a bad thing when politics are not at the center of everyone’s life, perhaps this shows that Greece is moving away from the highly-charged, politically-divisive years that both preceded and followed the military dictatorship of 1967-74.
This could be a valid argument in another country where politics might actually have something to do with formulating policy and governing, where the news media are intent on presenting problems and demanding solutions. In Greece, though, the art of politics is no longer about proposing solutions. The debate is all about who is “better,” who is “more just,” who “cares more” about the little guy – without presenting any specifics. Journalists play along for a number of reasons: they believe that being in communion with politicians means that they are part of the political process, irrespective of its content; neither the politicians nor the journalists really need to know anything about the difficult subjects with which the government must grapple, so no one is held to account for being inadequate; those who pull strings from behind the scenes are able to indulge in their multi-party conniving without politicians or journalists showing them up – indeed, a significant number of politicians and journalists are in the pocket of big interests.
As we wrote in Athens Plus last week, the chief concerns of all European citizens, and especially Greeks, in the run-up to the European Parliament elections were unemployment, declining growth, the loss of purchasing power and the precarious situation regarding their pensions. Not only did the Greek campaign fail to deal with any of these issues (or, indeed, with European matters in general) but it also ignored pressing issues that had arisen in the meantime, such as the breakdown of law and order in parts of Athens due to state inaction on the issue of illegal immigration. This left the field open for Giorgos Karatzaferis’s extreme rightwing LAOS party to pretend that it had a policy and so come out of these elections with the greatest gains – when all the other established parties lost a significant number of voters.
So why would citizens vote? A poll conducted by Kapa Research found that 74.4 percent of those who stayed away did so because of “the lack of proposals to solve the problems that the country faces.” Among New Democracy voters who stayed away, 59.3 percent said they did so in protest at the country’s politicians as a whole, while for PASOK the corresponding figure was 55.3 percent.
The question that we now face is whether politicians and journalists have conspired to turn citizens away from politics because they are serving the interests of some conspiracy – or simply because they are useless.

Milestones&Footnotes comment in Athens Plus, 12 June, 2009

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Shortsighted navel gazers

In all the noise of the past few weeks, the one thing that no one discussed was Greece’s future in the European Union. The two major parties treated the elections for European Parliament as a referendum on the government’s popularity, a clash over scandals, as a practice run for national elections. For the smaller parties, it was all about whether they would strengthen their standing on the local political scene.

Voters were forced to make their decisions on the basis of domestic politics, not according to whether the candidates would be able to contribute to Europe and also serve Greek interests in Strasbourg and Brussels. The main concern of voters appeared to be the need to protest against the government – but without strengthening the opposition PASOK party much. As polls had predicted, the smaller parties gained at the expense of the larger ones, with the exception of the leftist Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), whose leadership alienated many voters with its sudden euroskepticism.

So, instead of a vote based on a positive appraisal of candidates and European policies, many voters were forced to think negatively. One train of thought was: “If I vote for PASOK, it might come out so strong that it will return to its old arrogance and, pressing for elections, will make the country ungovernable.” Others who had voted for New Democracy now wanted to punish it for its inertia and the scandals. Others picked smaller parties, while others who intended to vote for small parties decided their vote would go to waste and so voted for larger ones. And, of course, an unprecedented number of voters chose to stay away. The system short-circuited.

The irony is that many of the new members in the European Parliament are most capable of serving Europe and Greece. And, with a stronger European Parliament if the Lisbon Treaty is ratified, their role will be most valuable. But it is difficult to expect that our parties will support them, blind as they are to everything but the narrow political scene of Athens.

Comment in Kathimerini and Kathimerini English Edition, 8 June 2009

The personal and the European

Elections are a time when the individual participates in the evolution of the national. For us in Europe, the elections on Sunday are an opportunity to take part in the development of the European Union. These are the seventh elections for the European Parliament, a body that has become gradually more powerful and more representative of the people who now count themselves members of the European Union. If the Lisbon Treaty is adopted in the next couple of years, after overcoming the obstacle of the Irish “no” vote, then the European Parliament will be stronger than ever – the Parliament whose members we will elect on Sunday.

