Saturday, June 30, 2012

"Uropa" a performance based on the Europe by D Greig

The 15th anti-racist festival, Thessaloniki, started last night and will conclude on Sunday evening. the even includes talks, performances, live concerts and lots more.

It is being held in the ex-army camp Pavlou Mela in Stavroupoli, Thessaloniki.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Greece election post mortem

Antonis Samaras, head of Greece's main opposition party, New Democracy

First things first. An apology to anyone who  bet (and lost their shirt) on my prediction that SYRIZA would be the largest party in parliament today, if I see you, let me buy you a drink, it's the least I can do. As it turned out my analysis was off the mark. I overestimated SYRIZA's final vote and more crucially underestimated the final New Democracy tally. Also I didn't see the collapse in Greek Communist party support which halved, unlike PASOK and Golden Dawn who only saw a small drop in votes received. All in all, my days as a poll pundit are numbered. (Vote statistics can be found here).

Why was I so wrong? First of all, I failed to grasp just how successful the fear campaign over possible Greek exit would be. I had assumed that the constant barrage of warnings over the consequences of Greece having to leave the Eurozone had done its work and wouldn't push Samaras's vote over 25%. On the other hand the record low turnout (down 8% from 2009) seemed to have had an effect, I suspect on younger voters who would have supported anti-bailout parties. Finally, the scenes of violence perpetrated by Golden Dawn spokesman on live TV did nothing to diminish their popularity, which is both surprising and deeply worrying.

PASOK leader, Evangelos Venizelos

Mea culpa aside, today the New Democracy leader, Antonis Samaras will be asked by the president of the Greek republic to form a government. At first glance this seems just a formality as New Democracy with 129 seats and the other pro-bailout party, PASOK with 33 seats will comfortably exceed the 151 MPs needed to form a majority. Indeed both leaders in the last week of campaigning repeatedly stated the need for the country to immediately have a working administration in order to deal with its current economic meltdown.

However, beyond the campaign promises, Samaras and PASOK leader, Evangelos Venizelos have to take into account other factors concerning their own and their parties' political future. If they do assume power, then they will be seen as the parties that are responsible for the country's economic woes, leaving SYRIZA and others to claim that have are the only real anti-austerity choice in any future elections. Given the drubbing PASOK got and the marginal victory achieved by new Democracy that more or less guarantees their defeat in the next elections (barring an economic miracle and the Germans have outlawed miracles).

Alexis Tsipras, head of the The Radical Left Coalition, SYRIZA

The answer to this dilemma is to try and persuade SYRIZA leader, Alexis Tsipras to join the government with promises, appeals to patriotism and threats of possible dire economic consequences if he does not.This card was played after the May elections and judging by official SYRIZA statements coming out in the Greek media such overtures are almost certainly likely to be rejected. On the other hand the Democratic Left have made it quite clear that they will be willing to take part in such a government. But this does not solve Samaras and Venizelos's long term problem about how deal with Tsipras in coming elections.

The other factor which plays a crucial role in any negotiations is ego. Even with Greece mired in the worst economic downturn, the monsterously overblown egotism of both Samaras and Venizelos may prove an obstacle in forming a stable government. Both have spent decades slowly working their way up the greasy pole of political power and just as they seemed to be destined to become prime minister, the game changed. To have to share power after so many years playing second fiddle is almost more than either can bear.

Whatever form the next Greek government takes, its fate will not be decided in Athens but in Berlin and Brussels. If the troika (EU/ECB/IMF) are serious about supporting Samaras then serious concessions in the terms of the current austerity measures will have to be made, otherwise with unemployment rising 1% every two months and the economy contracting the fragile New Democracy - PASOK (and possibly Democratic Left) coalition will fracture under the weight of more job cuts and tax hikes. At which point Greece holds yet more elections and most likely brings to power SYRIZA.

There seem to be mixed signals coming out of Europe over whether there will indeed be a change in approach which will allow New Democracy to stay in office, on the one hand deputy German finance minister, Steffan Kampeter said that Greece shouldn't be overstrained during a talk on German TV, on the other the Eurogroup of EU finance minsters sent a polite but clearly worded statement last night warning Athens that it could not deviate from the term of the bailout agreement.

With cost of lending in Spain continuing to rise and with Italy on the verge of asking for its own bailout deal none of this may matter as the systemic problems of the Eurozone continue to rage unchecked, leading to possibly disastrous results for European debtors and creditors alike

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Eurozone firewall

Eurozone firewall by Teacher Dude's BBQ
Eurozone firewall, a photo by Teacher Dude's BBQ on Flickr.
With uncertainty raging over Greek election results Eurozone tests its latest firewall.

