The world ended today at 12.40 PM, at least that's what the Greek and much of the international media had led us to believe would happen if the parliament in Athens failed to elect a new president after its third and final attempt today.
I happened to be walking through the centre of Thessaloniki, Greece's second largest city when the news broke that prime minister Antonis Samaras had failed to secure the 180 votes needed to avoid new round of national elections. Alas, no one had told the shoppers getting ready for New Year the terrible revelation that the entire Eurozone economy had fallen off the cliff. I didn't have the heart to break the news to people window shopping on the central Tsimiski boulevard.
For such an apocalyptic event you'd think there would be some reaction, some sign of hysterical disbelief, but nope, nothing, nada, tipota as they say in Greece. But the world only ended in that magic realm called the mainstream media, home to unicorns, endless talk of crisis and hyperbole, not in the really, real world of shoppers struggling against the unseasonable cold snap that has gripped the city recently.
Unlike the ladies and gentlemen of the press peddling the end of the world angle this news was just another scaremongering story to be shrugged off by a people who have been subjected to six years of such nonsense. There are only so many time you can see on the nightly news bulletins that the End Is Neigh before you switch off.
For the last few weeks the government choice of candidate for president has attracted the kind of attention usually lavished on US presidential races, the parliament in Athens was besieged by foreign reporters eager to get the latest news during the first rounds of the vote.This is strange for a number of reasons, not least being the fact that the Greek president plays the same kind of role in the country's political system that the White House cat has in Washington. Also the results of the first two rounds of voting were a foregone conclusion to everyone inside Greece and a source of high drama to those reporters who'd parachuted in to cover the story.
The inevitable defeat of Stavros Dimas, the coalition's choice in these votes produced endless speculation amongst many foreign correspondents seemingly unaware that the real drama would be today when parliament voted once more. But why let something as mundane as reality spoil a white hot story? Where's the fun in that?
For a post that has little but symbolic value, the choice of Greek president was something that EU leadership seemed to take very seriously, like guys debating BBQ techniques, everyone had an opinion and everyone knew that not electing a president would be a VERY, VERY BAD THING!
In the Greek press the pages of the national newspapers and the nightly news bulletins were full of the dire consequences of not electing a president. There would be bank runs warned the head of the Bank of Greece, the sacrifices of the Greek would be wasted said the prime minister, the vote would be a "credit event" said the coalition spokeswoman in a TV interview. Everyone agreed that not electing a president would be a VERY, VERY BAD THING!
Then to add even more drama, the second vote was accompanied by accusations that some were attempting to bribe MPs to switch sides and support the coalition candidate. Pavlos Haikalis, an Independent Greeks MP recorded what he claimed was one such attempt on video and gave it to the authorities who promptly dismissed the accusation. The government and their allies in the media also claimed that such accusations were part of a plot by the opposition and the SYRIZA party in particular to derail the vote by intimidating MPs who might have wanted to change their stance.
As if to hammer home just how important the vote was the Greek prime minister addressed the nation on Saturday in a televised interview carried out by members off the state run NERIT network. In what can only politely be called a "staged" event the two nervous journalists who looked as if they expected to be fired or executed at any moment tentatively asked a series of questions which the PM answered with the aid of an autocue or say many commentators. With the kind of care you use when feeding your holidaying neighbour's pit bull they went through the motions of an interview, probably thankful they got through to the end of it still with all ten fingers attached.
No follow questions were permitted and not one of the many dubious claims made by Antonis Samaras during the 30 minute audience were challenged instead of a hard hitting journalistic challenge, the whole event seemed more like a monarch granting an audience to courtiers. Ιndeed outside dictatorships of the Central Asian republics and North Korean kind, it's rare to see such an easy ride given to any political leader.
Despite all this drama which included members of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party being bussed in from prison the vote turned out to be a lot less close than many (including myself) had predicted. The government failed to persuade any more MPs than the 168 that had supported them in the second round, falling far short of the 180 needed. Within less than two hours the date of national elections, 25th January was announced suggesting that the result came as no surprise to the political leadership.
Judging by the tactics, tone and rancour of this vote the national elections promise to be one of the dirtiest in living memory. With the radical left SYRIZA ahead in the polls and committed to challenging Greece's creditors the stakes couldn't be higher not just for a political establishment that has held sway since the 70's but also the country's shadowy, but ever present economic elite who have thrown their weight along with their media outlets behind the government.
The Guardian and SKY are already talking of crisis and economic turmoil, which is strange way to describe a democratic vote in times of peace. But as happened in the 2012 elections showed there are many outside Greece eager to sway voters and make sure their opinions are heard.Once more a small economy on the edge of Europe is taking centre stage, once more punching far above its weight in the international scheme of things.