Greek politics forty years on

Last Saturday marked the 40th anniversary of that April morning when Greece woke to the noise of army tanks rolling down the streets. Democracy was dead but the killer was still unknown. There had been widespread rumors that the king would try to cancel an upcoming election that was expected to turn into a referendum against the royal family. But he was pre-empted by a military coup. The king’s blessing was only half-hearted as the hasty and rather undisciplined generals would be the ones to cherish the benefits. Different people have given different explanations for the reasons, or rather the conditions, that caused the collapse of Greek democracy. Most of them hold water, to different degrees: Sure, democracy had already been hurt by unsuccessful royal interference two years earlier, and Parliament was staggering as the deputies seemed unable to halt the overall political decline by building a robust parliamentary democracy. But in democracies there are no deadlocks. For there is always a last resort, i.e. elections. In fact, a ballot was already under way. What really undermined democracy was the one institution that defied the logic of popular rule: the monarchy. Apart from the huge powers granted to the king by the Constitution (at least, in his reading), he also enjoyed control over the almighty military forces. The legitimacy of force had been granted to the military for protecting the country and freedom against outside interference. But as it turned out, that force could equally be used to enslave the country and annihilate civic liberties. And so it did. As for the outside threats, it was first said that the army took over to ward off plans of a communist revolution. But that sounded hardly plausible, even to a child, and was soon dropped. The ideological mantle of the dictatorship changed too. The official slogan «Greece for Christian Greeks» was meant to embody past myths and glories. That would be funny if it did not signify an extremely oppressive regime. Most Europeans stood by Greece’s freedom fighters. The USA on the other hand, failed to respect its own founding principles and acted in accordance with its own interests. The Americans wrongly thought that a dictatorship would serve them better. But what is more important to us is not what the foreigners did but how the Greeks reacted at home. The many evils sown by the dictatorship have often been mentioned, the gravest among them being the irreparable damage caused to Cyprus. Unintentionally, however, the architects of the coup also did some good by accelerating the course of history: The abolition of monarchy, the introduction of modern Greek, the legalization of all political parties, the scrapping of the so-called «certificates of political conviction» – changes that would have otherwise taken decades. By resorting to violence and torture, a dictatorship excludes itself from the political. For that reason, it does not deserve any tolerance whatsoever. It must be rejected out of hand, without any terms or conditions. It is from this starting point that one must discuss the best way to overturn or undermine it. One tactic can be asserting one’s presence in public life with the aim of exhausting whatever narrow space of tolerance is allowed (and which is usually for show). That said, Kathimerini is proud to have halted circulation from the first day of the dictatorship. There was no single man or reason behind the dictatorship’s fall in 1974. The dictatorship crumbled under the weight of its own crimes and follies. The colonels toyed with a gun they did not know how to use and which backfired. Luckily, that meant that the regime broke down without civil strife. The smoothness of that political changeover lies at the heart of the steady democracy that Greece has enjoyed for 32 years. It’s an unprecedented period of stability in Greece’s political history. There seems to be good reason to have faith in the future. Despite the country’s considerable shortcomings, despite the failings that dog the education sector, despite all the graft and bureaucracy, we can still look to the future with a smile. As long as we’re done with the self-styled saviors, we have nothing to fear. (1) Professor Georgios Koumantos’s piece appeared as an editorial in Kathimerini’s Sunday edition yesterday.

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