SYRIZA leader, Alexis Tsipras sets his eyes on the prize

Last night I attended SYRIZA's last campaign rally here in Thessaloniki and for the second time in a month I saw their leader, Alexis Tsipras address the party faithful in the central Aristotelous Square. However, the difference between Tsipras last appearance here and this one shows just how much Greece's political scene has changed in the previous four weeks. Then, SYRIZA was seen at best, the third largest party with opinion polls putting their vote as low as 7 or 8% (In the May election their share of the vote reached nearly 17%), but now it seems the they are poised to become the largest party with anything up to 31.5% of the vote if some polls are to believed.

In the meantime the party and its leader has become the centre of unprecedented media attention, both at home and abroad, and most of it has been highly critical,as SYRIZA threatens to upset the austerity program crafted in Brussels, Washington and Berlin by the EU,ECB and IMF. The possibility of a radical leftist party taking power in an EU nation has driven some sections of the media into a veritable frenzy of hyperbole and fear mongering, culminating in the German edition of the Financial Times calling upon Greeks to resist demagogues (With the title written in Greek as well just to make sure the message would not go amiss).

The result has been a field day for anti-austerity parties who used the article to rally support for their policies. Even New Democracy leader, Antonis Samaras was forced to take issue with the article as a gross intervention in Greek internal affairs. Another factor which has benefited SYRIZA is the continued disintegration of the centre left PASOK party who were, until recently their main political rival. Under the inept leadership of Evangelos Venizelos, they look set to lose even more votes than their disastrous 13% showing in May (down from 43% in 2009). Video of Venizelos having a very public meltdown on live TV after being asked by a member of the audience about corruption just added to the impression that PASOK has lost touch with its traditional base.

Antistasi - Resistance. SYRIZA campaign rally in Thessaloniki, Greece

The change in fortunes for SYRIZA was reflected in Tsipras's speech which was bold and clearly aimed at reaching out to those who until recently would never have even considered voting for them. Instead of shying away from media attacks, Tsipras tackled them head on, accusing both PASOK and New Democracy of offering Greek people nothing but fear.

Not usually an electrifying public speaker, this time the leader of SYRIZA upped his game and gave a performance reminiscent of the kind of firebrand speeches that used to be part and parcel of Greek electioneering. A far remove from the bloodless style of public delivery preferred by previous prime minister, Giorgos Papandreou who was widely derided for his wooden public addresses.

At time of writing "secret polls" which I cannot blog about (due to a law that forbids their publication for two weeks prior to elections) favour New Democracy, as do Greek and UK bookies. However, if their accuracy is anything like the previous examples such predictions mean little.

By the end of Sunday, whoever wins one thing will be sure, that the trials that Greece has faced over the last three years will not have disappeared. Should SYRIZA come first they will have to form a government and then deal with a Europe determined not to budge over the terms of further cash injections.

On the other hand if New Democracy comes first they will have to cobble together a coalition from disparate parties all of whom will have to foist upon their voters yet more public spending cuts and tax hikes. How long such a fragile alliance will last in such hostile economic conditions is open to debate and probably mean elections once again before the year is up.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

What's next for Greece?

Anti-government protests during Thessaloniki Trade Fair, Greece

Greece's latest round of elections has been, paradoxically, its most important in decades and its most low key. In contrast to previous votes, there has been a a conspicuous lack of campaigning on the part of most parties. Few public rallies, little canvassing and even less leafleting. This is, in part due to lack of funds and partly due to the fact that PASOK and New Democracy, the two parties that dominated Greece's political scene for four decades are just a shadow of their former selves, victims of their support for pro-austerity measures over the last three years.

Instead the most likely winner of Sunday's elections will be SYRIZA (Radical Left Coalition) who will most likely see their share of the vote exceed 30%. This is nothing short of a revolution in Greek politics as until recently the party (or rather a coalition of a diverse band of smaller leftist groupings) was seen as a marginal player, rarely polling more than 5%. Similarly, on the right, Independent Greeks, a newly minted right of centre party created by New Democracy defector Panos Kammenos has also risen from nowhere to become a major factor in the domestic political scene. Despite their ideological differences, both have benefited from their unwavering opposition to the austerity packages foisted upon Greece by its EU, ECB and IMF creditors.

However, with the chance of SYRIZA coming first in the polls and therefore winning the extra 50 seats guaranteed by the constitution, the media war against the party both at home and abroad has ratcheted up, with daily stories attacking its leader Alexis Tsipras for putting Greece in mortal danger. For most of last week the mainstream media in Greece, which is with few exception extremely hostile in its reporting of SYRIZA, accused Tsipras of having links with terrorists, using as evidence a Youtube video by former SYRIZA candidate, Ifikratis Amiras calling upon Greeks to take part in an armed struggle. The fact that Amiras no longer has any formal links with the party did not stop the media taking the story through several news cycles. Even eccentric Slovenian philosopher, Slajov Zizek who shared a panel with Tsipras recently in Athens was accused of promoting extremism amongst SYRIZA ranks during a news report by the state run NET TV channel who stopped just short of accusing him outright of being him a terrorist.

