Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Taking to the Streets: A Short History of Greek Democracy

by John Markakis

London Review of Books

March 22, 2012

‘The state is bankrupt, let’s face it,’ an editorial in the Greek daily Kathimerini concluded the day after a museum in ancient Olympia – left virtually unguarded owing to personnel cuts – was robbed in broad daylight. The furor over the country’s economic troubles has deflected foreign attention from the collapse of the political system, though it’s causing Greeks more anxiety than the disastrous drop in their standard of living. They know it has ceased to function and that it cannot be expected to bring about an economic recovery. Opinion abroad is that Greece has too much democracy and not enough of an economy and foreign creditors are determined to redress the balance. The terms of the latest bailout clearly recognise the critical condition of the state, but insist nonetheless on a reform programme whose aim is to squeeze as much money out of it as possible for debt repayment. According to the Independent of 19 February, ‘Greece will become an economic – and to a large extent a political – colony of Germany and its allies.’

Here is a sample of what to expect. Forced in February to accept a cut of 22 per cent in unemployment benefit – reducing it from €461 a month to €359 plus 10 per cent for each child – the government sought to stagger the cut to mask its severity. The troika, as the representatives of the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund are known, insisted that the minister of labour implement the cut without delay. When he asked for time to consult his cabinet colleagues, he was told this would hold up the disbursement of funds for the latest bailout. The cut was announced the same day.

The government, devoid of legitimacy and public support, remains in power only because of its role in the continuing negotiations, which are largely fictitious since it is obliged to accept the troika’s demands. The fabric of democracy is unravelling. The unelected prime minister, Lucas Papademos, is a former banker whose only qualification for the post is that he ‘knows how the market works’. Politicians avoid public places for fear of being pelted with yoghurt and eggs, enter and leave parliament between phalanxes of police, and are besieged by demonstrators threatening to immolate them in it. Students parading in Athens on a national holiday last October turned their heads away from the official stand in contra-salute, while in Thessaloniki crowds broke up a military parade, forcing the elderly president of the republic to beat a hasty retreat. Politicians of all stripes – with the exception of the Communists, who have never enjoyed power – are called ‘traitors’ and ‘thieves’.


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