Going into the elections, a recent Eurobarometer survey across the EU found that citizens’ main concerns, which they wanted the campaign to focus on, were: unemployment (57 percent), economic growth (52 percent), inflation and purchasing power (40 percent), the future of pensions (32 percent), followed by crime, the safety of energy supplies, the fight against climate change, immigration, terrorism, food safety and agriculture. At the bottom of the list were: the euro (13 percent), the preservation of the European social model, the powers and competences of European institutions and, last of all, European values and identity (10 percent).

It is natural that people should worry about their finances and their pensions, as these will determine the quality of their lives. What is intriguing is that issues related to a common European experience or identity are right at the bottom of the list. This suggests either that people feel that the European project is doing fine without their thinking about it, or that they have more important things to worry about.

The primary concerns of individuals (unemployment, economic development, pensions, and so on) are issues that concern each country as well as the European Union as a whole. Members of the eurozone are sheltered from the worst storms of the global economy by their participation in the single currency, but they are also constrained by the rules that are aimed at keeping the euro strong. Decisions taken at the national and EU level will determine the welfare of each economy, and this will determine the wellbeing of citizens in each country.

So, at a time of global recession, and with national governments looking increasingly incapable of solving major issues on their own, and with the European Parliament set to wield greater power, it is obvious that these elections matter. And yet each country seems to be experiencing them solely as a referendum on the government or the main political parties, to the benefit of smaller – often extremist – groupings. This is a natural reaction against political elites who seem incapable of meeting the challenges of the times. But anger is no less damaging for being justified, and this suggests that perhaps it is time to uncouple European politics from the constraints of national politics.

As things stand, national parties ally themselves with pan-European parties according to their “ideology” – the center right European People’s Party, the Socialists, the Liberal Democrats, and so on.  But many ostensibly like-minded parties vary greatly among themselves from country to country and make uncomfortable bedfellows in Strasbourg. Looking at the candidates on the Greek party ballots, it is striking that some of them have more in common with people on rival ballots than in their own party. Yet the candidates and voters are constrained by the party of which they are members or for which they vote. If candidates could form their own ballots as representatives of EU-wide parties, perhaps voters would have a choice of sending to Strasbourg people whose primary focus is the future of their country within Europe, rather than sending representatives of political parties that see the European Parliament elections only as a way to push for power on the domestic stage.

Editorial in Athens Plus, 5 June, 2009

Welcome acknowledgment

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s comments on the expulsion of minorities from Turkey is very interesting in terms of the “self-criticism” that it suggests with regard to an issue that has had a terrible cost for the people involved and for Turkey itself over the past century. It looks like welcome acknowledgment of a situation that Turkey has always tried to ignore – that former citizens lost their homes and livelihoods while Turkey lost the wealth of experience and cosmopolitan atmosphere that it once had.

But it is difficult for anyone outside Turkey to understand precisely why Erdogan made such comments and whether they will lead to anything as regards those ethnic groups and their survivors within and outside Turkey. Because all too often we have seen Erdogan making comments that come across as if he was the leader of an opposition party and not the prime minister. So it is very likely that his criticism of the authoritarian decisions of the past is aimed at scoring points in the endless struggle taking place between the Ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the military/foreign policy establishment. For example, for years Greeks have watched in vain for a solution that will allow the Orthodox seminary on Halki to function, in the knowledge that a breakthrough there would help Greek-Turkish relations but would also set a precedent regarding institutions of higher education that would benefit the AKP. Even though Erdogan had appeared supportive of a solution, we have not seen one.

Either way, Erdogan’s comments regarding the minorities are very welcome because they reflect a more nuanced understanding of history and the need for a society that will be more tolerant of all the various groups within it. It is like the country’s preparation toward European Union accession: Everyone, especially Erdogan and his party, knows that meeting the political and social criteria set by the EU will be to the benefit of all of Turkey’s peoples – except for those shadowy parts of the state mechanism that are opposed to a more open state and who hold back progress on all fronts. And yet little progress is made. So even if Erdogan’s latest statements are nothing more than a salvo in the much larger conflict, at least they have been fired in the right direction.

Comment in Kathimerini English Edition, 26 May, 2009

A vote for the future

Since signing up to join the European Economic Community 30 years ago, Greece has had the honor and the responsibility of being part of the growing unification of Europe. The benefits and obligations are a two-way street. The EEC “acquired” a member very different from the others – all of whom, at the time, were far more “Western” than Greece both geographically and historically. From Greece’s problems, demands and obsessions, Europe learned how to embrace new members with different needs and modes of behavior. It learned, also, how to enforce its will when necessary (as in imposing environmental directives, for example). Without the thorns in the initial relationship with Greece, it is doubtful whether subsequent European “enlargement” would have gone as smoothly as it did. On the other hand, Greece won the longest period of political stability and social well-being in its history, along with huge amounts of money for modernization and its people’s advancement.

