Politics in Greece now an extreme sport

ATHENS: When discussing their government, Greeks have long spoken of those who “eat with golden spoons” to describe a political class that for decades fattened itself on foreign loans.


But now, as the country is mired in a debt crisis, squeezed by tough austerity and sinking ever deeper into recession, Greek politicians are getting the kind of public attention they are finding hard to swallow.


With popular anger on the boil, lawmakers of all political stripes have become targets of hecklers, and some have been pelted with eggs, leading many a Greek legislator to keep a low public profile.


“You don’t see lawmakers out to eat any more,” says the chef of a high-class Athens restaurant. “Except at restaurants that offer exclusive rooms, in the back.”


The attacks — most of which have been verbal and come from far-left and far-right activists — have targeted members of both major parties, the socialist Pasok and conservative New Democracy parties.


The two have alternated in power since 1974 and are now in a power-sharing coalition, enforcing an unpopular EU-IMF bailout programme with tough fiscal medicine that has spelled misery for millions.


On Wednesday, hecklers threw plastic bottles and pots of yoghurt at government representatives on Rhodes, disturbing a parade to commemorate the island’s union with Greece after World War II.


A similar incident blighted another national parade in October.


In January, a group threw stones at a restaurant on the island of Crete where former New Democracy minister Dora Bakoyannis, now leader of a small liberal party, was having dinner.


Last month, protesters hurled eggs at the party’s top labour official as he spoke to supporters in the town of Patras.


And two other former ministers, one each from Pasok and New Democracy, in February had their offices on Corfu island trashed during a demonstration.


Authorities fear more trouble ahead as important dates loom — Greek Independence Day on March 25, Orthodox Easter on April 15, and, crucially, early elections expected next month.


“Beating each other on the street is no solution,” said Thodoris Dravillas, deputy general manager of New Democracy, who added that the motivations of the attackers are mixed.


“There are spontaneous outbursts against deputies, but in some cases the participants are people with known political affiliations,” he told AFP.


Political analysts wonder whether the austerity outrage will spell the end of Greece’s two-party rule and swell the ranks of left-wing parties who want the country to default on its loans.


Opinion polls show both New Democracy and Pasok in serious decline, with the latter risking the worst turnout in its 37-year history.


“There is great difficulty being a politician right now, that much is clear,” says Thomas Gerakis of polling firm Marc. “And there is a dangerous generalisation being made, that it is the fault of all politicians, and all parties.”


Greece has a long tradition of urban violence, ranging from arson attacks to full-scale bombings against government and police targets.


Nobody has been physically harmed in the latest incarnation of the so-called indignant movement, which follows in the wake of large protest gatherings against cutbacks last summer.


The target is the economic recovery plan Greece signed in 2010 with the European Union and International Monetary Fund in return for new loans.


The belt-tightening demanded by the institutions has spelled pain for many. Salaries and pensions have plunged by up to 40 per cent in three years and there are over a million unemployed, a fifth of the workforce.


Parliament deputies now in the line of fire are mainly those who backed successive austerity laws demanded by the creditors.


“Lawmakers identified with the economic rescue plan will likely think twice before running for re-election,” said Gerakis. “I expect we will have a lot more new faces.”


The people’s anger is unprecedented, said Anna Vagena, a popular singer who was elected with the socialist party in 2009 but recently refused to approve a new round of austerity and defected from the party.


“It shows great anger, which is not misplaced… For years, the system had a good time of it without offering the basic essentials and brought the country to this point.”


New Democracy is still in the lead to win the next election, although its chances of securing an outright parliamentary majority look slim.


The conservatives, for their part, say they have had no trouble attracting prospective deputies despite the hostile climate.


“On average, constituency applications are around three to four times that of available positions,” said Dravillas, the party official. “In some areas we have up to 25 strong candidacies for six posts … Who wouldn’t want to be on the winning side?”


Either way, Gerakis argues, the coming campaign will be a far cry from past elections where candidates had cash aplenty for campaign kiosks, flyers and cellphone messages to lure prospective voters.


“Everybody will have trouble raising campaign funds,” he said. “For the first time we will have a low-budget campaign.”



About the author

Aziz Hassan

A journalist since July 1976 with both the English and Malaya press and was with two newspaper groups before The Mole. Does corporate report-writing and translation in his free time. Currently also a contributing weekly rugby columnist for the New Straits Times.