Saturday, May 31, 2014

Elections, Incursions, Examinations, Diversions

Their Patience Has Ended, But No Earthquake Here

Although they have participated in over 20,000 demonstrations and protest rallies since the beginning of the bailout program in May 2010 ("The cost of protests"), Greeks can also be amazingly patient with the situation in their country. They wait uncomplainingly for hours to see doctors without even bothering to bring reading material, they only occasionally shout at drivers who stop their cars where they block traffic, they pay thousands of euros for public school students to make up for the deficiencies of those schools in private evening classes, and they hardly murmur about school closings on the Monday and Friday surrounding each Sunday election, regardless of child care difficulties for working parents. One of the most common responses to any complaint in Greece—after τί να κάνουμε, tee nah kahnoomeh (what can we do?)—is υπομονή, eepoemoenee (patience)—as loyal readers of my blog will already know. Drives me crazy, partly because I didn’t grow up even partly conditioned to endure the inefficient, illogical, inconsiderate aspects of modern Greek life, which leaves me intolerant of a lot that goes on here and generally impatient with the stock responses. I don’t see why Greeks are so patient about all of this, or why they should be patient in the face of round after round of governmental budget cuts, tax hikes, firings, pension and health care cuts, failed businesses, unemployment of more than a quarter of those seeking jobs, and the inability to make ends meet. But then I noticed that one of the recent campaign posters states, “Our patience has ended.” It’s about time. And so said many Greek voters on May 25—but not all of them.

Before the May 18 elections of town council members, mayors, and prefectural governors, the May 25 runoffs for those elections, and the May 25 European Parliament elections, politicians seemed inclined to stir up yet another storm of anxiety by warning (once again) that the outcome could change the course of the country for the worse. The (once surprising) centrist governing coalition of the conservative New Democracy and Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) parties cautioned that too many votes for the main opposition party, the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), could undo the supposed progress the country has made since the austerity program of the bailout began—statistical economic progress the government loves to boast about, but only economists and the wealthy seem to actually see in any concrete form. New Democracy emphasized their slogan, a call for continuing “stathera vimata brosta,” or “steady steps forward,” warning that SYRIZA’s plan to hold “snap” national elections for prime minister and Greek Parliament as soon as possible if their party led the vote count by at least 4-6% could destabilize the country, and discussing a tax decrease for 2015 after all the tax increases of recent years. SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras billed the elections as referenda on whether Greeks wanted a new government, promising to undo many of the austerity measures that so many have protested against since the crisis began, to raise the minimum wage and increase unemployment compensation, if he should gain power. The stock markets reacted with nervousness to the specter of unexpected national elections, wondering again if Greek instability threatened the world economy. On the other hand, amused by unusual signs of positive local governmental activity--new trees planted in our neighborhood playground for the first time in 11 years--I didn’t even bother stocking up on groceries, because this warning of instability has become an old story here—besides which, I have quite a lot of supermarket staples, given all the 40-50% off sales meant to entice people without money to buy more.

Despite the hopes of SYRIZA, we didn’t experience the “earthquake” that the French prime minister felt in France when the anti-immigration, anti-euro National Front party led in the polls, and I’m not sure the New York Times is quite right that “insurgent forces from the far right and, in Greece’s case, also from the radical left stunned the established political parties” here, although they may have stunned them elsewhere in Europe ("Populists’ Rise in Europe Vote Shakes Leaders"). In Greece, polls had already (accurately) predicted SYRIZA’s victory in European Parliament elections, although Greeks were surprised by the extent of SYRIZA’s triumph in the race for governor of Attica, and indeed many have been dismayed by the strong showing of the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, in third place with 9.4 percent of the votes. SYRIZA earned more votes than New Democracy in the European Parliament election (26.6% vs. 22.7%), but New Democracy’s plus PASOK’s share of the votes (via their new Elia, or Olive Tree, alliance with some other center leftists, 8%) equaled more than SYRIZA’s. So the governing coalition seems likely to remain in power for now, and it has felt free to reject SYRIZA’s continuing call for new national elections as soon as possible. Greece doesn’t have a regular election cycle or election day as we do in the U. S.; there are dates by which new officials must be elected, but if a governing party or coalition (“the government”) does not retain the confidence of a majority of parliamentarians or the people, rather sudden elections may be called earlier than expected, and the country’s government and policies could change with little notice. This is what investors were afraid of: political instability leading to financial instability.

