Monday, 5 January 2015

The Greek People Deserve Much Better

The ancient Athenian dramatists would find plenty of subject matter in modern Greek politics. The only question would be whether Aristophanes or Euripides should write the play. There’s enough material for the comedies of the former or the tragedies of the latter.

            There is absolutely no question that the Greek people have been put through the economic and emotional wringer ever since the crisis began more than five years ago. The economy has almost ground to a halt, unemployment has soared, incomes have been slashed, the best and brightest young people are fleeing the country for greater opportunities elsewhere, and popular anger has reached a thundering crescendo. People are in the mood to roll a few heads.
            But whose? Therein lies the question. Unlike other troubled European economies such as Spain or Ireland, the problem, and any solution, go far beyond mere economics. Should they go after the entire Greek political class whose deceit, mismanagement and self-interest over the decades did so much to bring the country to its knees? Should they lash out at the current government that has very reluctantly started a half-hearted reform program? Better yet, should they vent their anger on the usual suspects – the perfidious outsiders who have the nerve to put strict conditions on the billions of Euros they have given Greece?

                That certainly is the position of the main opposition party, the left-tilting Syriza. This is where Aristophanes would have a field day. The main thrust of Syriza’s election campaign is promises to re-negotiate the bail-out agreement, force the creditors to take a bigger hair-cut, give free electricity to certain people, increase pensions, increase spending, do away with the real estate tax, raise the minimum wage, and, by the way, reinstate the €12,000 tax-free threshold. One would love to be in the room when these masters of Greek melodrama meet with the decidedly un-melodramatic German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble to ‘renegotiate’ the terms of the bailout agreement. Good luck to them.

            While Syriza’s mishmash of proposals may sound contradictory and implausible to anyone with minimal financial knowledge they are consistent with the general anti-Western and anti-capitalist dogma of the Greek left that holds everyone except themselves responsible for the country’s problems. Rather than see the State with its old patronage system of politics as the author of many of Greece’s serial catastrophes many of the Greek left see the State – which they want to control – as the country’s salvation. There is not much room for private initiative in this resurrection of a failed system.

            So far the party has been relatively silent on its foreign policy objectives. This is understandable. Generally it has favoured anyone who has loudly resisted ‘Western imperialism’. But where do they turn now? The traditional international icons of the Greek left are fading past. Che Guevara and Hugo Chavez are dead. And the Castro brothers are competing to see who opens the first McDonald’s franchise in Havana. Even Iran is in serious negotiations with the Great Satan. Maybe they can turn to Kim Jong Un of North Korea. Or there’s always Hamas.

            Syriza maintains that it wants to remain in the European Union and the Euro. But it’s difficult to see how this goal is compatible with its demands of restructuring the bail-out package and back-peddling rapidly on even the small reforms that have been taken. What will Syriza do if the so-called Troika (European Commission, European Central Bank, and the IMF) refuse to budge? Will it stamp its feet and threaten to pull Greece out of the Euro? While the destabilizing effects of such a move are less than they were three years ago the thought of a member country leaving the Euro still makes people nervous. The idea of Greece back in the drachma may thrill the zealots. Others view it as collective suicide.
Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras: Backwards to the future?
            One hardened cynic in Athens says maybe it would be a good thing if Syriza wins. “Then,” he adds, “the Greek people will finally see that the Left has absolutely no answers. There is no money, no room for them to manoeuvre. There may be a fig of leaf of some debt rescheduling, but there won’t be any fundamental change in the conditions for further financial aid. Once the Greek people grasp the reality that there is no return to the old days they might just accept some serious reform.”

            Right now the election campaign seems locked in what The Wall Street Journal calls ResponsibleStagnation or Reckless Collapse. If Syriza represents the Collapse part of the headline, the government of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras represents the Responsible Stagnation. Indeed, the prime minister has never really pushed the reform agenda demanded by Greece’s creditors. He seems to present a picture of a weak person forced by unreasonable people into something he personally would rather not do. The result is that his opponents have been able to focus on the dreaded austerity instead of the much needed reform.  I haven’t heard anyone make a virtue out of the demands for reforms, and loudly proclaim that Greece has no choice. That the only hope for its young people is to break with the destructive old ways and build a new political and economic system.

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras: How much reform does he really want?

            Polls say the election will be very close. Syriza holds a small lead over New Democracy of Prime Minister Samaras, but many voters say they are undecided. The most likely outcome is a narrow victory with the winner forced to form an unstable coalition. There could well be another election this year before a stable government can be formed.

The stakes are huge, especially for the young generation of Greeks who would much prefer to remain in their native country rather than be forced to take their talents all over the world. There is no shortage of brilliant people in Greece. The real tragedy, suitable for Euripides, is that the existing political system does its best to reduce that brilliance to a weak candle glow. Time for things to change

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