Greece’s Knife-Edge Election

Greece’s Knife-Edge Election

Greek politics is in a state of molecular meltdown, but the election story told by European politicians and journalists doesn’t begin to map it.


The sea at Katounia is a million shades of blue, ripples and shivers moving, changing all the time, pushed by the tides and currents of the Euboean Gulf. This place is a touchstone: rock and light and water, nothing that isn’t true. But last week it felt as if the sea was full of knives.

The Greek crisis has been a bonanza for journalists like me. Besides the speculation about a Greek exit from the euro, containment and contagion, we’ve had endless stories about corrupt Greeks, lazy Greeks, suffering Greeks and hungry Greeks, heroically resisting Greeks, reckless and feckless Greeks. In these last days before the election that’s supposed to determine the fate not only of Greece but of the whole Eurozone, the media feeding frenzy has reached piranha proportions.

For those who live here, though, the breakdown goes much deeper than the visible currents of economics and politics. What does a country mean for those who belong to it, beyond everyday life and home? Some alchemy, perhaps, of human connection and history; a language and a landscape; things that go without saying. The pain of what’s been happening here touches on all of that. It’s changed people’s connection to the past as well as the present, their intimate relationships, their sense of who they are. It’s taken apart the story they’ve believed about their lives for the last forty years. Rage and betrayal are mixed with a toxic sense of shame.

A woman I’ve known for two decades and always seen in motion sits slumped at the end of the day in front of the TV news. Two clone-like blonde presenters are discussing the latest “plan” to eject Greece from the Eurozone. How does she see the future? She waves her hand around the empty restaurant she runs with her family. “Nothing,” she says. “Nothing.” Her son has a young family and has to go running all over the place to look for a day’s wage. “He’s got a couple of goats back there, you should see how nice he’s made it, so he can slaughter a kid now and then to fill the freezer with.” She looks at me hopefully, as if I might know something: “Who do you think would be better, Tsipras [of the radical left party Syriza] or Samaras [from conservative New Democracy]?” I’m startled to hear her ask: this is a region where Syriza polled first in the May 6 election, where almost all the villages were on the left the civil war. I say, somewhat inanely, “I don’t think any of them are telling the whole truth.” Her eyes light up a little as she answers, slightly shyly, “I want Golden Dawn in Parliament to beat all of them up.”

It’s inconceivable that this woman would ever vote for Golden Dawn, the neo-Nazi party which won almost 7 percent of the vote in May and has since been flexing its muscles, stepping up its violent attacks on immigrants and leftists, unmolested by the police. A week before, the party leader’s daughter had been arrested in Athens with a group beating up Pakistanis and let go without bail; the following day Golden Dawn’s press spokesman, Ilias Kasidiaris, made the international media when he physically attacked two left-wing women MPs on live television. (He has since sued the TV station and the women for “unprovoked defamation.”) The day after that an Israeli photojournalist was beaten up in Athens, almost certainly by Golden Dawn supporters, for taking pictures of men pursuing a group of migrants; the poor man wondered in an interview if telling them he was from Israel might have helped. And the day after that a friend phoned me to say that Golden Dawn were attacking the Panteion University where he teaches, smashing windows and fighting with students while the police again stood by.

And yet that line—“I want Golden Dawn in Parliament to beat all of them up”—has almost become a slogan, a fist against the system, heard not only from the right but sometimes even from people likely to vote Syriza. It’s a symptom of humiliation, hopelessness and rage—and of the molecular meltdown of Greek politics. The old categories of left and right, which in Greece have long represented deep-rooted identities and painful family histories, are fraying at the edges. Many people won’t decide till the last minute how they’ll vote. A former Eurocommunist told me he might go for the hated New Democracy to keep Greece in the euro; a conservative taxi driver (until six months ago a civil engineer) says he’ll vote Syriza because “that young man [Tsipras] is smart, and also clean.”

The simple narrative imposed on this election by European politicians, bankers and journalists—that it’s a referendum on whether Greece stays in the Eurozone—doesn’t begin to map it. It’s more like a wild bet, a frightened guess at which might be the less disastrous choice. As countless people have already said, the Greek people’s faith in the old political class—which ground down the economy, called in the bailiffs of the EU and IMF, and then applied their measures in the most unjust and destructive way—has utterly collapsed. The political terrain is crazed with new divisions, some real, some mythical: private sector workers, who make up the vast majority of Greece’s new unemployed, against the public sector, which has suffered deep cuts in pay; “reformers” against the rest (though pretty much everyone agrees reform is necessary); so-called “pro-Europeans” against what Samaras calls “the pro-drachma lobby” (though 80 percent of Greeks want to stay in the Eurozone and almost nobody is advocating a return to the drachma); “pro-memorandum” against “anti-memorandum” forces.

In fact, the real decision about whether Greece stays in the Eurozone rests not with the Greek electorate but with the EU, the Germans and the IMF: the only way an exit will take place is if they decide to push it by cutting off the next tranche of the bailout funds, forcing Greece to print its own money in order to pay the bills. (As ever, the messages leaking from Berlin and Brussels about whether or when this might happen are oracularly ambivalent.) In spite of the polarized atmosphere, both leading parties say they would “renegotiate” the bailout, though only Syriza has dared to play chicken with Angela Merkel by talking about rejecting it outright. And some of their proposals—such as extending unemployment benefits to two years and freezing wage reductions—are strikingly similar.

Of course there are deep differences, on traditional left/right issues: state versus private investment and economic control, taxation, redistribution, immigration policy. For all the talk of renewal and new beginnings, in many ways both parties are singing ancient songs. Samaras is shamelessly playing the right’s old nationalist card, giving aid and comfort to the extremists in Golden Dawn; Tsipras draws on a rousing populist rhetoric familiar to the Greek left. And while Syriza presents itself as a new, squeaky clean force that will sweep away corruption and the old clientelist system, here, too, there is less of a break with the past than might at first appear: among the party’s supporters are the old featherbedded Pasok trade union leaders and traditional clients from the public sector.

So the Greeks go to the polls in a strange hall of mirrors, papered with partial truths. This is hardly surprising: the meltdown here has been too fast for politics to keep up with, the tides of change too strong and unpredictable to contain. Besides, Greece’s future depends in no small part on outside forces, which have their own agendas and conflicting interests. Whatever government emerges out of Sunday’s vote, I suspect it won’t last long. And when this latest lightning rod for despair and hope has failed, I am afraid of what might happen, of where the barely pent-up rage and violence might lead.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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