Greek Elections Countdown
Katerina has worked for several years for Greek daily newspapers and magazines. Three years ago she moved from Athens to Berlin. For Krautreporter she went back to Greece to capture the atmosphere one week before the greek elections. A diary about the depression of a whole nation.
The bus ride from the El.Venizelos airport to the centre of Athens costs five euros and takes around 45 minutes, if one is lucky enough to not get stuck in traffic. As I get out of the air-conditioned lounge to the light morning breeze, I am relieved to find it’s leaving in only two minutes’ time. I hop inside and find the last available seat, next to a middle-aged man who’s speaking loudly on his smartphone. I listen on while he’s arranging to meet a friend, on the day of the upcoming election. “Man, let us talk about it before we make a choice. I am also totally at a loss, until a few days ago I was considering not even showing up on the 25th”, he says.
As we approach the centre, I notice that every other bus stop bears the campaign placard of Syriza. “Hope is coming”, they read. The mayor of Athens has made it clear to all political parties that he will not allow them to fill every wall of the city with campaign posters, as was the norm in the past. They have more or less agreed to respect this, but here and there I still spot a few small placards of the Communist Party — and one huge, but rather lonely graffiti announcing class warfare, and signed by a group I had never heard of. I get off the bus on Syntagma Square and drag my suitcase towards the entrace of the subway, past the pre-election kiosk of New Democracy. The motto on its wall reads “We are telling the truth. We guarantee the future”. Only a few metres away, a car is parked, atop the square. The driver is obviously not worried about getting a fine.
When I reach the place of the friend who will be hosting me for the next few days, the TV is on. While we catch up on our respective news and exchange our thoughts about different politicians, our attention is diverted to the screen, and one of New Democracy’s pre-election spots: The music alludes to an atmosphere of impending doom and the scipt describes a hypothetical turn of events if Syriza wins the upcoming election: A series of fictitious newspaper stories that come from the near future, announce the failure of negotiations with the Troika in February, the markets turning their backs on Greece, the haircut of bank deposits, liquidity problems, the country sinking into chaos, lack of oil and medical supplies, the Syriza gorvernment reaching a dead end. “How history will be written lies in the hands of each Greek”, concludes the spot.
Later in the evening I am talking about it with Katerina Schina, a translator and writer who points out that the ruling party has invested in a campaign of fear. But there’s something she deems even more important. “The two contenders are both using language that draws its origins directly from the period after the end of the Greek Civil War. “Only yesterday, the outgoing Health Minister Makis Voridis, speaking at a gathering of his supporters, had said that “The left will not win, next Sunday. We will not let them. What our grandfathers defended with their guns, we will defend with our votes next week.” And then he added that “we will do whatever it takes”. “
“What did he mean?” wonders Katerina, noting that the same loaded language that makes direct references to a most painful chapter of the Civil War period is then used by Syriza. When commenting on New Democracy’s campaign strategy, Alexis Tsipras said that “…the only thing that they have not yet said is that if we come to power, we will do a paidomazoma and take away your women”. “Paidomazoma” is the word by which the forcefull evacuation of thousands of children, by both sides fighting in the Civil War, has gone down in history. “What is the use of bringing forth one of the most painful and divisive chapters of our collective past, on the eve of a crucial ballot?” wonders the 55-year-old writer.
I ask her what she thinks about Syriza’s plans for the future. “ They are extremely vague. “ Katerina says that she would even understand that Syriza is overwhelmed by the very tough days ahead in terms of the economy, but they should at least show a progressive face as far as civil rights issues are concerned — and most importantly the rights of minority groups, of LGBT citizens and the division of Church and State. “During his very recent twitter interview, Mr Tsipras chose his words very carefully, by speaking about a rationalization of the relations between Church and State, which will allegedly take place after exhaustive public dialogue.” At the same time, she says she understands that people are exhausted and fed up by the outgoing government which “has avoided making the reforms they had agreed to, because they don’t want to distress the lobbies and the interest groups that form their base of supporters”.