Europe and Greece both gained from this osmosis. But, just three weeks from the June 4-7 European Parliament elections, there is a strong sense that both Europe and Greece are in a quagmire in their relationship but also in their separate development. Europe suffers from a lack of vision and a dearth of self-confidence on the part of its leaders, while Greece is trapped by the structural dysfunctions that no politicians dare tackle.

This problem is expressed by lack of interest in the Euro elections. Whereas 63 percent of EEC members’ citizens voted in the first direct elections for the European Parliament in 1979, by 2004 this had dropped to 45.7 percent (with participation in Greece dropping from 79 percent to 62.8 percent over the same period). For these elections, Eurobarometer found that 53 percent of European citizens are not interested in voting, reflecting perhaps a wider disconnect with politics.

In Greece, according to a Public Issue poll published by Kathimerini yesterday, only 39 percent of voters are interested in these elections, although 80 percent plan to vote. Their mood is dark: With 8 percent still undecided, the major parties show a dramatic drop in support. The opposition PASOK party leads, with 26.5 percent saying they will vote for it – a drop from 38.1 percent in the parliamentary elections of 2007 and from 34 percent in the euroelections of 2004. Ruling New Democracy is supported by 21 percent – a dramatic halving of the vote it got in 2007 (41.8 percent) and 2004 (43 percent). The Communist Party has the support of 6 percent (down from 9.5 percent in 2004), while the extreme right-wing LAOS is floundering at 3 percent (from 4.1 percent in 2004). Synaspismos shows a small rise, at 5.5 percent from 4.2 percent in 2004. Out of nowhere, the unknown and untested Ecologist Greens party has the third-largest group of voters: 6.5 percent.

The percentage that the main parties will get will most likely be larger on election day, but it is already obvious that our politicians’ inability to do anything about the country’s problems is leading to an impasse. The lack of policy leads to problems growing so big that no one can deal with them. The result is that the dysfunctional economy and society lead to a combination of apathy and rage at the lack of choice for voters. Of course, protest votes are not exclusive to Greece, as throughout the EU governments are expected to feel citizens’ anger through abstention or votes for small parties.

In Greece, though, we are worse off because we are trapped in a vicious cycle. Our politicians do not tackle corruption and other systemic problems in our economy and society. This is a permanent handicap, but the most severe consequence is that young people who might have made the difference in our politics, civil service and other spheres of public life see that any effort to help out will be in vain. And so, as mediocrity and expedience smother a country, it becomes more urgent for Europe to become stronger and more representative, so that citizens can hope for an end to their own country’s impasse. The challenges that the EU faces today are common to all its members to a greater or lesser degree – whether in the fields of the economy, security, migrant policy, energy or the environment. The parties which show that they are capable of taking Europe seriously, and which present candidates capable of playing a role in Europe’s development, are the parties that we should support. Not only in these elections but in the national ones as well. Because what is good for Europe is good for us. And vice versa.

