A Land Without a Rudder

Greeks are clearly relieved to have crushed a corroded old political system, but now there's nothing workable to replace it.

Oli Scarff/Getty Images
Oli Scarff/Getty Images

ATHENS – The only thing that’s clear after the contentious and chaotic Greek parliamentary elections, which appear to be headed for a revote in June, is that Greeks are willing to go to extremes to find an alternative to the country’s current malaise. Most Greek media have long vilified the Coalition of the Radical Left, known as Syriza, as crazed ideologues who incite riots. But late Sunday evening, all eyes were on Syriza’s telegenic leader, a 37-year-old engineer named Alexis Tsipras. "The people of Europe can no longer be reconciled with the bailouts of barbarism," he told state-run NET TV. "European leaders, and especially Ms. Merkel, should realize that her policies have undergone a crushing defeat."

Merkel is sticking to her script, saying Greece still has to follow through on the tough terms of the bailout. Market analysts, meanwhile, continue to downgrade Greece’s chances of surviving in the single currency.

Syriza got less than 5 percent of the vote in 2009, but on Sunday, May 6, the party emerged as the freshest face in Greek politics, finishing second with almost 17 percent of the vote — its best-ever showing. It finished just behind conservative New Democracy and ahead of the long-powerful PASOK, the mainstream socialist party virtually demolished by the debt crisis. New Democracy and PASOK have jointly dominated Greek politics for the last four decades, but this time, voters blamed them for bankrupting the country and then accepting EU-imposed austerity measures in exchange for billions in bailout loans.

The economic crisis has dramatically reshaped Greek society, and these elections revealed just how fractured the country is right now. Both Tsipras and New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras failed to woo partners for a coalition government. Tsipras couldn’t find allies for a governing alliance of leftist parties that would nationalize the country’s banks and cancel austerity measures by reneging on the terms of the current loan agreement. He said he would only work with PASOK and New Democracy if they publicly renounced the bailout. The leaders of both parties refused. "Mr. Tsipras asks me to accept Greece’s exit from the euro and the country’s bankruptcy," Samaras told reporters on Wednesday.

The question that’s paralyzing Greeks right now is essentially one about sovereignty. Since they don’t want to accept the harsh terms that foreign lenders have imposed in return for aid, what’s the other path they should take and what consequences will it have? And who is capable enough to lead them through it?

PASOK and New Democracy had a hard time handling even local problems, such as the rising crime and decay that have turned some central Athens neighborhoods into polarized, drug-infested ghettos where Greeks and new immigrants from South Asia and Africa — many of them undocumented — don’t mix. More than 90 percent of Europe’s illegal immigrants enter through Greece. Both the European Union and the Greek government have failed spectacularly to manage the rising social crisis stemming from the massive influx of jobless and often desperate people. Many end up stuck in Athens, homeless or living in severely overcrowded and unsafe buildings. Greek police attribute about 60 percent of the city center’s crime to illegal immigrants, many of whom are trying to pay off the traffickers who brought them in. The growing fear of immigrant crime has fueled the rise of Chrysi Avgi, or Golden Dawn, an ultranationalist, fascist party that’s best known for inciting violent attacks on undocumented migrants and employing Nazi-esque iconography. Leila Hassan, a 20-year-old mother of two from Somalia, said she was attacked by a gang of young men while walking with her toddler daughter. "They hit me in the face and yelled, ‘Mavro! Mavro!’" she said, using the Greek word for black.

Golden Dawn says it’s focused on protecting, not attacking. When I first spoke to spokesman Ilias Panagiotaros several months ago, he pointed out that elderly people in central Athens were too afraid to leave their homes because they would get attacked by "gangs of Afghans." Golden Dawn members escort grandmothers to ATMs, the supermarket, even church. "The police don’t do anything here, so we have to do it ourselves," he said. "We are about action and we give results. People see that, and they will vote us into Parliament."

And that’s exactly what happened on Sunday. In 2009, when Greeks still ostracized the party as neo-Nazi thugs, Golden Dawn got just 0.23 percent of the vote. Now rebranded as patriots for rabidly opposing the bailout and declaring, "Greece belongs to the Greeks," the party won a stunning 7 percent of the vote and 21 seats in Parliament. At a voting precinct in the central Athens neighborhood of Patissa, my mother heard several people, most of them elderly, proudly declare their support for Golden Dawn. "They’re going to win and then the next day we won’t have any debt!" my mother says she heard one old man exclaim to an approving crowd.

It didn’t seem to matter that many of these same voters lived through the horrific Nazi occupation of World War II, which killed tens of thousands of Greeks. The night of the election, a taxi driver in his 60s actually told me that "World War II was a long time ago and these are different Nazis." The point, he said, is that Golden Dawn "will clean up Greece by force." Party leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos is an aging former army commando who gave the Nazi salute after being elected to the Athens municipal council in 2010. "Those who betrayed the motherland, you should be scared now," he said on Sunday, celebrating after his party’s big win.