Americans may be more aware of the results of the Ukrainian presidential vote on May 25 and more concerned about the significance of the Syrian elections, but as Egyptians began to vote and Europeans finished counting their ballots for European Parliamentarians, Greeks were largely focused on what their elections meant for the future of this small, struggling country. It’s fascinating to see how different Greek newspapers characterized the election results: a win for everyone, a win for no one, or a win for the party they support. (That’s evident in “European elections - a win, but no landslide, for Alexis Tsipras.”) The leftist SYRIZA won the most votes in the election for European Parliament, as well as a surprising, impressive victory for their candidate for governor of Greece’s most populous region of Attica (where Athens is) and a near-victory (but eventual defeat) for their candidate for Athens mayor. However, they earned a slightly lower percentage of the votes than they did in 2012. The major partner in the governing coalition, the conservative centrist New Democracy, lagged behind but won the majority of the vote in many parts of Greece, and did not lose too many of the votes they’d earned before these recent years of association with punishing austerity measures, considering all they’ve been blamed for. The socialist PASOK hopes its involvement in the new center-left Elia coalition heralds a new beginning for the party that earned 44% of the vote in 2009, but only 8% for its coalition now. (See, for example, “European election result: the left scores a historic win and facism rears its head and “Has our political system reached rock bottom?) So people who are more or less satisfied with the status quo—or at least see it as the least threatening of the current political choices—heaved a sigh of relief. But those who are totally dissatisfied with the austerity-induced 26.5% unemployment, decreased salaries, pensions, and benefits, and long lists of problems here emphasize that the share of votes given to SYRIZA and other new or formerly fringe political parties underscores a high level of discontent with a political establishment that is dominated by wealthy, elite families and is often considered corrupt and untrustworthy.

Another Blow for the Old Guard: Unsettling the Establishment

The Greek political and electoral systems differ from the American ones. Once upon a time, from the end of the dictatorship in 1974 until 2010, Greece did have a more or less two-party system, at least in terms of who was really in power. Even then, that system left room in Parliament for various others, including leftists (such as communist parties) and rightists (for example, nationalists). But it has been seriously eroded since average Greeks and the rest of the world learned just what a mess the Greek economy and political system were in back in 2010. That caused the immediate downfall of the party then in power, which was PASOK, although it was not solely responsible for that mess. After a brief government by technocrats brought to power under the wing of the Troika of the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund and their “memorandum” of agreement for extreme austerity in exchange for the enormous financial bailout of Greece, the more conservative centrist party, New Democracy (ND), won a larger portion of votes than any other party, but not the majority required by Greek law to govern on its own. So its leader, American-educated Antonis Samaras, negotiated a coalition with the leader of PASOK, Evangelos Venizelos, and the smaller Democratic Left party, which provided the coalition with the majority in parliament which Greek law requires to “form a government.” After divisive arguments over various policy moves, the coalition’s majority has been whittled down to two or three votes: Democratic Left left the coalition in protest over Samaras’s sudden closing of the public radio and television broadcaster last spring, and several PASOK and ND members of parliament were ejected from their parties (yes, ejected!) for failing to toe the party line.

As an American, I was surprised that SYRIZA’s victory in the national European Parliament election was hailed as a “historic” first for a leftist party in Greece, because I’d considered the socialist PASOK, which had led the country for decades, leftist. But by Greek standards I suppose those socialists were more centrist than leftist, even before their present role in a coalition with conservatives. In spite of their historic victory, Alexis Tsipras and his SYRIZA colleagues apparently did not convince enough voters that they had consistent, workable solutions to the problems caused by excessive austerity measures and years of corruption and mismanagement to earn a clear mandate to take over the government. While their promises of a better life for working people did appeal to more voters than any other messages, promises, or past records, a fair amount of faith in New Democracy’s plans to stick to the memorandum of agreement for the bailout, along with ND’s claims that the economy is now improving and things can only get better here, is also evident. Acknowledging that it’s gotten the message that Greeks are not happy with the way things are, the governing coalition is now planning a major cabinet reshuffle and promising to work hard on economic growth, job creation, and tax reductions. There is even some talk of a broader coalition that would better represent all Greeks, although I suspect that the political climate is too heated for that much cooperation.

The lack of a majority consensus and the downfall of the old political elite are emphasized by the large number of parties competing for votes--43 for European Parliament and almost as many for local elections in Chania. Greeks voted for their preferred party on 5.5 X 14 inch paper ballots for European parliament (yes, a lot of parties, and a lot of paper!), including an animal husbandry party, a Trotskyite party, an anti-capitalist party, four communist parties, two socialist ones, two environmentalist parties, and a large collection of centrist and right wing parties whose names don’t identify their ideologies so clearly. Some of the successful candidates, such as the new mayor of the major port city of Pireas, are primarily associated with soccer teams. Even SYRIZA won barely more than a quarter of the votes. The barely-defined new party To Potami, or The River, made a relatively strong showing in fifth place, as did one of several communist parties in sixth place, so it’s clear that no single party will satisfy any majority of Greeks. Many don’t know where to turn--to the right, to the left, or to the center.

