Monday, March 08, 2010

Greece set to explode over austerity package

On Wednesday the Greek government announced its long awaited package of economic measures to deal with the financial crisis the country has been facing since the discovery that the previous conservative government under prime minister Kostas Karamanlis had systematically lied about the country's debt load,. At the beginning of 2009 the Greek minister for finance, Yiannis Papathanasiou confidently predicted that Athens public lending requirements would not go above 3% of GNP, a figure that gradually creeped up over the following months.

However, no one, including Greece's EU partners nor the international money markets were quite ready for the real figure of 12.3% which only came to light following the crushing defeat of New Democracy in the October general elections.

On taking power Giorgos Papandreou, like president Barack Obama immediately found himself in the middle of an economic maelstrom unprecedented in recent history. Unlike America, Greece's chronically weak economy combined with a history of fiscal deception and misinformation meant that newly elected socialist PASOK party had very little room for manouevre with state coffers empty and debt repayments looming. A situation not aided by the role of speculators who saw in Greece a way of exploiting fears about the Euro and so bet on the currency losing value.

The upshot of the crisis is that a socialist government elected on a platform of social reform and aid to the poorest is currently attempting to implement a conservative fiscal reforms which are straight out the Thatcher - Friedman play book and so achieve in five weeks that which the previous right wing administration failed to do in five years in power.

Already swingeing price hikes in the cost of petrol, VAT and and the promise of wage cuts across the board have produced a wave of strike actions and protests. And this is just the beginning. Last weeks marches were marked by violent confrontations between marchers and the riots police who, despite orders by the Minister of the Protection of the Citizen, Mihalis Chrysohoidis used tear gas to disperse those present.

In scene reminiscent of December 2008 the heart of Athens once more resembled a war zone. In addition trade unionists and left wing protesters attempted to storm the ex-ministry of Macedonia and Thrace in Thessaloniki, Greece's second largest city. Like the 2008's outbreak of violence the confrontation are being fueled by a deep sense of outrage and injustice and are drawing support from a wider cross section of society. Enraged pensioners are just as likely to take part in these protests as disenfrancised youths.

As the austerity package starts to bite and the knock on effect of such a drastic change in the economy is reflected in skyrocketing unemployment then these clashes are set to increase in both size and intensity as more and more people take to the streets to voice their disagreement.Next week the country's trade unions have declared another general strike and with the work stoppages are planning public demonstrations which are likely to see a repeat of last Friday's violence.

At the heart of the protests lies the belief that while the country is indeed corrupt and that the public service is bloated and inefficient billions of euros has been siphoned off illegally and that the man in the street is being asked to pay for the folly of the local economic and political elites who have used their power to get rich at the cost of the rest of the country.

The fact that the PASOK politicians asking Greeks to make sacrifices have been repeatedly embroiled in corruption and bribery scandals has done little to convince voters to accept such painful cuts. Over the last decades members of both main parties, New Democracy and PASOK have been accused of a seemingly endless list of scandals involving corruption and influence peddling yet not one MP has ever been convicted or gone to jail. In such a climate of lawlessness where those in power seem able to float the law with impunity few have the moral stature to ask ordinary Greeks to give up so much in such a short time frame.

Although untouched by scandal personally, Prime minister Giorgos Papandreou's party is currently facing allegations that the German Siemens electronics corporation paid bribes to high ranking PASOK officials in order to win contracts for the 2004 Olympic Games held in Athens.

The Games which cost three times the previous ones in Sydney provide an insight into how the present economic crisis came about. Massive cost over runs, lack of transparency over contracts and a legacy of expensive facilities which lie rotting and unused across Athens are testiment to Greece's system of crony capitalism where efficiency, cost, competion, and innovation count for very little in an economy where political favours, kick backs and bribery are the rule rather than the exception.

No comments: