Almost nothing to lose: An Analysis of the May 2012 Elections in Greece
The day after the elections in Greece on 2012-05-11, my friend Saad asked me about my opinion on the outcome. I promised him to write something up and publish it the next day. Well, that hasn't happened the next day, but here are some thoughts. Maybe the delay made it possible to see things through a big more.
Why am I qualified to say anything about these things? Well, for one thing, I live in Greece, I'm involved in daily life here, and I speak the language (those points are already way above most of the foreign journalists here). Also I managed to correctly predict the main outcome of the elections on the evening before, in difference to all the polls and the journalists :-)
The main message of the elections is that people are pissed. And it's not just about "austerity measures", though that is a part of the story. People are pissed about:
- Corrupt politicians in the two big, old Parties PASOK and ND, corruption is identified as one of the main causes of the problems
- The "austerity measures", what they are doing to the economy and to our lives
- The way the "austerity measures" apply to the middle class and the poor, but not to politicians or rich people
- The sale of the sovereignty of Greece in the credit agreement
- The rise of criminality
- The refuge and immigrant situation
- The misrepresentation by foreign politicians and the foreign press (I would say this is to a much lesser degree than the others)
You can look at the results in detail at the special site of the Greek Ministry of the Interior. I will try to use the transliterated party names similar to what that site uses.
The "winners" of the elections were the parties Syriza (left/communist), the "independent Greeks" of Panos Kammenos (right), and the "Chrysi Avgi" (nazi). The KKE (communists) also gained a tiny bit, but nothing compared to the others. But there is also the "Democratic Left" (left/communist) of Fotis Kouvelis, which were expected to get a much higher result by some, but still showed an impressive result for a newcomer.
The most impressive result is that of Panos Kammenos. He used to be with ND (conservatives), but turned into an outspoken opponent of them, exposing a lot of corruption and naming names. He founded "his" party four months before the elections and got 10.6% of the votes. This is impressive, as such split-offs usually get nowhere. There is a message about it: There clearly are conservative voters here, but they're not willing to back corruption and sellout any more.
Talking to people here, the rise of Syriza to the 2nd position is considered to be the biggest change on the political scene. This is one of the main points said to be resulting in the breaking up of the "dual party" system that has ruled this country since 1975. That break up has yet to be proven, I'll believe it when I see it. The rise of Syriza had slipped through all the polls and passed all the press tea-leaf-readers before the results came in. Tough if you don't see what's happening around you.
Traditionally the political left is always split in many factions. Syriza itself is not a party, but a group of parties. Alexis Tsipras, the current head man of Syriza has partially succeeded of keeping this group together, and partially succeeded of getting some of the typical leftist non-voters to vote. He himself is considered by many people I know to be something of a career politician, albeit a career politician who hasn't been involved in any corruption. The last months Tsipra has increasingly managed to put a finger on the important points of the situation, to "say what people think". This clearly has put Syriza in the category of "sane choice" on the left.
The European press for a while most talked about the "chrysi avgi" (literally "golden dawn"). These are your typical garden-variety Neo-Nazi party. You can imagine which part of my list above they mostly work in. But there is a story to their "rise" that I will explain in below.
ND (so-called conservatives) had the highest percentage of all parties, but in fact they had lost a lot in comparison to the last elections - and at those last elections they had been voted out of power. So they are clearly on the list of losers here. The other loser is PASOK, the party that was first in the last election. PASOK (so-called socialists) made something like the lowest result ever. In the usual swing game between these two parties, it would have been ND's turn to the top. That and due to PASOK having spent much more years in power than ND, resulted in PASOK to be even lower than ND now.
ND and PASOK are the two parties that have dominated governments since the end of the military dictature in 1974/1975. They are deeply involved in "client politics" and corruption. I'm probably not exaggerating if I say that all their big names are involved in some corruption scandal or other. Some have been involved in a staggering big amount of corruption. People have seen what this lead to, and they are fed up with it. In contrast to what the media machinery says, I don't believe that "everybody profited from this system". A very few profited a huge margin, a few profited by a little, and a minority profited a tiny bit. The majority clearly has only lost with this system. Last year we have seen demonstrations where 500'000 people went on the street to demonstrate against these thieves.
