I am not sure I would agree with Business Insider‘s Joe Weisenthal that Athens was the centre of the world on Sunday night. Or, to be more specific, that the international media centre in room 16 of Athens’ Zappeion Conference and Exhibition Centre, from which Weisenthal was live-bogging the Greek election, was the centre of the world.
But there can be no doubt that an event of such magnitude has a way of making a place seem like it is, sucking in the surrounding light, energy and journalists. Certainly, of the thousands of the latter who descended upon the capital for the weekend’s events, most of us would have been hard-pressed to remember that some equally world-historical elections were taking place elsewhere in the world as well.
But suck us in it did. Even yesterday, the television crews remained: those of the big US and British networks, perched on the balconies of the NJV Athens Plaza Hotel, with its views of Syntagma Square and the Old Royal Palace, well-groomed anchors appearing occasionally in the glare of the redhead halogens, distant but unmistakable, like snipers, before disappearing again into the gloom; and the hundreds of one- and two-person guerilla outfits from Japan and Bolivia and Israel and Reuters.
I meet the deputy editor of a US business website for breakfast and coffee on Ermou Street the morning after the poll. Once one of Europe’s five most-expensive shopping strips and within the world’s top 10, Ermou is today a kilometre-and-a-half grab bag of poorly patronised boutiques and shuttered shop fronts. A former money management analyst, the editor decided to come over for the elections after years of covering the Greek crisis from behind his desk back in New York City. He’s very glad he did. “Going into a polling station and seeing the Greek equivalent of the swastika on one lot of candidate lists and the hammer and sickle on another is a unique experience,” he says.
But he is under no illusions about the result of the poll, predicting, as so many are, that it will serve as little more than a temporary reprieve: not only for the status quo parties, who many believe have been given one last chance and who even more suspect will be forced to call another election some time in the northern autumn, but also for the country and its continued presence in the eurozone more generally. “It is very difficult to see this country remaining a member of the currency union by the end of the year,” he says.
He says the election was marked by an overemphasis on short-term fixes such as bailouts where what was actually required was a proper discussion about tax evasion, corruption, graft and the size of the public sector.
“To go through such an historic election campaign and to hear not one of the major parties — except Pasok, which is now really an outlier — seriously talking about structural reform doesn’t especially bode well for the country’s long-term prospects,” he says. “A Greek friend yesterday explained to me how the tax system works here. Multiple cash payment each year, in person, with no electronic payment option, and with everyone at every level essentially taking a cut? And hardly a word about during the campaign? It beggars belief.”
I tell him about my conversation on election day with a 27-year-old lawyer, Alexander, who estimated that 90% of Greek families have at least one member working in the massively bloated public sector. “It isn’t perceived to be in anyone’s interest to change the system,” Alexander told me, “especially when things are so bad and tax evasion and nepotism are the only things paying out for a lot of people. Never mind that this is why things are so terrible to begin with.”
Rumours abounded on election night that the leader of the far-left Syriza, Alexis Tsipras, had actually been hoping to lose to a coalition of pro-bailout forces. Another six months of these parties flailing incompetently in the face of Tsipras’ parliamentary opposition and growing anti-austerity sentiment on the streets would ultimately lead to a Syriza victory at yet another general election later in the year.
“I laugh as much as anyone at the Che Guevara portraits, the handmade leaflets and all the other leftovers from student politics,” the journalist tells me, “but the Syriza rally the other night felt like it was fuelled by a sense of hope where a lot of New Democracy voters don’t appear to be. I agree with those who have characterised the election’s outcome of as the victory of fear over hope.
“The status quo is very good at protecting itself,” he says, “but this really does seem like it’s last chance to ward off a more radical government here. New Democracy was able to scare enough voters off Syriza this time, but that won’t be the case four or five months from now.”
I am not entirely sold on the fear-over-hope interpretation of New Democracy’s win. It is certainly true that there was a very concerted effort on the part of the party and its media allies to present Syriza as dangerously anti-Europe. But most people I spoke to were far more concerned about Europe’s reaction to Syriza than about Syriza itself, which they suspected, rightly or wrongly, would probably be forced into a more conventional centre-left stance in the bailout negotiations than their more conservative opponents were willing to admit.
Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that some people were motivated by fear, and to illustrate the point the journalist tells an interesting story. It turns out international journalists haven’t been the only ones making the pilgrimage.
“I flew to Athens via Madrid,” he says. “I was sitting next to a Greek-American from Boston who was flying here to vote for New Democracy. I mean, the guy’s in Boston, he’s hardly representative of your average voter. But he flew all the way here specifically to vote against Syriza. This is how scared some people have been made to feel about this party.”
Dr George Vasilopoulos did not fly here to vote — the Australian-born medical practitioner turned charity worker and lobbyist moved here permanently six years ago “to introduce my children their culture” — but shares the anti-Syriza passion of the journalist’s Boston exemplar.
“Syriza might not like the markets and that’s fine,” Dr Vasilopoulos tells me a few hours after my meeting with the journalist. “But when Tsipras goes on Greek television and makes populist but irresponsible statements that wreak havoc with those markets, making hedge fund managers millions and killing everyone else …” He throws his hands in the air.I meet Dr Vasilopoulos and his wife, Christine, at the McDonald’s on Syntagma Square — “I have been known to enjoy a Big Mac,” he admits as we organise a time to meet — and they are adamant that people are indeed dying. As international camera crews compete for vox pops with bilingual locals over their shoulders, the couple starts telling me about how the country’s suicide rate is believed to have roughly doubled from 2009 levels, then among the lowest in the world, to around five per 100,000.
“I know people,” Christine says, “mostly shop owners, the managers of small companies, who found themselves decimated overnight and took their own lives. Many more wound up homeless. We have 20,000 homeless people in this country and last winter was one of the coldest on record. A lot of people died then, too.
“I have friends who literally — literally! — went from being well-off, home-owning members of the middle-class to the streets in the space of a month,” Dr Vasilopoulos says. “Obviously, you don’t want anyone to be homeless, middle-class or otherwise, but this is especially alarming.”
Dr Vasilopoulos says that his organisation, National Solidarity, has not been designed to attract financial aid — “You can imagine what sort of looks asking people for money in this economy gets you”, — but rather food, medical supplies, and other products. (Reports of medical shortages have been overstated, he says, “though some are beginning to become more of a problem and are of great concern.”)
“We are reaching out in Athens, of course, but also among the Greek-Australian and Greek-American communities overseas as well,” he says. “It has been slow going, but we are beginning to have some success.
“I very often think about going back to Australia,” Dr Vasilopoulos admits. “I would say I think about it once a day. But I have been coming to Greece for as long as I can remember and watching it disintegrate for at least the last 10 years, ever since it entered the eurozone. We moved here just before the crisis hit. But when it did, we decided to stay and fight.”
Like almost everyone else I speak to, however, Dr Vasilopoulos believes that Greece will return to the polls within six months. He, too, believes that Syriza will likely emerge victorious.
“This will not be good for Greece,” he says. “Tsipras wants to grow the public sector when exactly the opposite is required. But even then, we will not leave. Greece can not be abandoned and we will not abandon it.
“But it’s going to be a very hard couple of years.”