Most troubling, to many of us here, is 9.4% of voters’ sharp right turn toward the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, even with several of its leaders and members in jail facing criminal charges which include links to violence against immigrants and leftists (see, for example, “Golden Dawn leader and No 2 jailed before trial”), as if almost a tenth of voters believe scapegoating people from outside Greece is the solution to the country’s problems. Last year, when the governing coalition finally decided to crack down on some Golden Dawn members and leaders for their alleged links to crimes, charging them and jailing them pending trial, I thought ordinary Greeks would recognize how dangerous the group is. However, the move seems to have backfired, as Golden Dawn claims to be the victim of a political witch hunt, hands out free food to Greeks who show their IDs to prove their nationality, and helps elderly Greeks make their way safely through crime-ridden streets in Athens. Golden Dawn provides some services that the austerity-starved state does not offer, so now even many non-fascist Greeks look to them for help. This shift toward xenophobic ultra-nationalist parties has been recognized as a phenomenon throughout Europe, where such parties made significant gains in European Parliament membership, along with other “Euro-sceptic” parties who don’t believe the European Union should continue to exist.  

Here in Greece, voting took place in privately curtained voting booths in schools (and occasionally other public buildings). Voters had the option of marking crosses next to particular names on long lists of parties’ candidates (42 names, for example, on one), or simply folding the paper for their chosen party and sealing it in the envelope provided before dropping the envelope into a clear ballot box. There is no electronic voting here, although Greeks don’t necessarily vote in the district where they currently live; many remain registered in their hometown or village, due to strong sentimental ties to the place and a desire for reunions with old friends and family. This provides one explanation for the Friday and Monday school closings surrounding each Sunday that’s an election day (probably so almost no one has to show up for work, and many can make a holiday of it). Another explanation is that public workers must set up and take down voting booths and ballot boxes during regular working hours—a bigger job than in the U. S., since with no school gym in most towns, all the school rooms tend to be used, with people divided among rooms alphabetically. So after two weeks of Easter vacation and one May Day holiday, four more lost school days left my kids with a total of 29 days at school in April and May—minus another one for my son’s field trip, 28, and minus three for my daughter’s field trips and teacher’s personal day, 26. One parent assured me that that’s okay, because Greeks learn fast. They’d better.

The Rites and Rains of School and Spring

It rained mud the other week, and again the other day—or at least rained very muddy drops. I didn’t believe that could really happen before I moved to Crete, but a look at all the cars after such a rain makes it clear—as mud. Sounds like Greek politics or education. The major concern of Greek high school seniors and their parents has now shifted away from politics, to the dreaded annual Panhellenic university entrance exams, when 105,000 students compete “for 70,305 spots, which will determine whether they will get into their university or technical college of choice”—or any public college or university in Greece ("Greek seniors start battle for university placement"). I’ve complained at length about the Greek educational system already (see my October 2013 blog), but I have to admit that some surprising, impressive successes do emerge from it, such as the Athens Law School students’ first-place finish in “the global Moot Court Competition on May 18 at the World Trade Organization headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, beating a team from Harvard University” ("Greek law students take first prize at Moot Court"). What is even more impressive: a public secondary education is free for the students who pass these horrendous exams. That’s an amazing reward, from an American perspective, but simply an entitlement, in the Greek view. The problem is that it follows a cruel feat of endurance that costs parents thousands of euros, and students years of childhood. Those years and euros are lost because so many teens have to give up many, if not all, their extracurricular activities (most of them not offered at public schools, either) in order to attend costly private night school classes which may run until 10:00 or later—after which they are expected to study for both public and private school lessons. The struggle comes early in Greece, rather than lasting for years, as it does for American college students who pile up outrageous debts.

