A Political Establishment in Freefall
Greece Lurches to Left Amid Radical Austerity
By Julia Amalia Heyer in Athens
A radical austerity drive has triggered the biggest
political upheaval in Athens since the end of the
military dictatorship in 1974. So far, it is
leftist parties who have benefitted the most from
the debt crisis. The deeply divided left, however,
would likely be unable to form a stable coalition.
Alexis Tsipras walks up to the lectern like Elvis
strutting onstage. But when he begins to speak, all
traces of youthfulness and ease vanish from his face.
The "foreign loan sharks" have one thing on their minds,
he barks into the microphone: "the impoverishment of the
Greek people and the sellout of our country!" He slams
his fist down and continues his speech, his voice
booming. The Europeans, he says, are pursuing only one
goal: to bring about the end of the sovereign Greek
nation. "We must prevent Greece from becoming a German
protectorate once again," Tsipras says, practically
shouting by now. "We are not a German colony."
The crowd applauds loudly in the packed gymnasium in
Peristeri, a suburb of Athens. The words "The Left's
Response in Greece" are written in bold letters on a
banner on the wall behind the lectern. Tsipras, 37,
wearing a black suit and a purple shirt, is the main
speaker this evening.
It is cold and the room is unheated, but the will of the
assembled crowd to wage resistance remains unbroken.
They should be punished immediately, these European
traitors, a man who looks to be about 60 hisses in the
direction of the lectern. A female student is sitting
next to him, and both are clapping enthusiastically.
Tsipras, the man with the harsh rhetoric, is the head of
SYRIZA, or the Coalition of the Radical Left. According
to the polls, he is currently the second-most popular
Greek politician. Only Fotis Kouvelis, the chairman of
the more moderate Democratic Left (DIMAR), is more
popular than Tsipras.
A Country in Flux
There are many uncertainties in Greece today: whether
the country can remain in the euro zone, whether the
EURO130 billion ($171.8 billion) second bailout package
will sufficiently reduce the insolvent country's
staggering debt load, and whether the Greeks will ever
implement the reforms their international creditors are
demanding of them. At the moment, only one thing seems
predictable: that nothing will remain the same.
"Everything is changing, and everything is frightening,"
writes the newspaperKathimerini.
Only with great difficulty was the transitional
government of Prime Minister Lucas Papademos able to
commit last week to the reforms that the European Union,
the European Central Bank (ECB) and the International
Monetary Fund (IMF) had demanded -- and its commitment
came at a high political price. The nationalist right-
wing Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) withdrew from the
government, and the heads of the two large traditional
parties, the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) and
the conservative Nea Dimokratia (ND), or New Democracy,
saw 43 of their members resign or be expelled from their
The lesson can be summed up with two words: "panta
rhei," or everything flows. No political commentary
these days describes the situation in Greece as clearly
as these words from ancient Greece.
The Divided Left
The political system is in its greatest turmoil since
the end of the Greek military dictatorship in 1974. And
the political establishment is in free fall.
According to surveys, the parties that benefit most from
the crisis are those on the left, traditionally strong
in Greece, which also include Tsipras's SYRIZA
Public Issue, a polling firm, estimates SYRIZA's
approval rating at 12 percent, and that of Kouvelis's
Democratic Left at 18 percent. The Communist Party of
Greece (KKE), the oldest party in the country, stands at
12.5 percent approval. Combining the approval ratings of
these three leftist parties would theoretically yield
42.5 percent, enough to form a government, even without
PASOK, the socialist governing party of former Prime
Minister Georgios Papandreou. Since winning the 2009
election with 43.9 percent of the vote, PASOK has now
dropped to an 8-percent approval rating -- one of the
biggest declines European election experts have ever
Even if the pollsters say that the answers are changing
more quickly than they can ask the questions, the trend
is the same among all polls conducted by the major
opinion research institutes: the two-party dominance of
PASOK and ND, which have divided up the cabinet seats
and perks for almost 40 years, is over. An election will
be held in April, although the exact date has yet to be
Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to think that a
united left could win the next election and ensure a
stable parliament starting in the late summer. The Greek
left is deeply divided.
Standing Up for the Euro
"Coalitions are difficult," says Tsipras. An engineer
who has been politically active since his school days
and later became the leader of a radical student
organization, Tsipras might be willing to form a
coalition with the KKE, but he can't. Although the
Communists, like his party, are opposed to the loan
agreements with the troika, they also -- true to their
latter-day Stalinist traditions -- want out of NATO, out
of the EU and, of course, out of the euro zone.
Tsipras, on the other hand, wants to keep the euro. He
wants "Greece to remain a systemic problem for Europe."
He argues that this is the only way to ensure that the
billions from the bailout packages are actually
disbursed, and the only way to ensure that Europe,
fearing the risk of contagion that would emanate from a
Greek bankruptcy, will defer Greece's debts, or perhaps
even forgive them one day. This is what Tsipras is
betting on. It's a crude, extortionist way of thinking.
When Tsipras speaks, it sounds as if the mountain of
debt had fallen on Greece by pure happenstance. He
believes that the country's plight can be blamed on
"international capital" and the "false Protestant
principles of (German Chancellor) Angela Merkel." His
recipe calls for more loans to stimulate growth, and he
thinks the ECB should simply print more money to help
Greece. Aside from a proposal to raise taxes on wealthy
ship owners, Tsipras has no truly groundbreaking reforms
Tsipras's popularity with voters may have something to
do with his stubbornness, his taste for polemics or his
lack of self-criticism. But these traits also make him
unacceptable as a coalition partner to another leftist,
who is currently Greece's most popular politician.
The New King of the Hill
Fotis Kouvelis, 61, has a friendly but somewhat anxious
expression on his face, as he sits, surrounded by
leather-bound folios, in his Athens law office, 50
meters from the parliament building. A framed political
cartoon of his face hangs on the wall behind him. He was
Greece's justice minister for three months in the late
According to polls, his Democratic Left is currently the
country's second-strongest party, next to the
conservative Nea Dimokratia party. The sudden popularity
seems to make Kouvelis feel a little uncomfortable.
Polls are polls, and nothing else, he says. He calls
Tsipras's demands "unrealistic." The two men are old
acquaintances. In 2008, they fought bitterly over the
leadership of SYRIZA. Kouvelis lost the power struggle.
"The country must change," he says. He points out that
reforms are not just important to reduce the country's
debts, but are also vital to the cohesion of Greek
society. Kouvelis wants to transform the new loan
agreement, which his party also doesn't support, into a
"growth plan" -- with the help of EU funds and the
European Investment Bank. He wants the ECB to buy up
Greek government bonds, and he wants the EU to be a
little more patient with Greece.
He has no interest in launching into angry tirades
against Merkel, but Germany still worries him. A German
Europe isn't what is needed, and "German financial and
economic hegemony" scares him, he says.
Kouvelis's party owes most of its success to the
spectacular decline of PASOK and its chairman,
Papandreou. The former prime minister and heir to an
influential political dynasty still refuses to step down
as party leader. The certainty that he will be the last
Papandreou of a party nicknamed the Papandreou Party
doesn't make saying goodbye any easier.
Turbulence on the Right
But the breakdown of established politics isn't just
limited to PASOK. Almost more dramatic was the admission
of complete failure that Antonis Samaras, head of the
conservative ND, made last week. Samaras, who threw
former Athens Mayor Dora Bakoyannis out of his party in
May 2010 because she had voted for the first aid
package, had now kicked 21 members of parliament out of
the party -- because they voted against it.
His rivals aren't the only ones calling him a flip-
flopper. If the polls are correct and the ND still has
the support of roughly 30 percent of voters, it might
even be enough for Samaras to fulfill his greatest wish
and become prime minister in April. But Nea Dimokratia's
showing in the election will hardly be sufficient to
form a government on its own, and it probably won't even
be enough to form a grand coalition with the greatly
Greece will only qualify for additional aid if the
government in Athens, regardless of its makeup, accepts
the conditions of a second bailout program. This is what
the IMF and the EU are demanding. Neither Tsipras nor
Kouvelis will be willing to consent to such a coalition
And now that the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS party) has
deserted the transitional government, Samaras also
cannot hope for coalition partners on the right.
According to recent polls, the ultra-right Hrisi Avgi
party ("Golden Dawn") now stands a chance of surpassing
the three-percent threshold to acquire seats in the new
parliament. But the party would not be a viable
coalition partner for Samaras.
The Golden Dawn fascists preach the "superiority of the
white race and the Greek nation." Greece's prospects are
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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