Banners and batons

Several hundred people in Greece lost their jobs on Thursday. For other Greeks, it was business as usual: A few dozen protesters took their banners to the Finance Ministry, a few dozen riot police officers wielded their batons to push them back.

The incident prompted a new and predictable round in the ongoing row between SYRIZA and Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias. Moments before our decision makers banged their heads together in futility once more, the latest shocking unemployment figures (27 percent overall in November and 61.7 percent for under-25s) were published. The juxtaposition between these two events summed up the illness that is threatening to cripple Greece.

Members of SYRIZA’s youth wing, as well as two of the leftist party’s MPs, went to the office of Finance Ministry general secretary Giorgos Mergos to protest comments he made earlier this week suggesting that at 586 euros Greece’s minimum wage may still be too high.

There are several ways to interpret Mergos’s ill-advised comments. SYRIZA took it to be an insult to those earning basic pay, evident from the banner which challenged the official to try to live on that little. If this was his intention, then it is truly condemnable. It seems unlikely, though, that this was the idea he was trying to communicate.

Another way of interpreting his comment is as one that questions whether Greece has reduced its minimum wage enough, given that workers in all its neighboring countries – although not the majority of eurozone states – earn much less. This, however, would demand a debate about the significance that the minimum wage plays in determining a country’s competitiveness. It would require us to discuss the validity of the troika relying on unit labor costs as a key tool for measuring whether Greece is progressing in its reform effort. It would force us to discuss the nature of our economy, how wages are set, what part social security contributions play in determining labor costs, and how we can become more competitive. But why do something so complicated when you can just opt for a publicity stunt, a show of force and the usual verbal jousting?

Of course, the time to discuss all this was about a year ago, when the troika was dogmatically insisting on a reduction to the minimum wage, despite protestations from the government that this would be counterproductive. But just as Greece’s political forces were divided then, even though they were all opposed to the cut, so they are split now, when none of them favors a further reduction. Politicians’ utter devotion to their differences has played a part in robbing the country of any negotiating power it might have.

Issues such as the minimum wage or the current debate over fiscal multipliers provide opportunities for national interest to prevail over political aspiration, but within days of appearing on the public agenda they are reduced from questions of vital economic and political significance to populist brickbats to beat opponents with. The level of willful neglect or sheer incompetence shown by the parties over the last three years has been shocking.

It seems now, though, that verbal assaults are not enough. The government (New Democracy in particular) over recent weeks has invested in a strategy of increasing tension with its opponents (SYRIZA especially). Every slip-up by opponents is seized upon, words are sometimes twisted and denials are sought even if it’s not clear there is something that deserves denying. New Democracy has formed a so-called Truth Team to do its spinning, which included over the past few weeks crudely editing a SYRIZA MPs statement to make it seem he was saying something much more provocative than he actually was.

Then there is the role played by the police, which has become increasingly murky over the past few weeks. An alarming tolerance for crimes committed by Golden Dawn members has been matched by zero tolerance for the actions of leftists, anarchists and minorities. The raids on squats, the photoshopping of injuries suffered by the armed bank robbers in Velvento, the deplorable treatment of immigrants and the repeated accusations of police brutality have created a sense of menace and unaccountability.

This was added to on Thursday when riot police removed the SYRIZA protesters with the help of tear gas and force, resulting in the two MPs suffering injuries. The government presumably feels that a tough, albeit selective, stance on law and order combined with constant attacks on SYRIZA can win it support or even perhaps provide a useful sideshow to the pressing economic and social issues. In Greece we have never been short of sideshows, but this move by the government has all the potential to backfire. In a population where one in four is unemployed and many more are struggling on a daily basis, many will feel those in power are acting arrogantly and provocatively. Those who feel they have nothing left to lose – a growing group in Greek society – will be ever more willing to take on the authority and institutions they believe are treating them with disdain.

The burden of responsibility falls on the government, both New Democracy and its partners, to put an end to the sort of tactics that are inflaming sentiment when social cohesion is already being tested. The government cannot expect to ask exasperated Greeks to conform, to accept further pain and to show more patience when it is an instigator of disrespect itself. Cheap political tricks have no place in today’s fragile Greece and the police cannot be allowed to act with impunity.