College-bound Greek high school seniors are known to work harder than anyone else in the country, so I figure they’re totally burnt out and ready for time off when they enter university—which explains frequently lackluster academic performances as university students, especially in the first year or two. (As I’ve said, there are important exceptions to this.) But before they can begin their often relaxed university careers, they must do a very good job regurgitating memorized material on seven three-hour exams taken on different days from May 28 to June 12. Parents share their children’s stress and take time off work to wait outside schools during exam hours. Never mind high school achievement or extracurricular activities—this is it. For those who think SATs and ACTs are bad, just look at the Greek system; a recent evaluation calls it the worst in Europe ("Greek education ranked worst in the EU"). But if nearly one quarter of the Greek population (including babies and small children) cannot pay their taxes ("Debts to state grow by over 1 bln euros every month"), the Troika insists on more and more budget cutbacks, and a large percentage of Greeks also work for the private school or tutoring system that prepares students for entrance exams, how can the situation be improved? This is another question to which Greeks respond with τί να κάνουμε (what can we do?) and υπομονή (patience)—or αςτο, “oss toe” (leave it, as in “I don’t want to think about it”).

So let’s change the subject. The day before the first round of municipal and district elections, we drove through a maze of Chania streets, then turned toward Theriso, in the foothills of the White Mountains. Theriso itself is more interesting theoretically, as the birthplace of the great statesman Eleftherios Venizelos, than as a place to visit, aside from two small, picturesque churches and a multitude of tavernas to serve the tourists on one of the little open-sided train-buses you’d expect to see in an amusement park parking lot rather than a Greek mountain village. Maybe we missed something, aside from the historical monuments and small former school that’s become a museum focused on the Greek resistance fight during WWII, but the drive through the Theriso Gorge struck me as more intriguing than the village. I love these Cretan gorges, with their winding roads between irregular, steeply rising rock walls, some wooded, some rough, and others smooth, exposing the varied colors of mineral deposits smoothed down by the elements. In the little museum in Theriso, some of the photos of resistance fighters were blocked by two makeshift voting booths, with large, heavy-duty clear plastic boxes ready to hold completed ballots on election day. The two young girls staffing the museum said voting took place there because there were no longer enough children in the village for it to have its own school.

Farther along the single-lane road that winds through the hills beyond the village, we found the Dounias Taverna or “Traditional Center of Gastronomy of the Cretan Diet,” as they advertise, with its most appealing tables across the road, on a hill with a tranquil view of forested valleys. Owner Stelios Trilirakis proudly showed us into the kitchen, with its multitude of clay pots full of rich dishes prepared from local organically-grown produce and livestock. A procession of creatively prepared foods soon began to trickle out to our table, from the unusual mixed salad of purslane, artichoke, tomato, olives, and more to the tzatziki made with carrots and the surprisingly rich, filling cauliflower with carrots and hondros (a sort of homemade dried bread). The procession of foods did not stop with what we ordered; several additional samples, including meat and stuffed vegetables, appeared courtesy of Stelios, even after D declared himself too full to eat another bite and the kids and I gave up trying to fit more into our stomachs and wandered off with Stelios’s small son to see their rabbits, chickens, turkeys, pigs, and cow and pick a few of the wildflowers still blooming at this higher elevation. Yet that profusion of tasty food was followed by a plate of loquats and an astonishingly reasonable bill. Completely stuffed, we headed home by a different route below some of the stunning cloudy skies of Crete that tourists miss during summer's clear blue heat. Winding along a narrow road toward Aptera, we reached a high plateau with an impressive view of Souda Bay, Chania, and the Akrotiri Peninsula spread out below us.

Most of the wildflowers in our area have dried up and been mowed down, which contributes to my occasionally more depressed mood as one of my distractions from the reality facing me in Greece has been removed. However, friendly gestures and words, walks and gatherings, explorations and excursions provide welcome diversions. An older woman I don’t know gave me a gardenia as I photographed her bougainvillea. I discovered a new place to walk over some very rough rocks with a gorgeous view of sea, sky, and Chania. On May Day, we joined a small, low-key neighborhood gathering around a little church near the sea and continued the tradition of gathering flowers for our May wreaths, and our favorite family restaurant, Sunset Restaurant in Tersanas, opened again for the season. May Day should really be the first of March or April in Crete, since we have so many more wildflowers in bloom then, in addition to May’s thistle, mournful widow, and wild carrot; as it is, wreath makers have to resort to raiding gardens, where roses, bougainvillea, honeysuckle, jasmine, and oleander have begun to bloom profusely beside the year-round geranium blossoms. Those gardens provide cheery bright spots, along with the summer fruit coming into season. Cherries hang in bunches and lie heaped in piles for sale next to honeydew at the farmers’ market, which we might consider the cornucopia of Crete. This can remind us that while we live in no paradise, we have so much more of the good things we want and need here than so many people of the world, including sustenance, shelter, peace, and security. As Greeks say, if we have our health, the rest can wait.


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