Athens Plus (plus one)

It is a happy coincidence that our newspaper’s first anniversary is a tiny footnote in the great event that is the inauguration of the New Acropolis Museum. We knew, about a year ago, that the museum would be opening and that this would be a great addition to our city. What we did not know when we published our first edition was that this would be a year in which the whole world, too, would change. The economic crisis – the worst since 1930 – hit every country and every economy. Greece, with its own serious problems, was no exception. So Athens Plus took its first steps at a time when the ground was shaking.

For Greece, even more interesting times were to follow. In December, Athens and other major cities provided the stage for a dramatic new production of our frequent ritual of street violence. This time, the spark was a police officer’s shooting and killing of a teenager in Exarchia, a district of central Athens long given over to self-proclaimed anarchists and a meeting place for would-be revolutionaries. The cause was serious enough, but the response was a combination of inexplicable rage among protesting youths and inconceivable incompetence on the part of the government – which ordered police to keep out of the way of the protesters. For several days, protesters burned, vandalized and looted at will, creating a climate of insecurity that the government paid for dearly several months later in European parliamentary elections on June 7. By that time, another festering problem – that of illegal immigrants left to their own devices in central Athens – along with December’s breakdown of law and order, directed votes to the extreme right-wing LAOS party. Greece’s political scene now features an injured New Democracy party with a one-seat majority in Parliament; PASOK won the European Parliament poll but with fewer votes than in past elections (which would not be sufficient for a parliamentary majority in national elections); the leftist parties also lost votes; only the extreme right populists showed gains.

The country now finds itself in a deadlock. The economy, education sector, health and social security systems are desperately in need of reforms. But the government, even when it was stronger, showed no great desire to confront any group of organized voters. Now it is burdened by its razor thin majority, its poor showing in the European Parliament poll and by a series of scandals (the Vatopedi Monastery landswap that harmed state interests, the incompetence over the Siemens bribery investigation, former Aegean Minister Aristotelis Pavlidis’s alleged bribe-taking). So we can expect even less desire for change.

The worsening debt and lack of competitiveness in the economy, along with all the social and political problems, can only get worse if they are not tackled head on. We are in for a rough time – which makes newspapers even more necessary. Let’s hope this time next year things will be better for all. Meanwhile, see you next Friday.

Milestones & Footnotes in AthensPlus, 19 June, 2009

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