Sunday, June 17, 2012

Anxiety Before--and During--the Greek Election: And Then What?

Spring into Summer:  Things Are Really Heating Up In Greece

It suddenly got hot in Greece last week, as schools closed a day early in preparation for the Greek national elections.  Before, it felt like spring--not the sociopolitical Greek Spring that some political party overoptimistically wished to invoke last month, with the most encouraging days of the Arab Spring in mind, but a more modest, pleasantly cool, botanical and meteorological spring with its delicate red anemones, small fuschia sword lilies, and abundant Cretan rock roses blooming among herbaceous shrubs under picturesquely puffy clouds.  These have given way to the hardier wild carrot (called Queen Anne's lace in my Pennsylvania days) and well watered gardens full of glowing bougainvillea, pink and white oleander that sways in our island winds, and the largest, hardiest rose and geranium bushes I've ever seen.  But what will this summer heat bring?  Will the current mess be followed by chaos?  The suspense and tension build as we await results of elections along with a surprisingly large portion of the world population.

Greek Political Parties, Slogans, Promises, and Fears, Old and New

SYRIZA, the Coalition of the Radical Left, has the political advantage as the party who can't be blamed for past corruption or mistakes.  It is now a full-fledged, highly visible  political party, although it had struggled along as a minor leftist coalition in previous years.  And it appears to have slogan writers skilled at taking advantage of that fact.  Last month's posters insisted, "They decided without us; we'll go ahead without them," referring to the entrenched political elite who'd gone along with the punishing austerity measures imposed along with the European bailout for Greece.  A few days ago, new posters appeared, proclaiming, "The memorandum past, we open a road to hope," referring to its rejection of the bailout agreement, at least as it now stands.  There's certainly an appealing logic to these slogans, given the extent of political and economic corruption and the failure of the two previously dominant political parties in Greece, the conservative New Democracy and the socialist PASOK.  One of the Communist parties (yes, there's more than one here) has ironically been reduced to a reactionary response on the posters that appeared recently:  "Don't believe SYRIZA!" 

Unfortunately, there may be some merit to that response:  SYRIZA suggests that Greeks can have everything--enough money from Europe, the euro as their currency, and their own terms rather than the dreadful austerity from which they've clearly been suffering intensely.  Most powerful Europeans seem to disagree, as they implied by refusing to meet with SYRIZA's young, inexperienced leader during an international tour after the May 6 election.  So it's quite possible that belief in SYRIZA's message--appealing as it is for hopeless, jobless, overtaxed, struggling, fed up citizens--may increase the danger that Greece will return to the drachma.  We faced that danger last fall, when the former prime minister, George Papandreou, threatened to hold a referendum to see if Greeks really wanted to keep the euro (and all the “austerity” that goes with it these days).  For a few days, until it became clear that Papandreou would resign and there would be no such referendum, many feared that Greece would lose its chance of European debt relief and be forced to deal with life with the drachma and no foreign aid.  I hear that a return to the drachma would also mean drastic inflation; vastly higher costs for imports; shortages of imported goods such as medicines, certain foods, oil, and gas; a vastly lower value for our money; the closing of many businesses; and probably more civil unrest.  We face the potential for the same problem now. 

Last fall, a bank teller was asked what to do with money in savings accounts, those in euros and those in dollars.  The bank teller answered, almost in tears, that she had no idea what would happen, or what to do with her own money, either. She said some people exchanged their euros for dollars, others did the opposite, and she’d take hers home and put it under her mattress if she wasn’t afraid of being robbed on the way!  Since then, of course, billions of euros have been removed from Greece.  That was one of several times in the last year or so that I started stocking up on nonperishable grocery items in fear of a return to the drachma and general economic, political, and social chaos that might include empty grocery store shelves since Greece might not continue receiving imports from exporters lacking confidence they'd be paid.  Even my children seem to be concerned about a currency change, as they feverishly try to empty their coin banks by turning them upside down.  Fortunately, though, they remain blissfully ignorant of the economic situation here.

Last November, I was already struck by one of many ironic developments in the confusion that’s called Greek politics: for some time, government leaders failed to agree on a new cabinet for what was supposed to be a “government of national unity.”  The problem?  Everyone was more worried about how appealing he or she'd look to voters during the next elections.  No one—the just-resigned prime minister included, I presume—really wanted to have anything to do with being in charge of approving and administering the latest miserable package of so-called “debt relief” from Europe, given the “austerity” measures of layoffs, benefit and salary reductions, and tax increases we keep seeing to “relieve” those of us living in what the German government seemed to consider immoral laziness and luxury in Greece.  No matter that there was, and is, no chance for economic growth here.  It seems that the politicians were correct in fearing for their jobs, since the new party, SYRIZA, is the one that has gained ground, while the centrist old guard's popularity has plunged, both on the left and on the right.  Interestingly, as of yesterday, my drive through part of Chania did not reveal one poster from PASOK, which appears to have no chance of winning this election, or even New Democracy, which does have a chance.  That may be partly due to the fact that some Communist students were printing thousands of flyers on university printers, with paper and ink meant to be used for academic purposes, the other day.  Or does it have something to do with New Democracy's anti-immigrant message?

