“I’m telling you, we’ll go bankrupt inside the memorandum. Blood will be spilled in Greece, out of hunger if not anything else. But since this government’s been elected, until that happens there’ll be funds for that job—the question is, Will they be released this week or next? I hope it works out for you, because there’s money there. There are no salaries anymore, for me it’s just what I can sell in the souvlaki shop…” The heavy-set, white-haired man shouting into his mobile phone on the overground in Athens summed it up perfectly: a temporary reprieve of sorts, a postponement, followed by—what?
There’s always a sense of let-down after an election: all those promises, all those fantasies and fears giving way overnight to hard reality. The Greek vote on Sunday came with more than its share of dramatic expectations. Athens was crawling with foreign hacks waiting for “drachmageddon,” if Syriza should win and scrap the bailout memorandum. The German Financial Times published a piece in Greek telling voters to “resist the demagoguery of Alexis Tsipras and Syriza” as if they were the Luftwaffe dropping leaflets on occupied Athens; Die Bild followed suit in a more demotic vein: “If you didn’t want our billions, it would be fine with us if you voted for any leftist or rightist clown you liked.” Meanwhile, Alexis Tsipras was promising a new dawn of dignity and hope, change and renewal, liberty for Europe’s peoples, free gifts with every purchase. And New Democracy’s Antonis Samaras—who has twisted 180 degrees with the political wind on the bailout agreement, and whose party is co-responsible for the state of Greece’s finances and up to its eyes in corruption—was playing the national savior, warning of disaster if the “drachma lobby” should triumph.
Whatever else the Greeks may be, they weren’t born yesterday. Most people I spoke to on election day didn’t think much would change whichever party won: the economic and social breakdown is now so profound that it will take many years to swim up to the surface. Many still weren’t sure which way they were going to vote because “no party expresses me”—or because they were afraid they might get what they wished for. Those who have little left to lose went for Syriza in droves, unfazed by the fear-mongering, pushing up its share of the vote from 4 percent two years ago to 17 percent in May to 27 percent on Sunday. But even Syriza’s leaders, or so the rumour went, were hoping to come second. A friend involved in their campaign put it to me like this: “If we lose, I’ll be disappointed and relieved. If we win, I’ll be worried.” Until a few weeks ago Syriza was a small oppositional left coalition; it isn’t ready (yet?) to nail its various banners to a single flagpole and become the state. And if Syriza won and failed,as it was almost bound to do given the situation, its inexperience and the guns of Berlin and Brussels all lined up against it like a firing squad? Then where would the dispossessed of the memorandum turn?
A frightening number have already turned to the far right, especially to the violent neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn. Golden Dawn’s vote dropped only 0.05 percent since the May 6 election, giving it eighteen seats in parliament and confounding predictions that people would turn against it once its true face was revealed. On the contrary: the physical attack on two left women MPs by party spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris on live television in June apparently helped its cause. “Serves the lesbian right,” some said; others saw it as the symbolic slap they’d like to give the system. With eighteen seats in parliament, Golden Dawn is now firmly established on the mainstream political scene, despite (or maybe because of) its sharp fascist rhetoric and street-fighting muscle boys. It’s obviously a response to humiliation and poverty and the thousands of destitute migrants trapped in Greece’s cities, but it’s also the resurgence of an extreme-right current that’s been there since the thirties, waiting for the moment to emerge again. In parts of Athens it works hand in hand with the police, who’ve been known to pass a phone number on a scrap of paper to citizens complaining about immigrant crime.
The official response to the election from Europe’s politicians is a small sigh of relief. In theory it buys them time to find some last-minute Band-Aids for the crumbling Eurozone: the rudimentary Eurobonds discussed (but not agreed on) at the G20 summit, some investment for growth, perhaps a softening of the rigid German austerity recipe. They may also offer a lollipop or two to the Greek people for voting the right way, or at least a longer timescale for the cuts to come. But with the same “clowns” (or thieves, as most Greeks call them) from New Democracy and Pasok voted back into power mainly out of fear, nobody expects anything good from the government.
That may be the best thing to come out of this election. In spite of the deepening poverty and the grim prognosis, in spite of deep anxiety about violence in the streets, there’s also a new blend of resignation and self-reliance in the way some people talk. Maybe it’s because they feel they’ve almost hit rock bottom; maybe it’s because the election didn’t lead to sudden death; maybe it’s that the rise of Syriza restored some sense of dignity for those who weren’t scared by it. As the historian Tasoula Vervenioti put it, “We’ve done all right, the Greek people. We’ve taken a lot of tear gas. And Syriza, to produce Syriza that shook them all in Europe, that was something too.” Now that the demonizing of Greece in the foreign press has eased a little bit, people seem more able to face their own complicity in the country’s trouble—the lack of a sense of citizenship and public responsibility, the widespread willingness to plunder the public purse in ways both large and small. It’s only a little thing, but when this government falls apart, as many expect it will, it might turn out to mean a lot.