The question on everybody’s lips is what will Syriza do if they don’t manage to get an absolute majority — will they attempt to form a coalition government with the third party or will they attempt another election round? “They would be risking valuable time — a luxury they know the country doesn’t have”, believes the political analyst and strategist Elias Tsaoussakis, who is confident that by the end of the month Greece will have a government; most likely a coalition. “But the new government should be prepared for one thing; that peoples’ tolerance to mistakes will be absolutely minimal», he points out.
I spend the next two hours walking along the streets of the city centre, where some new shops have sprung up among the many more that have gone out of business. I am heading to a café, where I will be meeting Maria W. , a private sector economist who agreed to speak to me on the condition of anonymity. On the way I stop at a kiosk to buy a newspaper and I catch sight of the Greek edition of Fortune magazine, featuring a smiling Arianna Huffington, on the cover and her words that “I am optimistic for Greece”. Under the circumstances I find it rather funny.
Maria W. is convinced that Syriza’s programme is totally unrealistic and bound to fail due to what she describes as “total lack of experience in running anything, let alone a government of each and every one of the party’s economists”. On top of that she finds their programme unrealistic and naïve. “Theirs is also a very long-term programme that has nothing to do with the immediate needs. Let me give you an example; the issue of debt relief — it is for the years 2023 to 2042. It won’t really affect the payments Greece will have to do in 2015, 2016, which will be the same whether there is an agreement on debt relief or not.”
But she says she sees why people are willing to vote for them. “There are many dimensions to this general election. Basically not all Syriza voters have the same opinion on the issue of the Memorandum. Many actually believe and expect that once in power, Syriza will make a realistic turn. What they all share, though, is their wish for a change of the political elites. That is what their voters have in common”.
Again and again, I will meet people who will share this feeling. “I cannot stand this government anymore. They have not implemented one reform in a way that is just and logical”, says Yiannis Velonakis, the 42-year-old owner of a grocery shop on a street behind the Acropolis Museum. Yiannis tells me that he doesn’t even like Alexis Tsipras, “I don’t believe half of what they guy promises, but look at me: my shop is doing really well and I still have a very tough time making ends meet. In this country only those with connections thrive. Whereas if you are trying to do your work honestly, the state is always putting hurdles in your way.” While we talk, clients come in and out and I notice that they nod in agreement. I ask Yiannis if he ever feels there’s tension in the air when someone brings up the upcoming election. This is the first time he laughs — “come on, what are you talking about? Everyone is mad at the politicians, not at each other.”
The atmosphere, however, is rather different on the greek social media. There, among Facebook friends and foes, virtual knives are drawn every other minute. This has been evident to me since the election was announced, a month ago. And yet, interestingly so, what is true of the social media universe, does not seem to be a fact when on the ground. “We don’t fight openly. Polarization is very obvious on Facebook, one sees a lot of anger being expressed. Rage, even. There’s a feeling that you are either with us or against us”, confirms the author Christos Asteriou, with whom I talk over beer later the same day. I ask whether he also gets involved in heated political conversation; after all so much is at stake.
“If I did have strong convictions and felt that I had the arguments to support it, then I would find reason to involve myself in a debate. But I have no certainties. I cannot argue in favour of a political party; I can only say what I don’t believe in, what I don’t hope for”. Christos says that people are exhausted and one cannot attempt to predict how the following months will play out. “Let me put it this way: The beginning of the crisis signalled the overturn of an hourglass. And it started counting political time. And time is running out. Many people are suffering, many more are holding their breath –in fact a very significant part of the population has been doing so for a very extended time- and yet no light can be discerned at the end of the tunnel”, he says.
At some point I tell Christos –who has studied in Wuerzburg and works as a German language teacher- that I have realised that this is the first time that not one of my friends has asked me what Germans think of us, or if I am ever looked down upon when I mention that I come from Greece. “I guess everyone is so tired and preoccupied that they don’t have the energy to even worry about that”, I attempt an explanation.
