New Internationalist

A Greek tragi-farce


George Papandreou, 'domestically hated and internationally humiliated.’
Photo by Vasilis Filis under a CC Licence.

What was broadly characterized as a ‘Greek tragedy’ has ended up as a farce. In the name of ‘the people,’ a politician who had long lost democratic legitimacy gave his place to a non-elected technocrat in order to secure the implementation of a publicly despised austerity program.

And yet, the people had spoken in Greece. In their hundreds of thousands, they participated at the strikes and demonstrations of 19-20 October saying ‘enough is enough’ to government policies. In their thousands, they turned the national holiday on 28 of October to a day of rage, forcing the members of the political elite to hastily abandon their place at the celebrations.

On 26 October, the government had reached a deal in Brussels for a 50 per cent haircut of the Greek debt to private banks and insurers. Although this was presented as a victory, its nature was rather pyrrhic: it threatened the viability of the Greek pension funds, it entailed austerity for the following ten years and it placed foreign ‘observers’ at all the key ministries. The people knew that and were ready to reject it. The government also knew that they knew. Thus, the ploy of the referendum appeared.

Right after Brussels, Papandreou announced that he would submit the agreement to a referendum and would ask for a vote of confidence from the Greek parliament. Fully aware of the abyss between his policies and the will of the people, he aimed at calming their anger while avoiding elections.

His means to secure a more favorable outcome at the referendum was blackmail: to terrorize the Greeks with the notion that a rejection of the agreement would be equal to a default of the Greek economy. This was not a new tactic. His government long enjoyed distorting, for example, any kind of mass mobilization as being ‘against the national interest’ in a time of extraordinary circumstances.

The ploy soon led to a full-blown political crisis. The possibility of the referendum (namely, the direct expression of the Greek people’s will) created rifts in the governing party while European leaders were enraged as the markets trembled. The G20 conference in Cannes was chosen as the most suitable time to show who had the upper hand.

In the beautiful French resort, Angela Merkel and Nicola Sarkozy showed the ugliest face of the European Union. While few doubted the democratic deficit of the European institutions, nobody expected that they would dictate to the prime minister of a ‘sovereign’ country the question of his planned referendum (making it a question of whether Greece would stay in the Eurozone) and change the date that this referendum would take place. Domestically hated and internationally humiliated, Papandreou returned to Greece to face certain political demise.

His temporary salvation came through an unexpected ally. Succumbing to the pressures of his European partners (and showing his real political face), the leader of the Greek opposition announced his support for the Brussels agreement. Papandreou survived the confidence vote, only to surrender premiership to a ‘national unity’ government, with no other unifying link than the support of the memorandum.

Under the auspices of the troika, a member of the Trilateral Commission was put forward as the head of the tripartite government: Lucas Papademos, a former governor of the Bank of Greece and former vice-president of the European Central Bank. His speech at the first ministerial council mentioned the word ‘society’ only once (to say that the social tensions are aggravated), while members of his cabinet have shown a clear anti-societal stance, by sympathizing or having connections with the Greek military junta of 1967-1974.

The deadline of the new government is unclear, since the date of the next elections has not yet been set. For the moment, the Greek political elites are still trying to measure their gains and losses from the previous three weeks and Papandreou is working at keeping his place as the head of his party, PASOK.

His party now looks vindicated, since it was long asking for the opposition’s collaboration in the implementation of austerity. The main opposition party, New Democracy, is trying to calm its voters, after sacrificing the political capital it amassed through one and a half years of an anti-memorandum stance.

The far-right LAOS, the new government’s third ‘pillar,’ is enjoying its acceptance by the political mainstream. The left parties –the only remaining opposition– are trying to unify their electoral base.

And the people? Dumbfounded at first from all that was happening in their name without their being asked, the people are trying to see how they will face their new, bleaker future.

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