The DNA of populism

Deeply rooted in the Greek DNA, populism has over the past 30 years been one of the main stumbling blocks on the path to well-meaning economic development. Local leaders, left-leaning activists and other protest groups have for decades operated in a mode of blanket rejectionism, which has paralyzed the country in a great many respects. The paralyzing influence of populism can be seen in the long-stalled construction of a cultural park at the Faliro Delta. Members of the local administration, who for years sabotaged the creation of a park in the area, can now be heard on radio interviews saying that they are backing the designs by Italian architect Renzo Piano. Although they have put absolutely no effort or money in the project, they are now trying to present it as their own personal achievement. Plans to redevelop the former international airport at Elliniko, a suburb southeast of the capital, into a metropolitan park have also been held hostage to the yens of populist local officials. The mayors of the neighboring municipalities have taken refuge behind the mammoth vision of a 530-hectare park that will be the biggest of its kind in Europe. In the process, they have sponsored a number of less-than-scientific studies that allegedly demonstrate how easy and cheap it is to build and maintain a park of that magnitude. Officials at the current socialist administration, like their conservative predecessors of New Democracy, know all too well that the plan is unrealistic and financially untenable but they prefer to duck the hard truths and keep the project in a state of limbo. No politician has the guts to tell the locals that there are no funds to finance the construction and, more crucially, to maintain a park of that size without selling a chunk of the land to property developers. PASOK was elected on the back of a promise for more green development. The problem is that no one seems to realize that one of the implications of green development is that you may have wind turbines installed on the slope facing your own little property. As a result, local communities on the island of Skyros and in Rafina have protested such plans on the grounds that a line of wind turbines will spoil the natural environment. Needless to say, it’s the same people who kept mum when the familiar eyesores began emerging across the country’s most beautiful spots. Garbage management is another area where Greeks display a collective divorce from reality. We fume at the prospect of having a waste incineration plant built near our town – even if that is constructed according to the strictest European rules – but we are not interested in solving the burgeoning problem of waste treatment. Similar reactions can be seen when it comes to other entrepreneurial activities. Politicians are often afraid to tell the truth to the people and yield to the deep-rooted skepticism of their voters. Greek voters are guided by a deleterious belief that politicians are driven by the exclusive goal of profit. In fact, they seem more annoyed by the fact that somebody else is making profit by breaking the law rather than the wrongdoing per se. The only way to rectify this mentality is for the government and the opposition to employ reasonable arguments in order to outline the current situation and the crucial dilemmas involving every decision. If our politicians continue to run away every time that a small interest group adopts a populist stand, nothing will change in this country. The government, and politicians at large, must engage in a direct dialogue with the local communities. This is the best way to show who is protesting change in a bid to protect the status quo for their own benefit and who isn’t.