"You are becoming the flag-bearers of populism,” Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said in Parliament on Thursday in response to criticism from the conservative opposition over the decision to scrap the tradition of honoring top pupils at primary schools by selecting them to carry the national flag in school parades, and opting to choose them by lot instead.
Tsipras said that everyone has the right to carry the national symbol and that his government’s definition of excellence is to ensure that schools open on time, that new libraries are established, that scientists are given incentives to stay in the country, and that young people are offered scholarships and opportunities for postgraduate study.
By playing both roles, as government and opposition, SYRIZA has been narrowing New Democracy’s room for maneuver. As a result, the conservatives resort to pejorative generalizations about the government’s purported “assault on meritocracy” or “its total confrontation with the ideas and values of people who want to fight for their individual [progress] as well as the progress of our country at large.”
While the country’s university institutions and technical colleges (TEI) were being undone, courtesy of the government’s bill on tertiary education voted in Parliament, the Education Ministry raised issues – namely, changing the rules for flag-bearers at school parades or scrapping the raising of the Greek flag before class – that were certain to mobilize the reflexes of parties and voters across the left-right spectrum.
All these, of course, are thinly veiled PR stunts by the government, which is misleading and polarizing the public by creating artificial tension.
However, as any news bulletin will show, most of the country’s population is preoccupied with more serious stuff – financial difficulties, taxes, payment schemes for their outstanding debts. News about the gradual easing of capital controls first introduced in 2015 only appear to affect a small chunk of the population. Asked about what they think the procedure should be for selecting school parade flag-bearers, most say they have more important things to think about.
SYRIZA is setting the agenda as government and as opposition. New Democracy is finding it extremely hard to catch up with that stratagem, mostly mobilizing a rejectionist language which leaves a lot to be desired – mostly because it can hardly inspire voters about its reformist ambitions. All that is very convenient for the government. It helps it keep itself in power, dodge responsibility for its mistakes and omissions, and draw strength from the past – a past on which it is founded, and the worst version of which it actually reproduces.
SYRIZA does not want – and indeed cannot – change. Can New Democracy?