A temporary halt to Grexit and Drachmageddon
June 19, 2012
Plus ça change…the more things change, the more they remain the same. That’s the way it seems to me, anyway, although many commentators on Greek affairs consider that the old certainties have crumbled.
But I have been here for over 30 years, and to me uncertainty has been a constant presence. So has a sense of fragility. When I arrived in 1980, parliamentary democracy post Junta was barely six years old.
Bank loans were impossible to obtain, so that people wishing to buy property arrived at auctions with plastic bags crammed full of drachma notes. Women had few rights: if their marriages failed, their husbands retained their dowries.
The first time I ever went to a Greek polling booth was in October 1981, when Andreas Papandreou, founder of the PASOK party, won a landslide victory and became the first Socialist Prime Minister of Greece. I was aware that momentous events were unfolding, but was mesmerised by the sight of national servicemen on guard at the door of the school/polling booth.
They stood rigidly to attention: their guns bore fixed bayonets. I gibbered: Why? The answer was that in the past ballot boxes had occasionally been stolen. Yesterday afternoon, in the inner Athenian suburb of Exarchia, notorious for its cells of anarchists and activists, ten masked people entered a polling booth, attacked the two policemen on guard, smashed the ballot box, and, for good measure, set fire to it.
In 1981 I did not have the right to vote. Now I have, and as a good Aussie sheila who naturally believes in compulsory voting I try to do my bit by urging people to exercise their rights. Some people, like my old neighbour, don’t need to be persuaded. He was up bright and early yesterday: the polls opened at 7.
‘All set, Kyrie Vassili?’ I asked.
‘Absolutely. It’s our duty, isn’t it?’
And he brandished his walking-stick.
There were quite a few walking-sticks in evidence, as it happened: Kyrios Vassilis and his age group can remember the hideous years of the Civil War and the dictatorship of the Colonels. They can remember the fear and the helplessness.
I haven’t discussed the matter with such people, as one has to be careful not to open old wounds, but I wonder what they think of the heightened profile of Golden Dawn, the neo-Nazi party that seems to believe that violence against immigrants and liberals is legitimate. I wonder what they think about the strong rumour that the police get Golden Dawn to do their dirty work for them.
It is now 222 days since Greece has had an elected government, during which period it has had two caretaker Prime Ministers and two elections. The population has endured five years of deepening austerity, with its predictable consequences: unemployment, homelessness, a rising suicide rate.
A government did not result from the May election, and since then much of the world has been transfixed by the rise and rise of Alexis Tsipras, leader of SYRIZA, the Radical Left Coalition, who seemed to be poised to engineer what has come to be known as the Grexit.
The Grexit and its consequence Drachmageddon have been temporarily staved off. But a government was not formed in May because party leaders could not agree, and this failure remains a fear. Tsipras has already informed New Democracy leader Samaras that SYRIZA will remain in opposition. Samaras, who won by only a slim margin, thus needs to negotiate a coalition with PASOK and the Democratic Left.
Some analysts are scathing: Greek ones mention the failure of the political class, and deplore the inability to reach a consensus. They also mention the Greek tendency to reach dizzy heights (courage in the Second World War) and then plunge to horrifying depths (the Civil War that followed.)
An Athenian political scientist has commented, appropriately enough, that Mr Samaras has won only a Pyrrhic victory. The New York Times considers that any government is likely to be weak and short-lived.
Historically, one of Greece’s most successful exports has been people. And it is becoming the case again: it was recently estimated that 7 out of 10 Greeks in the 18-24 age group intend to seek their future elsewhere. In 1965 the father of my children left Greece because of poverty and lack of prospects. Or even hope. All he had was his youth. Plus ça change.
Gillian Bouras is an Australian writer who has been based in Greece for 30 years. She has had nine books published. Her most recent is No Time For Dances. Her latest, Seeing and Believing, is appearing in instalments on her website.
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20 Jun 2012
My goodness you live in interesting times.
We folks back in Oz take democratic stability for granted, such that some are rather bored by the process of voting. That’s never been my attitude. If these politicians want to run the country, I want to have a say in who they should be. Perhaps it’s because I came of age in the sixties and was radicalized by what was happening at the time.
I remember at a recent Australian election there were observers from other countries (yes, we have them too) and they were asked about their impressions. The answer was the complete absence of police and military at the polling booths. They didn’t mention the sausage sizzles that were at many of them.
So, are you going to join your younger cohorts and be an export (bearing sons and other assorted folks)?
20 Jun 2012
This strikes me as a judicious and clear-eyed appraisal of the current situation, insofar as one can tell from an Antipodean distance. What astonished and impressed me on a stay in Athens last October was the degree to which the citizens were managing to sustain a semblance of normal life and its customary civilities in the face of considerable adversity. The media coverage doesn't often include such material, but in the human detail you register, and never omit to interweave into your first-hand accounts of events, you convey a sense of the actual and immediate in terms with which the reader can empathise. Thank you.
20 Jun 2012
Greece could export services and keep her people if Germany agreed to import more. Remember that a good part of the crisis is a balance-of-payments problem arising from Germany's mercantilism. That's the element that needs changing but won't change. Germany should consume more and accept additional inflation.
20 Jun 2012
I suppose that even though democracy was born in Ancient Athens (in a somewhat circumscribed form) it took a long time to reappear there in its modern form. The rise of Golden Dawn (and other Euro-fascist movements elsewhere) would worry me because instability in Greece, with a bit of help, could eventually lead to the reappearance of a non-democratic form of government. I think the recent banking/loan crisis where Greece over borrowed with disastrous results does not help. Political ineptitude in the ruling elite may precipitate a crisis. Let us hope the Greeks do not get carried away with all the political posturing at the expense of solving real problems.
20 Jun 2012
..yiasou Gillian...I've been waiting for your impressions of the latest events,moreso than news reports.Can you believe how much Greece has changed since our last meeting in Kalamata's main square?? So much has changed since that day.Over the years,talking with my husband's contemporaries,it was as if WW2 & the Greek civil War were recent events-so how can Greek voters bear to vote for Golden Dawn & SYRIZA?Needless to say,our prayers are with you all & as the Greeks say..."o Theos na vali to xeri tou".....me agapi,Evangelia
21 Jun 2012
Thank you for your interesting article Gillian, and I certainly feel the sentiments of the first respondant when he says that you live in interesting times.
It would seem that you will become a part of a national Greek tradgetry if you remain in Greece, but as a writer would you want to be anywhere else at present!
It may seem easy in one sense to gather your closest clan and move back to safe and bland Australia, where we are paying good wages and importing workers, but in reality life is not that easy and simple, despite it perhaps seeming so for the young.
I suspect you will want to ride out the storm for a while, because you are there, and you do in deed live in interesting times!