These two are also the main supporters of the politics of the "Troika" (IMF, EU-Commission, European Bank) that tries to "cure" Greece and get it to pay the billions of rotten credits that are on the table. It's a mutual thing though: The Troika and some big players like the German government pushes and supports these two, which hasn't passed unnoticed. And let me tell you it hasn't gone over too well that the people who claim to be showing "the Greeks" how to properly run things are supporting the very thugs who have stolen all over the place all those years.
There is another loser that mostly didn't even show up in the news: The extreme right "L.A.OS" party. They were in the parliament up to this election. For a while they opposed the "austerity measures", then fell over, supported the government and everything. They were rewarded with a few minister posts. It didn't last very long, after some time the Papadimos puppet government found a different solution and L.A.OS. left their posts in a mock protest show. In these elections they fell under the 3% threshold for taking seat in parliament. Clearly their move back and forth didn't go over well with their right-wing clientèle. A big part of their voters turned even more right, to the "Chrysi Avgi".
One of the big lines of people being pissed is the economic story: We're all familiar with some of it. There is the financial speculation bubble and the rotten bank credit caroussel. There is the huge amount of credit owed by the Greek state. There is the economic situation of that state, with a household that is in the minus. There's also the economy of the country, with its main problems of too much imports (trade deficit). The economic situation today for the people is hard, in some cases desperate, but not yet catastrophic (where I'd put a general food crisis as what I'd label "catastrophic"). People are out of work, with no chances to find a new job, with a year of low unemployment money max. People are getting food from church food kitchens.
The economic situation's roots are buried somewhere in the back story of a poor country being led down the road of consuming and living off foreign aid money, in exchange of dismantling whatever little industry it used to have. Oh, and throw in a huge amount of corruption into that. The largest share of the corruption is imported just like the goods that European money paid for. Companies like Siemens and HDW paid millions and earned billions. The German weapons industry sold 15% of production to Greece, the French 10%.
When Mrs. Merkel says "we haven't asked you to spend so much of your GDP on weapons" (in the linked article), she isn't telling the truth. In fact the Greek governments have been told to do exactly that, and what's more they have been paid to do just that. This is no fantasy of mine, fines have been paid (albeit quite small ones) and facts have been shown in court (although only a small part of them).
So we have ND and PASOK, the "big two" parties here, who are instrumental in these crimes, who now tell everybody else to give all their money for the good of the country. They themselves did not step back in the money they are earning: When in 2011 the parliament decided to cut 10% of the salaries of the parliamentarians, the reaction was that there was an increase in the number of committee meetings organized. Parliament members are paid extra for taking part in those committee meetings, no matter if they actually attend or not. So these politicians made good for that symbolic 10% they stepped back. At the same time they cut salaries of public employees by 60 - 70%. This is just one such example.
The "austerity measures" so far have had two results: They have increased the Greek state's debt (both total and in percent of the shrinking GDP) and they have strangled what little Greek economy there was. These things are intertwined: When you raise the taxes on gasoline, people will drive less (and indeed the tax earnings from gasoline have dropped). When you break down the economy, you get less taxes.
The big argument of the proponents of "strong" austerity measures is that the Greek government didn't implement the measures or implemented only the ones that were easy to do and didn't touch their clientèle. One such example given is that the number of public employees has not been reduced. I don't know the details there (I haven't met someone who was a public employee and has been fired), but the public employees have had salary reductions by 60 - 70% (I have met many of those people). The main counterargument here is that even those "austerity measures" that have been proposed and not implemented would have had a negative impact on the Greek economy's ability to produce tax money for the state.
Back to the elections: The voter's point of view here is that ND and PASOK are not to be trusted. For example, I would assume right away if there were public employees to be fired under the rule of ND and PASOK, the ones doing their job would be the first to go, while the protégées of some politician would hang on, even if they never show up for work. And I have heard the same opinion or guess from various people.
