Monday, November 15, 2010

Greeks cast a vote of no confidence in present political system

Γιώργος Παπανδρέου - Giorgos Papandreou

At first glance embattled Greek government must have much to celebrate concerning the results of yesterday's second round of local elections. Despite predictions of an electoral meltdown (by me as well as others) the ruling PASOK party mananged to elect mayors in both the Athens and Thessaloniki, the country's second largest city and in both cases decades of rule by conservative candidates has come to an end. Boosted by these victories prime minister, Giorgos Papandreou went on national TV to declare that the results were a vote of confidence in the government's handling of the current financial crisis.

However, Papandreou's address was not aimed at the Greek electorate who decided not to vote in unprecedented numbers but the world's international money markets and in particular the IMF/EU/ECB troika who arrived this morning in Athens to discuss the terms of the nexrt stage of Greece's bailout package and the revised Eurostat figures for government deficits in 2009. Instead of 13.6% the deficit has now been estimated at 15.4% and uch a large readjustment coupled with falling tax revenues means that there is little chance will reach the goals set for the reduction of state debt in 2011.

On the one hand Papandreou has staked what remains of his political capital on promises that there will be no new austerity measures for pensioners and wage earners, yet with the numbers coming up and the prospect of Ireland set to seek EU money the odds are that the the leaders are likely to be in no mood to let Greek leaders off the hook as far as commitments to reduced spending are concerned. If new measures are introduced they will fatally wound Papandreou's standing in PASOK and confirm in the eyes of many Greeks the fact that he has lied to them repeatedly over the causes and consequences of the financial debacle Athens finds itself in.

Behind the initial good news (for PASOK at least) lies another story which threatens to put an end to business as usual for Greek political system as yesterday's vote saw an unprecedented low turnout which when coupled with the number of spoilt votes means that those elected across the country garnered less than a quarter of the popular vote. Whilst such low turnouts are par for the course in many European countries they represent a new phenomenon in Greece where voting figures have been traditionally high. For many media commentators the causes of the lack of voter interest reflect the breakdown of the complex web of patron client relationships which the two main parties, the left of centre, PASOK and the centre right New Democracy have used to retain power both on the national and local level.

With the pork barrels empty mainstream politicians have little to tempt voters apart from extravagant promises which are now being viewed with contempt by the public, convinced that in the current economic crisis the parties can offer nothing in the way of jobs or career advancement for themselves and their families. The claim by PASOK backed candidate for the head of Thessaloniki county council Markos Bolaris that he would create 50,000 new jobs in the city was just one of a plethora of widely optimistic campaign pledges that left the electorate indifferent knowing that instead of creating new positions the state in all likelihood will be forced to fire even more public sector employees.

In some districts such as in the Greater Athens area turnout was a mere 30%, meaning that most voters did not care who won the elections or believed that the winner would make no difference. This means that not just Papandreou but also Antonis Samaras the leader of the main opposition party, are failing to convince the bulk of the Greek population that they can change the country for the better. In the light of such a damning indictment of the current political system talk of victory and popular support of either party is just PR hot air designed to placate the party faithful. The reality is that Greece's semi  - permanent political caste are being faced with an unprecedented vote of confidence which they are rapidly losing. In the absence of  convincing mainstream political answers the road opens for groups and parties offering more extreme solutions to the nation's seemingly intractable problems.

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