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Greece’s Political ‘Center’ Under Threat

November 17, 2013   ·   0 Comments

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Above: November 17, 2012 commemoration of the student uprising at the Polytechnic University in Athens, Greece, 1973, which initiated the downfall of the country's U.S. backed military dictatorship. Photo by Chris Spannos for NYT eXaminer.

By Costas Panayotakis:

As the economic and social catastrophe produced by austerity policies in Greece deepens, the journalistic supporters of these policies, as well as of the interests of Greece’s economic oligarchy that has seen its wealth increase rapidly as the living standards of average Greek citizens are crashed, love to present the situation in Greece today as a battle between the forces of a responsible political center, on one side, and the populist forces of left and right that feed on people’s desperation, on the other. Readers of The International New York Times have had a glimpse of this argument in a recent op-ed piece by Nikos Konstandaras (i), “the managing editor and a columnist” at Greece’s historic right-wing newspaper Kathimerini.

Municipal workers striking in the city of Iraklion on the island of Crete. Photo by Chris Spannos for NYT eXaminer.

Municipal workers striking in the city of Iraklion on the island of Crete. Photo by Chris Spannos for NYT eXaminer, 2013.

Departing from the recent shooting of three members of the violent neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party in Greece, Konstandaras discusses the dangers to political stability that this recent incident represents. In so doing, however, it draws the line between a beleaguered political center trying to preserve stability and the populist forces on its left and right that represent a threat to such stability. And it does this by painting a rosy picture of the conservative party that dominates the governing coalition in Greece, thus leaving the reader with a distorted picture of what is actually going on in the country.

For example, using Orwellian language, Konstandaras describes the coalition’s brutal austerity measures as “an economic recovery program,” even though, as he himself admits, they “have resulted in high unemployment (28 percent), a steep drop in gross domestic product (28 percent from 2008), higher taxes, lower incomes, fewer benefits, widespread insecurity and a loss of faith in the political system, democratic institutions and even in the European Union.” In addition to demonstrating that these austerity measures are not, as Konstandaras claims, “aimed at combating” economic crisis, since they have actually produced a deep economic depression, this last quotation also demonstrates that the true threat to the political and democratic stability that Konstandaras claims to worry about comes from the economic policies of the so-called political center, which he identifies with the ruling conservative and socialist parties.

I say “so-called political center,” because the conservative New Democracy party that dominates the governing coalition has, under the leadership of Antonis Samaras, who is also Greece’s prime minister today, moved decisively to the right. While the strategy of Samaras’ predecessor, former prime minister and New Democracy leader Kostas Karamanlis, was to capture the political center of Greek society, under Samaras New Democracy began to pander to Golden Dawn’s virulent racist and anti-immigrant message and was, until a few weeks ago, not only tolerating the violent activity of the neo-Nazi party’s paramilitary groups but even flirting with the idea of forming a coalition government with Golden Dawn after the next elections.

Location where right-wing extremists assassinated anti-fascist and peace activist Grigoris Lambrakis in 1963 (events that inspired the Vassilis Vassilikos novel "Z" and the Costas Gavris film of the same name and also Z Magazine and ZNet. Photo by Chris Spannos for NYT eXaminer.

Location in Thessaloniki where right-wing extremists assassinated anti-fascist and peace activist Grigoris Lambrakis in 1963 (events that inspired the Vassilis Vassilikos novel "Z" and the Costas Gavras film of the same name, and later Z Magazine. Photo by Chris Spannos for NYT eXaminer, 2013.

Needless to say, none of these inconvenient details are present in Konstandaras’ portrayal of New Democracy as a stalwart of the responsible center. Nor is the fact that both New Democracy and the socialist party helped to legitimize the extreme right by allying themselves in a previous coalition government with LAOS, the party that dominated Greece’s extreme right before the rise of Golden Dawn. Two prominent members of LAOS have by now been welcome with open arms by New Democracy, one of them presiding, as Minister of Health, over the dismantling of the Greek healthcare system and the other holding a leadership role within New Democracy’s parliamentary caucus.

Instead of such inconvenient details, what we get from Konstandaras is the absurd claim that “[w]ith forces of the political left and right gaining strength and perhaps headed for a conflict, with the center struggling to hold, we might see what seemed impossible until recently: a new round of civil strife after decades of peace and progress.” Notice what this sentence does: first of all, it redefines the right in a way that distorts Greek political history but suits the propagandistic function of Konstandaras’ piece. The anchor of the Greek right for the last forty years, New Democracy, is defined as part of the center and the right is basically defined as any political formation on the right of Greece’s political spectrum that is opposed to austerity. Secondly, the left is misrepresented through a subtle conflation of the main party of the Greek left, Syriza, that is opposed to the current austerity policies and the “fools with guns,” as Konstandaras describes them, who shot the three Golden Dawn members. Just as Konstandaras’ redefinition of the Greek right advances a misleading representation of New Democracy as a responsible political force, his definition of the left is clearly meant to discredit the main opponent to the austerity policies benefiting Greece’s economic oligarchy, the owner of Kathimerini and Konstandaras’ boss included.

Last but not least, this sentence redefines the lines of battle in Greece, so that the left and the extreme right appear to be on the same side, while the center is supposedly the only force fighting against the prospect of conflict and civil strife that the rise of the political forces on both its left and its right supposedly represent. While, as mentioned above, this claim absolves the so-called political center for the policies that have led to the rise of Golden Dawn, it is also incredible to see that Konstandaras’ statement also implies that just as the rising forces of the left and right are identified with conflict and civil strife, the forces of the so-called political center are implicitly credited with the “decades of peace and progress” that preceded the current crisis.

Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras speaks at his party's July 2013 national convention on the outskirts of Athens. Photo by Chris Spannos for NYT eXaminer.

Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras speaks at his party's July 2013 national convention on the outskirts of Athens. Photo by Chris Spannos for NYT eXaminer.

Konstandaras’ reference to these “decades of peace and progress” glosses over the complexities of the period between the end, in 1974, of the military dictatorship in Greece and the current crisis. Although it is true that there was significant progress during that period in the consolidation of democratic, social and labor rights, this progress would not have been possible if the forces of the so-called “political center” had not felt pressured by the struggles of Greek people and the political left to democratize Greek society. And it is this real progress that the so-called political center’s policies are currently destroying. Secondly, the fact that Greece proved so vulnerable to the current global economic crisis bears witness to the fact that these decades were not a period of unambiguous progress, since it was the corruption, mismanagement and clientelistic practices of the parties of the “political center” that helped bring Greece to its current state.

As for Konstandaras’ question: No, the center cannot hold, because New Democracy is moving to the far right and the only party that has enough power to challenge its destructive economic policies, its growing reliance on undemocratic repression of social movements and its racist scapegoating of immigrants is not a party of the center but a party of the left, namely Syriza.

Costas Panayotakis is Professor of Sociology at the New York City College of Technology of the City University of New York and author of Remaking Scarcity: From Capitalist Inefficiency to Economic Democracy (Pluto Press). He writes NYTX’s “Economic Democracy” column.

 

Notes:

(i) See ‘Can the Greek Center Hold?’, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/12/opinion/konstandaras-hard-wired-for-tension-in-greece.html?_r=0 .

 

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