Last Sunday in the Athens suburb of Nea Smyrni there was an incident of excessive use of force by the police. Any government officials who tried to explain or justify it were not doing themselves or their party any favors. They may have boosted their popularity with a right-wing audience and secured a few votes from that part of society – which, however, is not a majority, not even within the governing party itself – but when the present tension subsides, that behavior will be assessed negatively.
There is no doubt that those responsible for Sunday’s excesses need to be held to account. This means an objective investigation and punishment for those found to have violated their professional code of conduct. The policeman responsible has already been taken off duty. The process has to be transparent and convincing.
At the same time, the opposition parties must behave responsibly and play their own significant role.
We are obviously not living in a dictatorship or police state, as some have irresponsibly claimed after Sunday’s incident. But precisely because of this, and the fact that we live in a liberal democracy, we expect the government to move quickly with effective action and strict discipline, and the opposition to avoid the slippery slope of populist exploitation of the violence for political gain.
The big challenge for the country right now is the coronavirus crisis – the signs are not encouraging – and any choices and decisions made by the government will be judged, just as the management of any crisis is judged.
Is the opposition looking to criticize? That is fine. Not only does it have the right, but also the obligation to do so – on the economy, in crisis management and a string of other issues. But it has no right to pour oil on the flames by investing in public fatigue and desperation.
SYRIZA has become a significant political force. It will probably find itself in government again at some point. And then there will be crises it will have to manage and it will be looking for a responsible stance from the opposition.
The best response to mistakes and oversights from the government – and there have been quite a few recently – is sincere self-criticism in combination, especially in volatile times such as these, with projecting an image of moderation and presenting a credible vision of renewal.
What is required from the opposition is maturity and avoidance of populist outbursts that may appeal to the 3% of the electorate that was voting for SYRIZA more than a decade ago, but put off a significantly larger percentage of the moderate, centrist voters that SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras aims to attract.
It is also wrong of the opposition to present the prime minister as a far-right champion of extreme repression. Tsipras may have a lot to criticize his rival for – and he’ll be right about some issues and wrong about others – but Kyriakos Mitsotakis cannot be accused of being an extreme ideologue.
No one should be investing in division, yet it seems that many are. Thinking citizens who are not blinded by political allegiances may not shout, may not insult the “others” and may not appear on television shows attacking rivals, but they are the ones who ultimately elect governments – and most of them detest selfish, irresponsible, false and extreme behavior; and above all they detest violence from wherever it comes.