Comment in Kathimerini English Edition, 18 May 2009

The Greeks’ migrations

The history of the Greeks is an endless river that springs up from the depths of central Asia and acquires a homeland at the bottom of the Balkan peninsula, across the Aegean and in Asia Minor. From there, like blood pumped by a powerful heart, Greeks spread out across the world. The fate of their homeland – the prosperity or hardships of little Greece – always determined the emigration or return of its children. After they conquered the area we now know as Greece, the Greek tribes quickly expanded – either through the creation of colonies around the Mediterranean and Black seas or through war (such as the Trojan War and Alexander’s conquests), or through trade. The lack of arable land and shortage of other natural riches forced the Greeks to become seafarers, mercenaries and merchants. They learned the art of survival far from friends and family – they became the first cosmopolitans, the first global citizens.  As adventurers, they opened roads and created Greek settlements, large and small, everywhere – from the deserts of the ancient Middle East to the suburbs of Melbourne.
The past century saw great developments in the Greeks’ migrations, an epic that has still not found its poet. With the opening up of the “new world” of the Americas, Oceania and Africa, hundreds of thousands of Greeks left their villages in search of a better life. They took root far from their homeland, creating new hearths of Hellenism far from the familiar coasts of the seas near Greece. But the Asia Minor Catastrophe, the persecution of the Greeks of Turkey and Stalin’s deportation of Greeks from the Crimea and the Caucasus, pushed Greeks deep into central Asia again – but also resulted in more than a million coming to Greece. This new blood (rich with the experience, wealth and inventiveness that Greeks acquire when the live abroad), strengthened the anemic Greek state, which only found its current form after World War II. At the same time, hunger and the stifling horizons of post-war Greece pushed tens of thousand of young Greeks to leave for Australia, Germany, Belgium and other countries in search of hope and prosperity. Also, many students who studied abroad realized that only outside Greece could they fulfill their expectations, that only as emigrants would they be judged according to their merit and be paid according to their worth. With the billions of euros that flowed into Greece from the European Union, it was no longer poverty that forced the more restless, the more daring Greeks to seek their fate elsewhere. Now it was the lack of opportunity and the thirst for knowledge that inspired the descendants of ancient mariners to migrate.
In the past few years, things have changed once again. Instead of poor Greeks leaving, poor foreigners are coming to Greece while it is the Greeks with the education and means to do so who have been seeking their fortune elsewhere. The foreign immigrants gave new life to Greece’s countryside, propped up the social security funds and helped complete major construction projects.
Now the global economic crisis is laying bare all the problems of Greece. In addition to the dysfunctional  social, educational and political systems, our economic problems can no longer be hidden behind borrowed prosperity. The lack of competitiveness (for which Greek workers are the least to blame) and debt are undermining the future. The problems faced by other countries are leading to a drop in tourism: the money that we were used to waiting for will not be coming, we will have to seek it elsewhere.
The solution for Greeks has always been to look beyond their country’s limits. The Balkans, the Arab states, Russia and Turkey were always favored areas for trade and settlement. In these regions the Greek presence has withered or disappeared, but the past acts like a beachhead for the future. Greek communities in foreign lands – as well as isolated professors, students, contract workers, sailors and entrepreneurs – are like firm stepping stones in history’s river. They show that for those who dare, home is not just the hard and beautiful country of their birth or ancestry, but the Earth itself.

Comment in Kathimerini English Edition, 13 April 2009

The EU’s Turkey test

Who would have thought in the years since 2005, when much of the Muslim world erupted in fury over a Danish newspaper’s publication of cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad, that this facile experiment would set off a chain reaction that would undermine the Western world’s values of free speech and tolerance? And yet, after a four-year hiatus, the cartoon furor is back – this time not as farce but as tragedy.

On Friday and Saturday, the eve of a visit to Ankara and Istanbul by the new US president, Turkey’s Islamist-inspired government went eyeball-to-eyeball with its NATO allies, rejecting the appointment of Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen as the Western alliance’s new secretary general because of his country’s support of free speech. Once, in more optimistic times, we might have expected that Turkey’s stand would lead to Ankara’s isolation among its NATO allies and be taken as proof that the Turks are a long way from being ready to join the European Union. Turkey would have been pressed to change its position. But we are living in a new world now, one in which even the most sacrosanct values of Western democracies can be thrown out for the sake of a transitory political compromise. Turkey finally agreed to Rasmussen’s appointment only after Barack Obama met with his Turkish counterpart, Abdullah Gul, for an hour before the NATO summit. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey had received “guarantees” from Obama that one of Rasmussen’s deputies would be a Turk and that Turkish commanders would be present at the alliance’s command, according to the Hurriyet Daily News. The New York Times reported that Ankara was assured that talks on two chapters in its European Union accession talks would resume. These are among eight chapters that were frozen in December 2006 due to Turkey’s refusal to acknowledge the existence of the Republic of Cyprus, an EU member which has been under partial Turkish military occupation since 1974.

It’s the timeless lesson of politics: The weak, even if they have justice on their side, are repeatedly trampled over by the mighty. In this case, Turkey will move closer to joining the EU while doing nothing to recognize the existence of Cyprus. Obama went a step further yesterday, calling on the EU to accept Turkey as a member. To rub in the magnitude of Turkey’s triumph, Rasmussen is expected to “address the concerns” of the Muslim world – as The New York Times put it – regarding the cartoons. In other words, the new leader of the Western alliance is expected to say he is sorry for having upheld the principle of free speech in his country. (A frightening footnote: London’s Daily Mail revealed on Friday that the BBC is sitting on an interview with a Danish cartoonist who is at the heart of the controversy, apparently too scared to broadcast an opinion that might anger Muslims.)