One part of the "austerity measures" are privatizations. No matter if one sees something like that as good or necessary or is of contrary opinion, under no circumstances should this be done while the old, corrupt guard from ND and PASOK are in power. Profit-making public companies will change hands for a song, while huge bribes will wander into the pockets of the same thugs who created the situation in the first place.
At an economic point of view, voters not only voted against the "austerity measures", they voted against corruption and the continuation of a corrupt system under the name of austerity. On the economic point of "how much worse can it get", Greek voters don't think they have very much to lose yet.
There have been two credit agreements since the outbreak of the crisis. The first one was signed by the then Minister of Finance Papakonstantinou. He was later entitled to sign such agreements in a "blank cheque" law voted in by a simple majority of the parliament. In that contract there is a clause saying that the lender gives up all protection of it's national sovereignty. What does this mean? In simplistic terms, usually some national "things" are protected when a state defaults, for example land at the state's borders, military installations, cultural heritage. Taken aside the question of constitutionality of signing off something as big as that by a simple minister, let me tell you that it didn't go over well with certain more nationalistic feeling circles of the middle-right to right.
The second credit agreement in article 15, paragraph 4 hands over the Bank of Greece, so any national gold reserves and accounts are handed over. It also brought some more control and authority for the creditors, basically it's open for discussion if the creditors have the right to dictate any decision to the Greek government or not. No matter if one is a fan of such things as the "European idea", or even if one thinks that all the people are equal all over the world, it's kind of obvious that the more national thinking of the people don't take these things lightly. I'd take the use of such clauses more seriously if they were not at the same time pushing to keep the thieves in place too. I can smell the ugly word "colony" buried there somewhere, seeing that colonial systems resulted and supported a small, corrupt "indigenous" elite in the countries that they sucked out.
Now we're treading on more difficult topics. Greece has an immigration problem and a refuge problem. Yes, I can say that, even though I don't say that the immigrants or the refugees are the problem. On the one hand until the early 90s, Greece was a country without immigrants (I know that from first hand experience). Then there came people from Albania, and eastern Europe who took residence in Greece, some legally, some not legally, some of the not-so-legally got legalized later. There are two interesting points about this: First, a country that goes from no immigrants to "a lot of immigrants" in a short time is in for at least a cultural shock. Even to some degree a practical shock, since there are a lot of practical things that the society was unprepared for. Second: That cultural shock is very easy to take stock of in political and racist games. We all know that story.
It got even worse in the last years, since Greece is in line of the refugees thrown out by the never ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Two years ago there were reports of 400 refugees crossing the borders every night. There are no more such reports, but I doubt that the flow of refugees has stopped. There are a lot of refugees in the country, due to bureaucratic rules, most of them are said to be in the big cities. Though a lot of them are probably working in agriculture in bad conditions. Here too, the Greek society is unprepared. Let us not forget that the Greek society is taking a bullet here for the European societies. The refugees do not come to stay in Greece, they want to go on to other European countries. The European rules say that a refugee seeking asylum has to stay in the EU country where he first entered. Greek bureaucracy is both unwilling and unable to handle the deluge. The result is that these people don't get helped, the chances to gain asylum are minimal, but neither is there any proper procedure for sending people back. They come through Turkey and there either is no agreement to return refugees to Turkey or it is not being enacted. Even if there was, these people would probably just get pushed back and forth across the border.
All the last three governments proposed was the erection of concentration camps to sweep up these people and get them out of the city center areas that have turned into something close to slums.
So, where do the elections come in here? Well, you can figure it out, of course the Neo-Nazi "Chrisy Avgi" beat the racism and anti-immigrant drum a big time here. In fact, they got big help in beating that drum. The media were all over the place for the last three months, on the one hand pushing up "Chrisy Avgi" as the obvious choice for disgruntled voters. On the other hand showing them bringing food to starving families and guiding old ladies to the bank, because obviously the foreign ruffians are out to rob.