I am neither a political scientist nor an economist, so I'll end today's political commentary with links to some articles that strike me as useful.  I do not appreciate the flippancy of whoever coined the term "Grexit" (mentioned in a New York Times article) to refer to the possible exit of Greece from the euro zone, with far more concern for international financial markets than for the people of Greece.  On the other hand, the most sensible brief article I've seen about what's at stake in today's election, and what led up to it, appeared on Friday in the online English edition of one of Greece's major dailies, the politically moderate Kathemerini, titled "Greece's creditors matter as much as its voters"--and, we might add, vice versa (  I also like Ross Douthat's discussion of SYRIZA in the New York Times, except that it doesn't acknowledge the party leader's lack of qualifications to lead a country, especially one in as much trouble as Greece, or SYRIZA's lack of a concrete, detailed solution ("Sympathy for the Radical Left" (


School Celebration, and Stocking Up for Possible Emergencies or Shortages

On Friday, I spent more money at the supermarket than I ever had before.  And two nights before, I paid less attention to an elementary school performance than I ever had before.  It was like this:  all the elementary children, their teachers, and their parents in the schoolyard, most arriving late, on a hot evening in the sun.  There is no auditorium or gym at our school, although it's only about a decade old--so there were too many people for too few seats, and no stage.  For the last two years, we'd had a temporary wooden stage to raise the children high enough to be seen, but for some reason (perhaps related to a new principal) that was missing this year.  So once the performance began, anyone who wanted to watch the children dance, sing, or recite information about the different regions and cities of Greece needed to stand up.  The center aisle was full of standing parents, further obscuring the view of the children (and no one noticed that the sun was sinking into the Mediterranean, spectacular view that we had, since we see that every day).  Probably at least half of the parents were conversing, which is typical of Greek school functions, award ceremonies, weddings, and baptisms--so typical that I doubt anyone considers it rude.  I valiantly strove to watch and listen, walking over to the far side of the crowd for a vantage point and dutifully recording my daughter's part in the evening (proud that she said her piece better than the boy next to her with two native Greeks for parents, though of course I wouldn't say so to them and told her it didn't matter if he messed up a bit). 

I watched a while longer, but then, an hour or so into it, I gave up, sat down, and whispered with a bilingual Greek friend.  She drew from her purse  some lists of emergency supplies which she'd collected from both American and Greek sites in preparation for the uncertain times ahead of us here in Greece--the possibility of extreme inflation, shortages, and power outages:  matches, canned foods, gas burners, batteries, pastas, beans, olives, etc.  We compared lists, since I was certainly at least as paranoid (or eager to be prepared:  time will tell), and I made some adjustments to mine.  We discussed the accuracy of the NPR report about Greece's major electric company running out of money due to unpaid bills, so that it couldn't buy enough natural gas to get the country through the summer without extensive blackouts.  Apparently the company denies it, but considering all the blackouts we've endured in previous years, I expect that we'll have more this year.  The New York Times writes that Greeks dread the future.  Yep, me too.


Greek Generosity, Beauty, and Uncertainty

I feel a weight of sadness and worry.  But, whatever happens, I don't think there's any danger that people as fortunate as us will go hungry:  we have many friends here, and Crete is an island full of not only natural beauty, but good produce, and great hospitality and generosity.  We still haven't finished the bags of apricots and potatoes that neighbors gave us.  Even if the government runs out of money and can't pay public workers, including university professors such as D, we will have plenty to eat.  And we can share our beans and pasta with those who have fresh produce.  The jovial party after the school performance made it clear that Greeks will continue to be generous:  parents had brought plenty of juice, soft drinks, raki, cheese pies, cakes, cookies, popcorn, and potato chips to satisfy the crowd that surged toward the refreshment tables even before all the treats could be brought to them.  There are other concrete reasons for hope, too:  the pharmacists are accepting public health insurance again--starting Thursday night, just in time for me to refill my prescriptions for allergy medicines without (again) paying cash.  In spite of problems, the beaches are often clean and lovely, with gorgeous clear waters, and they are free.  The Greek national soccer team even beat Russia to qualify for the Euro 2012 quarterfinals, adding a much-needed positive note to the national consciousness.

D has been in Athens this weekend for another celebration, a baptism--a function as big, expensive, and important as a wedding, and as much a time for reunion--and to vote.  (So far, weddings and baptisms, school celebrations and exams, continue.)  Like many Greeks, D chose not to move his voter registration out of his hometown (or village, in many cases); this makes voting day a time of reunion for so many of the Greeks who deeply value ties to family, old friends, and former homes.  This afternoon, all remained relatively calm.  But people ask, what will you do this summer?  We reply that we don't know yet.  We'll have some preliminary election results shortly, but neither they nor the final outcome of this election will immediately clarify Greece's future. 

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