Who are we? What do we want?

The repeated blows that voters have suffered over the past two years, the deprivation and insecurity, have fragmented the political system, according to the last opinion polls published before the May 6 elections. The polls suggest that nine or 10 parties may enter Parliament, from five in the previous one. The rise of new parties and new currents of thinking are natural when a society comes under such pressure. Today, the extremes are gaining strength with the simplicity of their rejection of Greece’s reform program, while the center, which until now represented the vast majority of citizens, is shriveled, shapeless and adrift.

Up to 2009, the two parties that had dominated politics since the restoration of democracy in 1974 — New Democracy and PASOK — garnered around 80 percent of the vote. The center-right and center-left parties alternated in power, thanks to a mobile section of the electorate which would punish one party and bring the other back to power, because it was not trapped into supporting one of the two parties. As they were not bound by obligations (which stemmed from the age-old and disastrous votes-for-jobs system), these ?free-range? voters were the center of the center, compared to their less mobile counterparts.

Now, the cuts in wages and pensions, the high taxes, the changes to social security and labor laws, the high unemployment and the inability of parties to buy votes, have liberated voters who would never have left the safety of their parties if the consequences of the crisis had not provoked such fear, rage and disappointment.

The polls, which stopped being published on April 20, showed PASOK winning only about 14 percent of the vote (from 43.92 percent in 2009) and New Democracy about 22 percent (from 33.47 percent), suggesting that they have lost not only the mobile center but also a large part of their faithful voters. On the other hand, the polls showed that voters are swinging to the left and the right, both toward established parties and new formations. In Public Issue’s estimates, published by Kathimerini.gr and Skai on April 20, aside from the PASOK and ND figures quoted above, the newly established Democratic Left appeared to get 9.5 percent of the vote, while on the right another new party, Independent Greeks, got 11 percent and the neo-Nazi Chrysi Avgi got 5.5 percent (from close to zero in 2009). Of the older parties, the radical leftist SYRIZA appeared to get 13 percent (from 4.6 percent), while the Ecologist Greens looked set to get into Parliament with 3.5 percent (after failing to pass the 3 percent threshold in 2009) and far-right LAOS dropping from 5.6 percent to close to 3 percent. Democratic Alliance and Drasi (both of the center) also appeared close to squeezing into Parliament.

With these percentages we can no longer estimate the size of our political system’s center — because we cannot know what even the centrist parties represent. PASOK, under George Papandreou, adopted reforms that had not been dared for decades, and his successor, Evangelos Venizelos, is a strong advocate for doing whatever it takes to keep Greece in the eurozone and on the road to revival. But from the start a large part of PASOK saw the reforms as poison being forced down our throats by our creditors and not as something that Greek politicians should have implemented long ago. New Democracy’s undermining of the first memorandum (before it was forced to sign on to the second set of reforms or see Greece collapse into bankruptcy) deprived the reform movement of the legitimacy that it would have been granted if it had been backed by the parties that represented 80 percent of the electorate.

In effect, the two major ?center? parties undermined centrist policy: PASOK because it tried to implement changes in a chaotic and brutal ?horizontal? manner that punished the just and left free the unjust; New Democracy because it staked its future on exploiting the culture of complaint and picking the fruit of PASOK’s collapse. With their policies, the two parties destroyed the center’s credibility and have not presented a clear picture of what they represent. They chased off voters to the left and to the right, while those who have tried to stay in the center do not know whom to trust nor which policy will get Greece out of the crisis. The citizens who still hope that Greece will return to stability and growth — and who still have 140 billion euros of their savings invested in Greek banks — will keep looking for a center to hold on to. No matter what they vote on May 6.

Dead center

The shriveling center of Greek politics is evident not only through the polls that show the rising power of the extreme left and extreme right. It is also an issue of conscience, as if the national identity has been shaken. We see this in the parties’ election campaigns, in conversations and in comments in the social media. These elections will lead to a radical reshuffling of the political system — but just as new political formations and new policies have to take shape, we too must work out who we are, what we want and how we are going to make our way in the world.

The crisis is a catalyst that is changing everything. It is a fire that destroys but also clears the ground. We see things that we could not see, that we did not want to see, that we did not dare touch. We understand that for many years the Greeks were split into different historical narratives and different identities, without realizing it. It is natural that there should be differences: All citizens cannot be the same, nor have the same opinions. But the hothouse in which we lived in the past decades led to a fake homogeneity, to our inability to sense danger, to the weakening of our survival instinct and to today’s confusion of policies and the opportunistic alliances of extremes.

After democracy was restored in 1974, the Greeks created an identity which combined our accession to Europe (and the swift rise in living standards) with a progressive attitude. The dominant ?leftist? mentality was a natural reaction against the junta and the restoration of the rights of a large part of the population that had been persecuted for many years after the civil war that ended in 1949. Above all, though, PASOK’s ?socialism? fitted well with a nation which had roots in the communal life of small villages and needed to wipe out the injustice of previous decades.

Unfortunately, the broadening of the middle class was not accompanied by the necessary rise in production, in investments in our culture and other sources of wealth, but, instead, thanks to the funds pouring in from the EU and the cynical populism of early PASOK, we developed a culture of easy money, of confrontational politics even when all parties had the same policy (which was to bleed the state dry), and the destruction of the public administration and the education system. A strange unanimity was forced on all — that of universal prosperity, equality in all (without evaluation) and ?progress.? This, however, lasted only as long as Greece could draw the benefits of being part of the EU and the global economy.

When the tide went out, when the money ran dry, we saw the great rift of the earthquake that we are now experiencing. The exaggerated ?leftism,? which was unmoved by the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, had no relation with the failed autocratic regimes of the socialist bloc, nor with Western societies that were continually striving to keep up in the difficult international environment. This was proof of a unique national trait: We lived like capitalists but with leftist attitudes — without the evils of either system.

Now the middle class is being torn apart — not only politically and economically but also in the conscience of citizens. For many years, the two major parties represented about 80 percent of the voters and, with identical policies, which were based on unstinting efforts to buy off voters with jobs and benefits, they created the illusion that all Greeks were the same, that our course was charted in the conscience of the great majority. The crisis showed the need to adapt but, along with the mistakes and injustices of the reform effort, it shook the confidence of many in the ?center.? It undermined it and released unpredictable forces.

The ?anti-memorandum? front united left and right, anarchists and neo-Nazis, liberals (whom one would have expected to want a more just and functional Greece) with xenophobes. While the great majority of Greeks seem to want to remain in the euro and a unified Europe, many are attracted by political forces that have other priorities. If the opportunistic papering-over of differences puts the country on a catastrophic course out of Europe, there will be no center strong enough to hold things together until the time that we come to understand — at last — that the country cannot bear more political frauds — neither those of a fake unanimity nor of flippant irresponsibility. Today, what we do will affect our lives in ways we never imagined.