So now we enter the minefield. Let's see if I can emerge here without being labeled a racist or something. The clear point seems to be that yes, there is a rise in criminality. I don't know the official numbers, and I wouldn't care much to know them. What I do know is that in all my life I've never known someone in person who had their house broken in. Now over the course of a couple of months I can name 4 such cases right in the circle of people I know. This excludes the famous "I know someone who knows someone", I'm talking people I talked to. If we go one step further, but still on a level of reliable information, I know of old people who have been robbed and beaten on returning from taking money from the bank.
I have no firsthand evidence or proof to say that any of that rise has anything to do with immigrants or refugees. A lot of anecdotal stories definitely point in that way, even stuff that was in the papers. Like gangs of robbers breaking in and robbing homes at gun point - though I have forgotten what exact nationality those gangs were said to be. I also remember the hotel staff in a street in the wrong part of downtown Athens talking about handbag thieves that were clearly refugees. I'm sure "a lot" of refugees do not care too much about the legality of their actions, for them it's a matter of survival. There is no nice social net to keep them alive and fed here, this is not Sweden.
I'm not aware of any of those personal crime stories in my surroundings where the police has come to any conclusions about the nationality of the criminals. In fact, I don't know of any firsthand stories around me where the police came to any conclusions at all. I think it must have to do with the fact that there are thousands of police men available whenever there is a peaceful demonstration to be beaten up and protesting senior citizens or school children to be attacked with tear gas. There probably isn't any money left over to pay old fashioned police work, like protecting normal neighborhoods. The police are also busy 24/24 guarding politicians and the apparatchniks that the EU sends over.
This is prime market space for two groups: The one is the press and the other are the Nazis. While it is clear that the press has to report about these things, the way it is done and to what end is a big point to discuss.
The second group are the Neo-Nazis from "Chrysi Avgi". They of course get a lot of capital out of it. Whatever they actually do there - they claim to be protecting neighborhoods where Greeks are "overrun" by immigrants and refugees - has been publicized eagerly by the press.
There is no neutral source of news in Greece. There is no neutral paper, no reliable TV station. All the news channels belong to a few people, usually they are also acting in the construction or industrial sector. They have strong ties to ND and PASOK. Someone who knows the scene a little can match each paper or station to the person behind it and in turn to the political party line that it follows.
Journalists working at these papers have to toe the line. The censorship is happening either in the heads or in a second stage in the offices. Deviators are fired, newspapers acting up are shut down (e.g. the "Eleftherotypia" recently).
Recently though there is this thing called the "Internet" and they don't have it yet fully under control. For now the most reliable source of news are a number of blogs, but you have to know where to look. The government tries to shut them down with police action and new laws.
For many people the Internet is not an option though. They are elder people, of a generation far away from anything digital. They watch TV, they buy newspapers. Go out to the country side and the percentage of these people rises. There are areas where even the PASOK got to be first party.
So the press has lost their bite to be able to swing the election and tell people what to do in totality. But still they did their dirty job. The rise of the "Chrysi Avgi" Neo-Nazis is where the press has shouldered a heavy responsibility. It is unlikely that any people at all for example in Crete and in Calavrita had voted for the Neo-Nazis if they had been shown photos of the candidates doing the Hitler salute and wearing blouses with SS insignia.
On the day of the elections some of these pictures indeed made the headlines of the Greek press. When the result was out, the uproar in the press was even bigger and grew still more when the first journalists were shouted at, attacked, or threatened with murder right on the official party web site.
I applaud the spectacle of the Greek press at this point. They invited the Neo-Nazis to the seat and then they discovered that these indeed were actual, real Nazis. Not just some young guys playing it a bit nationalist. What a surprise, who would have expected that.
So, why would the handlers of the press have desired the "Chrysi Avgi" to be in parliament? I think there are multiple interlocking reasons. There is the general fireworks effect, getting people to look in the other direction, away from the real problems. There was also a desire to take votes away from the "independent Greeks" of Panos Kammenos (who has a bit of a nationalist tendency). They certainly had to pick up the clientèle of LA.O.S. which was burned due to having switched sides a few too many times.
