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Greece's political meltdown

Greeks of all ages voted to punish New Democracy and PASOK. It could be a long, hot summer on the streets of Athens.
Last modified: 8 May 2012 18:37
Reuters photo

Looking back, the signs were there.

At the final campaign rallies in Athens of the two political parties which have traditionally dominated government in Greece, New Democracy and the Socialist PASOK, the crowds were small and the atmosphere was lacklustre.

And something else was noticeable. There were lots of old people, but precious few young enthusiastic faces.

This perception, of a generation divide between the elderly who were too fearful to abandon what they knew, and the young who were desperate to punish their politicians, even resulted in a joke doing the rounds in Athens on the eve of the elections: "if you want change, lock up your grandparents during voting hours!"

In the end, I'm not even sure that would have been necessary.

Greeks of all ages, from all parts of the country, voted to punish New Democracy and PASOK.

Palpable anger

The anger was palpable. In a middle-class Athens neighbourhood I met Nikkos, a retired policeman.

He is a life-long New Democracy supporter, and a conservative family man. But he voted for the left-wing SYRIZA, because he and his wife have seen their incomes fall by 40 per cent in the last two years.

"I don't even care what New Democracy or PASOK have to say anymore, I don't even listen to them" he told me.

The vote was an empahtic "no" [or Oxi] to austerity, and a failed political system, but what was it a vote for?

There's alot of talk now about Greece being in a "Weimar Republic" phase, with extreme right and left movements on the rise.

That seems an exaggerated comparison to me, but it is true that communists, anarchists and fascists have their rival strongholds, and sometimes fight on the streets.

Violent street justice

More than 400,000 Greeks voted for Chrysi Avgi [which translates as "Golden Dawn"], a crude and extreme right-wing party.

Its members perform Nazi salutes and adminster violent street justice against immigrants in central Athens.

But, crucially, Chrysi Avgi  also provides services to those poor and vunerable Greek citizens who feel abandoned by the imporverished and incompetent state.

It sends young toughs to escort frightened grandmothers through crime-ridden streets at night, and "persuades"  immigrants to stop illegal squatting in apartments.

In the last election, in 2009, Chrysi Avgi was completely irrelevant. Its extraordinary success this time round is a damning indictment of the failure of governance in Greece.

The rest of Europe is scratching its head in bewilderment, and no doubt exasperation.

Sense of foreboding

The Greeks are being described in any number of ways; reckless, foolish and short-sighted, but also brave, defiant and principled. The mood in Athens now is hard to define. A [left-wing] friend of mine sent me a message saying: "it's very refreshing to see people a bit hopeful for once."

But business leaders I have spoken to are in despair. "The electorate acted with anger, but no logic," said one senior executive.

In a market in the grimy port of Pireaus, I found a deep sense of foreboding.

"It will get even worse now" said Costas, a maths teacher, "We Greeks can never agree with each other, we've never managed it throughout our history".

There is plenty of morbid humour around. A friend tweeted that Greece must be the only country in the world where the percentage of people who are unemployed [almost 22 per cent] is higher than the percentage of the vote for the party that "won" the election [New Democracy, which got just under 19 per cent].
 
The austerity process has been brutal. The economy has shrunk by almost 20 per cent in the past five years and unemployment has doubled.

Anger at Merkel

There is seething anger towards Mrs Merkel and the German government [although not the German people, thank God] from many parts of Greek society.

"She has unleashed an economic Third World War on us" said a respected Athens business leader, "and she needs to stop".

But can Greece really stay in the eurozone without making painful reforms?

Will Mrs Merkel soften her stance?

Or will President Hollande ride to the rescue, and persuade Germany and the IMF to slow the pace and soften the severity of structural adjustment, as some Greeks now hope?

The problem is that time is not on Greece's side. The economy is a ticking time bomb. It could be a long, hot summer on the streets of Athens.

Follow Barnaby Phillips on Twitter at @BarnabyPhillips