For Greece and Cyprus, it was already bad enough that Obama is in Turkey today and tomorrow, highlighting that country’s importance to the United States in the region. If the European Union is indeed planning to cave in to an ever-more-assertive Turkey’s demands, rather than forcing Turkey to adapt to the EU’s principles, then the whole world will come to regret the Europeans’ and Americans’ selling out their core values and principles in order to appease a nation that has never shown any ability to compromise nor cooperate on anything but its own terms. Well-meaning people everywhere – including in Greece and Cyprus – have supported Turkey’s bid to join the European Union, on the understanding that when Turkey meets its commitments to the EU, it will be a Turkey that will have changed radically for the better, to the benefit of its neighbors, its partners and its own people. If the EU now chooses to dilute its principles in order to appease Turkey (and its backers in the United States and Britain), then the current leaders of the EU will have managed to destroy the most democratic, the most just, the most progressive social, political and economic experiment the world has seen. That seems a monumental and unforgivable loss for the sake of very short-term gains.

Comment in Kathimerini English Edition, 6 April 2009

Cold shoulder, hot opportunity

Judging by the disappointment of Greece’s political and diplomatic establishment, President Barack Obama’s visit to Turkey looks like a diplomatic triumph for our neighbor and perennial rival. It is obvious that the fixed relationship between Washington, Athens and Ankara – exemplified by the 7:10 ratio agreement, which meant that for every 10 dollars in aid that Turkey got, Greece would get seven – has been broken. Washington has made no effort to hide the fact that it does not consider Athens important enough to burden Obama with an unnecessary visit simply for the sake of appearances. This realpolitik has reached the point where – inexplicably – even the wise, respected and moderate spiritual head of the world’s Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios, has been left off the agenda for Obama’s visit.

As much as this may hurt Greeks’ and Greek Cypriots’ sense of justice, they cannot expect an American president who has shown that he does not fear to overturn decades of domestic and international policy to spend any time worrying about another country’s sensitivities. And Obama certainly does not need a visit to Athens that could provoke the kind of street theatrics that made Greece look as if it was being burned to the ground when President Bill Clinton visited in 1999.

It is difficult to face the fact that Greece is more or less irrelevant to developments in the wider region. But if we want to step back from an emotional reading of the situation, we might see that things are not all that bad for Greece.

The chief benefit of Obama’s cold shoulder is that it gives Greeks the opportunity to rid themselves of the delusion that all they need to do to solve their problems is to grouse enough so that Washington takes their side. It should have been clear since Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974 that Washington’s studied neutrality would never work to Athens’s benefit. The Macedonia issue proved this beyond doubt. Greece must now understand that it has to stand on its own and use its diplomatic and political initiatives to function as a valuable member of the European Union. Only if Greece becomes self-confident and self-reliant will it be able to turn events to its advantage, whether this be in relation to Ankara, Skopje, Moscow, Brussels or Washington. It was such self-confidence that allowed Turkey to block US plans to invade northern Iraq from its territory, yet keep relations with Washington alive.

But the most important legacy of Obama’s visit to Turkey will be the extent to which the United States is prepared to press “a key NATO ally” to go against its own interests in order to serve Washington’s strategies. Obama’s greatest concerns on his visit to Turkey – behind the obvious window dressing of his participation in a meeting aimed at promoting dialogue between the West and Muslim countries – are Washington’s exit strategy from Iraq, the containment of Iran and renewed international involvement in Afghanistan. For this reason, issues such as Kurdish rights and aspirations, both in Turkey and Iraq, recognition of the Ottoman Empire’s genocidal campaign against the Armenians, Cyprus and the patriarchate are likely to be mentioned in a way that will save face for both sides but not get in the way of what Washington considers the real issues.

Now Greece must take stock of its own long-term interests, plan its strategy and get involved in regional and European developments. Turkey’s relationship with the United States is indeed more intense right now, but this could serve as a catalyst that will increase the terrible tension between Turkey’s ruthless secular state and an Islamist government already wounded by unexpected losses in the local elections of March 29.

Editorial in AthensPlus, 3 April 2009