Ultimately though, the wannabe-Hugenbergs must have backed down a little bit, realizing that "Chrysi Avgi" did not only take votes away from Kammenos and LA.O.S., as planned, but also from the right wing of ND.
The foreign press is seen with a grain of suspicion here. The amount of generalizations of the variety "the Greeks did this, the Greeks must do that" we've seen has not really convinced people that the foreign press is to be trusted any more than the domestic one. From my idea of journalism, if a journalist writes something like "the Greeks did XY", there should be red alarm lights going on all over the place. Who exactly? All the Greeks? Only 80% of them? 50% of them? 20% of them? Maybe it's the Greek government? Maybe it's some circles? Maybe we can put names on who exactly?
Especially in the German press, the spectacle has taken to levels where journalists should clearly be ashamed for their colleagues. The propaganda efforts of the "Bild" newspaper have done damage. If the German government (note: not "the Germans") want to send tax advisers to Greece to help fight tax fraud, well, they just got an increase in resistance from people who see ties to the Bild-propaganda and to German politics of the past. And that's not even a surprise. I don't give this example to tell that the German government should control the German press, just to show that the damage is done in other ways too.
Combine all that with the usual foreign journalist not having any grasp of the language and only the remotest idea of the history of the country, and it's clear that we don't expect any accuracy. But what's being written is often beyond inaccuracy lately. So, the elections result was only a "No" to the "austerity measures"? Or, even worse: It was a vote to leave the Euro? Or even the EU altogether? How come foreign journalists write these things? Do they have any evidence to prove these points? Do they have any quotes, reliable numbers, facts to support these theories?
So, there are a few things that didn't happen. Like for example the Greek voters voting to leave the Euro-Zone. First of all, this wasn't a referendum, where the question could have been posted clearly, choose "Yes" or "No". It's all speculation. More to the point, the only party having in their program that Greece returns to the Drachma is the KKE (the old fashioned communist party, well, some smaller communist parties too, but way below the radar). They did not gain more than 1% to their usual election result.
The people also haven't voted only "against the austerity" measures. There is a big list of reasons why they have voted this way, the destruction of their economic basis through the "austerity measures" is just one point.
The Greek voters also didn't vote for being indefinitely paid and supported by Europe. I didn't see such a program point in any of the party programs, and I doubt that anybody would have such illusions. They do voted for Syriza, a party that has in their program the renegotiation of the debt and even more important, the formation of an international commission to check the legality of the debt. A commission like that was formed in Ecuador and the result was that 40% of the debt was erased as being illegal.
Even for the renegotiation there is some point: Up to now, the Greek governments have made zero effort to negotiate anything. They handed over whatever they could right away, signing on the line no matter what. A little bit of effort could go a long way though, since it's quite clear that if lenders have to choose between taking whatever their debtor can give (and on whatever timetable) or taking nothing, the choice is pretty clear.
Personally, don't get me started about the stability of the Euro here and the common good of Europe and all that. The tactics of the Troika so far had the opposite effect of all that. There is no stability in the Euro, because every investor with half a brain can see that IMF, European Commission and European central bank are doing a lousy job. If they had stood up and really helped Greece, the situation would be much better for the Euro now.
A big point of criticism to the Greek people in the last year or so has been that "you people voted for these politicians, so you are responsible". There is a bit of logic to this. There is also a big story of "no choice" behind this, since for many years the dual-party system shut out any true opposition, any other choice. But now the voters have decided that the game is over, they did not vote for these politicians any more. So there.
Times are rough. They will get even rougher, no matter what. A large part of voters have realized this and for a large part they have decided that the old, corrupt parties won't do the job. They hear a lot of scaremongering from the "Troika" all over. We've been threatened with a state bankruptcy for so long, we even had one recently. Guess what, nobody noticed, at least not in the foreign press. We've been threatened to be leaving the Euro for so many times, it's not credible any more. People decided they don't have that much to lose anyway anymore, so they might go for a chance to do something different.