Greece: Desperate and resigned
3 May 2011
Worn out by repeated austerity packages, the Greeks have reached a point where they no longer believe in their government. While populism attracts more and more votes in the country, euro-enthusiasm has entered into free fall. Libération’s special correspondent reports from Athens.
The incident was kept quiet to protect the image of Prime Minister George Papandreou. It happened in Hydra, a very fashionable island off the Peloponnese coast and about an hour and a half from Athens, where the Greek Prime Minister was spending Easter, the main celebration of the year in Greece – a kind of heady mix of Christmas and New Year. On 22 April, which was Good Friday, Papandreou attended the mass for “the descent from the cross,” not in the small cathedral, but more discreetly, in one of the many churches in the town. A few moments after arriving at the service, he was aggressively taken to task by worshippers angered by his austerity measures. Insults flew and local police were called on to assist his exit.
Only a few months ago, the same man was applauded by the crowds when he took part in the Athens marathon accompanied by only two bodyguards. However, since then the political climate has gone from bad to worse. The Greeks have been driven to despair: unemployment is soaring, wages are being cut, and droves of small companies are closing down. In particular, they are disgusted by the endless succession of austerity packages over the last 12 months – the most recent was announced on 15 April. After three years of economic recession, the country’s morale is in decline. "There is an atmosphere of despair," points out a European diplomat. "Every day, no matter where it comes from the news is bad," complains Lena, who owns several businesses in around Syntagma Square in downtown Athens. "Even if their pay has not been cut, how can you expect people to spend money in this climate? You known its true, because when the Greek media went on strike for four days, there was an increase in morale and consumer spending recovered a little…"
"People are not depressed by the sacrifices and the changes, but by the absence of results and the fact that there is no prospect of an end to the crisis," remarks Yanis Pretenderis, an influential columnist. "We still haven’t seen any proof of Greece finally becoming an organised state," confirms Léna, who nonetheless admits that corruption is on the wane – probably because the Greeks have no more money to fill the fakelaki (little envelopes) used to pay bribes. "The recession has killed off corruption," remarks a smiling Pretenderis. "We knew that 2011 was going to be more difficult than 2010,” points out a European diplomat. “Sacrifices were made, but the results have yet to be seen. A lot of effort has gone into applying the reforms, but the state is still quite inefficient, and the rich still aren’t paying much in the way of income tax…" One of the main reasons for the sour atmosphere.
The citizens "have been angered by Papandreou’s incompetence, and his inability to implement real change in the country," affirms Pretenderis. That said, their despair will not necessarily lead to a revolt, notwithstanding the increasing prevalence of protests and demonstrations against austerity measures (according to the police, the centre of Athens was partially or fully closed 496 times in 2010). "The country is not about to explode, but it is about to sink into depression," says Yannis Pretenderis. It is a view that is shared by Ilias Iliopoulos, the general secretary of ADEDY (the main civil service trade union), and George Pontikos, the international relations secretary for PAME, a union close to the KKE (a Stalinist communist party): "Everyone has had enough, but Greece is nowhere near a revolution" – a fact borne out by the limited turnout at demonstrations. However, people are likely to express their "anger" in other ways, particularly at the ballot box: although it still tops the polls at 21 percent, PASOK (the country’s socialist party) has lost 23 points since 2009.
Along with the New Democracy conservatives, the country’s two main political parties can only expect to obtain 40 percent of the vote, whereas they used to be able to count on close to 80 percent. Populists of a wide range of hues are cashing in on the crisis: in particular the KKE and the LAOS (people). And the corollary of all of this is a vertiginous decline in euro-enthusiasm: "The union only cares about the economy, not about the people," complains Ilias Iliopoulos who is calling for a "patriotic front" against austerity measures.
Translated from the French by Mark McGovern