In an interview with the BBC on Wednesday, SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras referred to the government’s tactics as a “strategy of tension.” He added that the policy was no secret. If the strategy is so obvious, though, why does SYRIZA play along with it consistently? A day after telling the British broadcaster about the government’s dark plans, about 50 SYRIZA members went to the Finance Ministry to protest at Mergos’s office – an action they knew would prompt the police’s reaction and create a new flashpoint. Protests are a natural part of the political and social melee caused by the crisis but there is a difference between a genuine airing of grievances and attempt to provoke a reaction or to outdo an opponent.

Tension can be created by both sides and it is worth remembering that SYRIZA MPs have frequently referred to this government as a “junta” and the troika as foreign occupiers. Tsipras told the BBC that he would “implement the law,” yet he and his party have on occasions encouraged Greeks to flout the law. Tsipras, for instance, said he wouldn’t pay the emergency property tax in 2011 and called for others to do the same. Recently, he revealed that he rents his property and is therefore not liable for the charge, which has to be paid by his landlord.

This last case is also symptomatic of the doublespeak that SYRIZA sometimes engages in. Too many times, words and facts are twisted in the hope of creating an impression and justifying the party’s stance. It is not just New Democracy and its Truth Team that are engaging in propaganda tactics. This week alone, SYRIZA has manipulated the statements of others in an attempt to create the impression that the International Monetary Fund’s admission about miscalculating the fiscal multiplier negates the whole Greek program and that European Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn indicated the minimum wage in Greece would be reduced further next year.

Tsipras told the BBC that his main concern is about how Greece’s unemployed will live. His priorities are absolutely correct, but his party’s actions betray a more complex agenda. SYRIZA has consistently supported strikes and protests by labor groups that have resisted attempts to open closed professions. In other words, the leftists have backed some professionals who want to maintain the barriers to entry that obstruct young Greeks in particular from trying to start a career in various fields. Isn’t maintaining such artificial barriers and unfair privileges also a way of creating tension?

The danger is that just as desperate Greeks are liable to rage against an administration that they regard as duplicitous and authoritarian, so fatigued Greeks will demand a less tolerant approach from the government in the face of what they see as obstructionism and arrogance from the opposition.

We should not disregard the background that this is playing against. Thursday’s unemployment figures show that jobs are disappearing at a frightening rate of about 900 a day. This is politically and socially unsustainable. This week’s statistics also showed the Greek economy shrinking by 6.4 percent last year. At the same time, the eurozone’s GDP as a whole contracted by 0.5 percent, meaning 2012 was the first year since 1995 that the currency bloc did not produce a single quarter of growth. A problem of this magnitude cannot be solved through business-as-usual politics.

While Greece’s parties can disagree on the merits of the EU-IMF consolidation program, they will have no chance of altering it or the country’s fortunes if they are consumed by this domestic battle. Every debate is internalized and guided by short-termism. At the same time, the lack of consensus on the basics puts a brake on progress. How can we demand a united approach from our lenders, who are themselves divided, when we cannot find even a sliver of common ground to stand on together.

Even an agreement on job apprenticeship schemes, which the EU provides money for, the funding of small and medium-sized enterprises via the European Investment Bank and the future modus operandi of recapitalized Greek banks would be small but significant steps toward addressing some of the real problems faced by Greeks.

This crisis has already shown how insularism comes at a cost. George Papandreou’s offer to Antonis Samaras in the summer of 2011 to govern together was rejected by the recalcitrant New Democracy leader. PASOK staggered on in power for a few months until Papandreou’s referendum bombshell, which forced Samaras to reluctantly join the Lucas Papademos interim government while also suing for elections. When they came, the May 2012 polls proved inconclusive and a new vote was held in June, from which Samaras’s coalition emerged and had to pick up the pieces created by several months of instability and indecision. The impact that this uncertainty and lack of coherent leadership had on the economy, on people’s jobs and livelihoods, is evident.

But even if we go back further in Greek history, there are clear signs that mutual distrust will only bring mutually assured destruction. It was 68 years ago this week that the Treaty of Varkiza was signed in an attempt to stop a civil armed conflict. It collapsed within months and years of bloodshed were followed by decades of bitterness and stunted development.

Greece is by no means on the brink of a civil war but it is in danger of being consumed by a new type of enmity and bloody-mindedness that will debilitate the country and set it back many years. There is still time for the parties to step back and address the matter at hand. All sides need to focus on the necessity of economic recovery and job creation rather than the confrontation of banners and batons.

[Kathimerini English Edition]

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