On the other hand the fact that leading New Democracy supporter, Panagiotis Psomiadis called the neo-nazi Golden Dawn, " a brother party" and suggested that parties develop closer ties in a radio broadcast in Thrace this week  went unremarked in the media. Nor did the fact that party leader, Antonis Samaras was promoting a deeply divisive anti-immigrant program designed to wean voters from the far right by taking on board many of their policies

Of course, dirty tricks, spin and flagrant misrepresentations of the truth are part and parcel of Greek electioneering which may be one of the reasons that despite this barrage voters remain unconvinced that the world will end on Sunday if SYRIZA comes first. After two years of the media telling them that the sky is about to fall down ,many have either stopped paying attention or welcome an alternative to the slow, painfully drawn out process of social collapse that has gripped the nation.

So what happens next?

Although Greek law forbids the publication of polls in the two weeks leading up to elections the last ones published showed that new Democracy and SYRIZA were neck and necks, with one exception. a GPO poll commissioned by the conservative daily, Kathimerini  which put SYRIZA well ahead at 31.5% and this is what I believe the will get (For an excellent blog post on how many Greek polling companies played fast and loose with last elections predictions see here). My hunch is based on the consistent under - reporting of SYRIZA support (about 6-7%) and the conviction that the currently media onslaught shows that the Greek establishment is fighting to limit damage caused by a SYRIZA victory.

So let's put my money where my mouth is.

Syriza willl get about 30%, New Democracy, 25% and PASOK 10%. I think that the recent attack by Golden Dawn MP on fellow politicians during a live TV show will affect their share but they will still get enough votes to pass the 3% threshold which guarantees them seats in parliament. As for the other parties I believe that their share will stay more of less the same as the previous elections.

However, being the largest party will not automatically mean that SYRIZA will be in a position to form a government, since the Greek Communist party have ruled out any form of coalition that means Tsipras will have to approach either The Democratic Left party who are lukewarm about co-operation or perhaps disgruntled PASOK MPs, which will not play well internally as many are already portraying SYRIZA as a new PASOK in sheep's clothing.

On the other hand, political gossip has it that the remains of the old regime have already accepted that SYRIZA will come first but believe the PASOK, New Democracy and a third party will be able to keep them out of power by forming their own administration in the name of national salvation. How much legitimacy such a move would have and how long such fragile alliance will last is anyone's guess.

Supposing Tsipras does form a government then the real battle will begin and all the ugly scenarios that the international press has so gleefully propagated may turn out to be true. The EU has absolutely no interest in allowing a successful rejection of its economic program and will do everything in its power to force Athens into a compromise. Most likely this will take the form of shutting off all further financial aid which will quickly cause chaos in Greece's weakened economy as wages, pensions and benefits will not be paid. In addition the health system will grind to a halt as hospitals run out of supplies (though that particular problem has been around for over six months).

Without money Greece will also no longer be able to import staples such as oil and that will lead to panic buying, queues and the kind of scenes usually associated with times of war. Faced with this, Athens will either have to knuckle under or, as it seems the Germans are hoping, exit the Euro and re-adopt the drachma.

On the other hand the sight of Berlin and Brussels wrecking havoc with a fellow EU member will have immense ramifications for the image of European Union across the continent and will lead to searching questions about what exactly European unity means. The political costs for Brussels may be far greater than they could possibly imagine in the long run. In the short run the markets may also respond to Greece's economic demise, not as a one-off acts but the taste of things to come as other southern EU countries such as Spain slip deeper and deeper into recession and stop reaching their austerity imposed targets. In such a case the outflow of capital from the Eurozone may prove unstoppable.

Not all doom and gloom in Greece

Once again I've saved by the kindness of strangers and once again the truth is that no matter tough things get there are still plenty of Greeks willing to go out of their way to help others. I've just got back my netbook from a kind woman who found it in the street in the centre of Thessaloniki after it had dropped out of my backpack while I was leaving a cinema yesterday afternoon (went to see Prometheus). In my rush to get home I'd forgotten to zip the bag up and it was only when I got home that I discovered to my horror that my computer and three teaching books were missing.

My first reaction was to retrace my steps and luckily I did manage to find one of the books after it had been run over several times. Later I went back to the cinema and searched to see, hope against hope that my stuff had been left there.

Later I kicked myself for my stupidity and the fact that a simple trip to the movies was going to cost me over 350 euros. But thankfully, fate intervened and I got a message via Facebook that my computer had been found and could I call the woman to pick it up, which is exactly what I did today. Not before going to the city's leading patisserie and picking up a bumper box of their finest pasteries, a traditional way of celebrating/saying thanks here in Greece. It was my, very inadequate way of expressing my gratitude for what she had done and for taking the time and effort to find me.


Saturday, June 09, 2012

Anti-fascist march in Thessaloniki, Greece

About 3000 took part in an anti-fascism rally in the northern Greek port city of Thessaloniki last night. The turnout was boosted by video showing the press spokesman for the neo-Nazi party, Golden Dawn attacking two fellow female MPs during a live TV talk show on Thursday.