Two of the country’s deadliest fires happened in recent years. The first, in 2007 in the Peloponnese, left 49 dead and was sparked by an 84-year-old woman cooking in her yard. The second was in 2018 and spread from Penteli, north of the capital, to Mati, on its east coast, killing 102. A 65-year-old man had been burning branches and the flames spread from that.
The new Penal Code – drafted by the justice minister on the hoof and being pushed by the government, in ecstasy at the opinion polls – makes arson by negligence a serious crime. This means we will see a 98-year-old woman taken to court in handcuffs – as required by the law in cases of serious crimes – to be sentenced to life.
Let us peer into the future: Shortly after the new Penal Code comes into effect there will be emotional denunciations of a “callous state” that deems elderly women to be felons. These lamentations will come from the same TV reporters who today crow that “finally, there is an end to arsonists acting with impunity.” The justice minister, beset by the public outcry, will give an interview announcing a revision of the Penal Code to address the changes made in 2021 – which come on the back of changes in 2019. Effectively, they are being busy for the sake of it – or how proposed legislation from a government interested in making a good impression and with an eye on opinion polls can become a boomerang.
We do not know if the meager pool of strategy, a traditional feature of all Greek governments, has run out. The truth is that Kyriakos Mitsotakis has had a lot to deal with: the pandemic, Turkey, the Evros border crisis, and more. However, the government has just one simplistic answer to complex social issues. Instead of fashioning a complex strategy, as demanded by the times, anytime Greek society is rocked by a crime, the justice minister will announce harsher penalties. Not generally, but for the crime that is featured on the daily morning shows.
It is unclear if and how much the prime minister, a primarily liberal politician, keeps an eye on these issues or if he has fallen into the “leave it for later” trap, trapped as he is in treacherous waters between many crises. However, far-right clouds are gathering on the government’s horizon. It is not just the proposals for the new criminal code that have a whiff of the 1950s. It’s not even the incident with the archbishop of America, when Mitsotakis initially called off a meeting with Elpidophoros because he had attended the opening ceremony of the Turkevi Center, or Turkish House, in New York City but did not do so with United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who also attended the event along with Turkish-Cypriot leader Ersin Tatar. It is the playing up to the far right witnessed in the funding decisions of Culture Minister Lina Mendoni, or Citizens’ Protection Minister Takis Theodorikakos’ digital ghost hunt and others.
A specter lingers over the government – a fear of the far right, which, however, has as its effect the implementation of far-right policies, not as a strategic choice, but as backsliding.