Mainstream politicians realized that Golden Dawn’s anti-immigrant, tough-on-crime message was resonating with voters, so they adapted it for their own campaigns. New Democracy’s Samaras declared that Greeks had to "take back our cities" from illegal immigrants. Michalis Chrysochoidis, a PASOK deputy who served as public order minister in the caretaker government, ordered the construction of dozens of detention centers to keep immigrants until they were deported. Former Public Health Minister Andreas Loverdos, also of PASOK, blamed immigrants and drug-addicted prostitutes for spreading infectious diseases. He and Chrysochoidis released the names and photos of 12 prostitutes with HIV but sidestepped questions by Greek journalists about the government’s failure to curb the illegal sex and drug trades in Athens. "Targeting and stigmatizing people as health risks doesn’t solve any problems," said Apostolos Veizis, head of the medical support unit of Medicins Sans Frontiers-Greece. "It’s based on the most cynical kind of politics."

Though Sunday’s elections have left the country in political deadlock, they did relieve the pent-up fury over the perception that the bailout agreement had usurped Greeks’ rights to decide their own course. The most ardent anti-austerity protesters called former premier George Papandreou’s elected government a junta for going along with EU-imposed austerity measures. When Papandreou resigned in November to make way for a caretaker government run by appointed premier Lucas Papademos, former vice president of the European Central Bank, the protesters ridiculed the coalition as "the Republic of Bankistan."

Many Greeks said they felt like foreign powers were forcing austerity down the country’s throat. Papandreou, the American-born scion of Greece’s most prominent political family, is a Europhile who believes that the European Union and Greece can work together. Last October, he declared that he wanted to put the bailout to a public referendum. He says he wanted Greeks to feel like they owned the program, which he believes will keep the country in the eurozone, but his announcement instead incited a wave of panic in international markets, in the corridors of power at the European Union, and in the apartments of bewildered Athenians.

Papandreou says he still thinks Greeks would have voted for the bailout, despite austerity’s pain, because Greeks believe in the euro and the European Union. Polls show that almost 70 percent of Greeks want the country to keep the euro as its currency. "Austerity is killing my business, but I imagine the drachma would kill it more quickly," says Christos Tsoutsas, a 65-year-old metal shop owner in Athens. "I imagine we will go bankrupt and there won’t be money to pay pensions or hospitals or even turn on the city lights. And, anyway, the euro shows we have become modern. It shows that we are part of something bigger and not just struggling on our own."

But that same poll shows that Greeks also want a euro without austerity. The bailout loans that are keeping the country solvent come from the troika of the European Union, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. The troika is most concerned about deficit targets, which the Greek government has tried to meet in part by imposing wage and pension cuts and hiking taxes. As a result, many Greeks are struggling to survive on sharply reduced incomes during a devastating recession that has now dragged into its fifth year. Unemployment has climbed to 21 percent. More than 100,000 small businesses shut down last year. Suicides have increased by at least 40 percent in the last two years, according to government data. It’s not unusual anymore to see people rummaging through dumpsters for food or sleeping on ragged blankets outside storefronts. A couple of weeks ago, I saw a family of four begging for money near Syntagma Square next to a cardboard sign that read "Recently Homeless." The father, a sweet-looking man who looked to be his 30s, hung his head in shame as he held out a paper coffee cup and his pigtailed daughter slept on his lap.

"All the problems with austerity are starting to crystallize in the minds of Greeks," says Megan Greene, head of the Western Europe team at Roubini Global Economics. "They see that the medicine is killing the patient. They see that this path likely means at least a decade of depression. They want to know, is the euro even worth it?"

Syriza’s double-punch to European austerity and Greece’s fossilized politics blew open that debate. "There’s another way to get Greece out of debt besides austerity," said Aris Papadopoulos, a 36-year-old computer programmer and Syriza voter. "I want us to have that debate. I want to see practical alternatives and not just this bailout-or-die discussion."

On Sunday evening, he and his girlfriend, an architect named Eliana Voutsadakis, celebrated Syriza’s victory with about 500 supporters at the party’s kiosk outside the neoclassical Academy of Athens. They hugged and shared Fix beers and waved at cars honking in approval. They cheered when Tsipras stopped by to thank the crowd.

Across town, Golden Dawn supporters celebrated their party’s entry into Parliament by lighting flares and shouting. "Foreigners out of Greece!" and "Greece belongs to the Greeks!" When Michaloliakos walked in, beefy bodyguards sporting black T-shirts and shaved heads demanded that journalists stand to attention. One of those bodyguards, Giorgos Germenis, wears fake blood and spiked bracelets and wields knives as the bassist of a death-metal band. He’s now a new member of Parliament representing Athens.

The two scenes show just how polarized Greece is right now. Greeks are clearly relieved to have crushed a corroded old political system, but they now see there’s nothing workable to replace it. Maybe Sunday’s vote was just a collective middle finger to a political elite that clearly lost touch with the people’s travails. Maybe the next election will bring in more problem-solvers and fewer fascists. The nervous Europeans watching this volatile Greek drama hope that’s the case. The Greeks living the drama just want it, at last, to end.

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