Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Fear and Loathing on the Greek Campaign Trail

If you took away the cordon of riot police surrounding the building, you could be mistaken for thinking you'd stumbled upon the annual conference of South Jersey importer and exporter association sponsored by a fraternal organisation with its roots in Southern Italy. Made men with large cigars and even larger bellies flowed out of the hall and in between them mingled guys who looked like they made their living doing door duty in third rate provincial "nightclubs. All wearing shades, all unshaven, all willing to take offence at anyone whose gaze lingered upon them any longer than was absolutely necessary.

The latest stop of the PASOK party's 2014 EU election campaign had rolled into town, not that anyone apart from the party nomenclature and a few dozen protesters had noticed. Instead of the mass public rallies that in the past attracted hundreds of thousands of the party faithful, Sunday's event was a part of the new trend towards stealth electioneering, attended by a few hundred local functionaries behind closed doors and lines of riot police.

This is in sharp contrast to the campaigns I witnessed in the late 80's and 90's in which leaders of both the socialist PASOK and the conservative New Democracy parties could count on huge turnouts that would flood the centre of Greece's cities, literally a sea of people as the Greek saying goes. People were gripped by an almost religious fervour and you would have thought rock stars had come to town rather than elderly politicians. However those days have gone and in all likelihood will never return, the victim of changing times and most lately, the six year long economic crisis which is proving as severe as that suffered by the US in the Great Depression. 

The ongoing commitment of successive governments to spending cuts, public sector job losses and tax hikes have all but destroyed PASOK and severely wounded its traditional rival, New Democracy. (PASOK, which is now calling itself Olive Tree is now polling between 10 - 15% of its 2009 strength and new Democracy share of the vote has been cut by half). The leaders of both coalition parties dare not risk public appearances unless they are held incognito or under the tightest security, outdoor events having been replaced with tightly choreographed televised shows as is the case with prime minister Antonis Samaras's rare public outings.

The latest revelations in the Financial Times about how EU leaders egged on the then finance minister (and PASOK leadership rival) Evangelos Venizelos to depose Greece's prime minister, Giorgos Papandreou in 2011 after he proposed a referendum on the terms of the bailout deal has just added to public mistrust of the country's political leadership, widely perceived to be more interested in preserving their own hold on power than defending national interests.

Such a feeling is likely to drain still further support for both government parties and make the chances of the coalition staying intact still less likely. With goes the two party system which has dominated Greek politics since the 1980's and a network of corruption, pork barrel politics and crony capitalism which led the country into its present dire state.

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