A guy sitting next to us in a bar has been listening in on our conversation. He asks if he might step in and offer an opinion, since “I happen to be half German”. Stefanos, as the man tells us his name is, sees one crucial difference between the political elites of his two homecountries. “Can you ever imagine anyone saying that a post-war German Prime Minister was not a patriot? Take Willy Brandt, take Helmut Schmidt, or Helmut Kohl. Each one of them did something really good for his country. Now can you name one, just one, Greek Prime Minister for whom this is true?” According to Stefanos, the route of our troubles is there at the top.
I have to head downtown in order to meet an old friend who has recently moved to Athens from Corfu. Vasso Kotsi, who used to work as a photo editor for a fashion magazine, had left Athens in 2008 hoping to raise the funds and found her own business on her place of origin. The crisis put an end to her plans. She recently came back to the capital, because “I simply could not stand spending half the year without any hope of getting even part-time employment. I could not make a living, literally.” She is now a social media manager for a bar and a fashion boutique, charging each 100 Euros a month and she works twice a week, for nine to ten hours a day, at a café.
“I can only make it because I live with a couple of close friends who do not charge me anything for a room in their apartment. I don’t even contribute to the bills”, says Vasso. “Well, at least they don’t have to pay for oil; last week we were walking aound the place covered in anything woolen we had around”, she says. “It was actually warmer outside, because there was some sun”, says Vasso. “What are you going to vote for?” I ask my friend. “I am not voting for anyone. Back in 2012 I voted for Syriza, but now I have been listening to Tsipras and I do not believe one word. You know what? This country’s problem is that there is not one remotely reliable political party around”. Vasso tells me that practically everyone she knows has given up on talking about politics: “We need to have a life and make things work, instead of feeling angry all the time”.
On my way home I stop at a taxi piazza and attempt to strike up a conversation with one of the drivers. “I am voting for Alexis”, a 40-year-old tells me. “You know why? I don’t believe he will deliver, I’m not that romantic. But I want to see Antonis Samaras crying; rolling on the ground with tears in his eyes”, he says and bursts out laughing, entertaining himself as he imagines the scene. He then has to go because a client showed up, so I go up to the next driver in line and introduce myself as a reporter. He tells me he might or might not vote for the Golden Dawn but does not want to explain himself to any reporter. A day earlier, Elias Tsaoussakis had told me that even though the Golden Dawn polls at around 5% -a percentage which would not allow them to be the third party in power- he still harbours reservations as to their actual power since voters for the extreme do not easily admit their intention. “And they are still doing intense grassroots campaigning”.
In the evening I make my way to Foire, a cocktail bar that opened last August and is already considered a favourite among Athenians who enjoy a night out. It is a warm evening and I choose to walk there. I arrive a few minutes late for my appointment with Maria Soupou, a 43-year-old psychotherapist, who is one of a network of professionals who offer low-cost, short-term psychotherapy to low-income and unemployed people. Maria, who used to work for the Doctors Without Borders, made the choice to remain in Athens just as the financial crisis was unfolding. “Income-wise I am paying a very high price; I can barely make ends meet. But I feel that what is happening here concerns me deeply”, she says. But when asked about the coming Sunday, she says she still doesn’t know what she will vote for.
“I know what I will not vote for. I will not vote for New Democracy, because I disagree with their views on social and human rights issues. I will not vote for PASOK, because I am fed up with empty, meaningless speech. I will not vote for the new party of George Papandreou –why doesn’t he just go home? We’ve had to listen to his grandfather, to his father and then to him. Check out the family names of politicians during the last decades. Enough with Greek politics as family business. But I will not vote for Syriza either; their anger scares me, it makes me uncomfortable. I feel trapped between poor choices.” I tell her that in the club next door, there ‘s an informal, pre-election gathering organised by Syriza, with people are going around, drinks in hand, engaged in passionate conversation. “Good luck to them”, says Maria, “we will need it”.