Greece: what if nothing happens?

We’ve seen a lot of hand-wringing over Greece in the last couple of weeks. Various commenters have compared it to 1968 and to 1973, have noted the deep-rooted miseries that this has exposed in Greek society, and have expressed concern that violence may spread to other Mediterranean economies (Italy, Spain) or even to France.

Maybe. Maybe. But let me advance a contrarian suggestion: maybe nothing much is going to happen.

Here’s the contrarian argument spelled out in a bit more detail: Greece’s current government is either incapable or profoundly unwilling to make sweeping changes of any sort. So, the most the protests will get from the current government will be some very modest changes that are mostly cosmetic.

So what does that leave? The protests can either (1) violently overthrow the government, or (2) force the government to collapse, triggering new elections. I submit that (1) is unlikely. (People talk about the Athens Polytechnic uprising of 1973, but that didn’t topple the military junta — it just caused them to reshuffle a bit at the top, and actually made matters worse for a while by bringing hard-liners back to power. It took the disaster in Cyprus to bring the colonels down.) That leaves a government collapse, which is certainly possible but doesn’t seem the way to bet right now. Karamanlis’ government is weak, but weak governments in the Balkans tend to cling to power with that much more desperation. They’ve only been in office fifteen months or so; they have (in their own minds) years yet to turn this around. So it won’t be easy to get them out.

And even if the government does fall… well, again, so what? The major rival party, PASOK, is composed of much the same sort of place-holders. If PASOK came to power, they’d probably do so in combination with one or more parties of the far left, which would be interesting but would probably not add much to their effectiveness in governing. And it’s hard to believe that a PASOK government would be much better than the current one in addressing the deep-rooted social and economic problems that are giving rise to the protests.

I could be wrong. But what the hell. Here’s my prediction: the government won’t fall and, in the end, the protests will dribble away without accomplishing much. And (hedging my bet) if the government somehow does fall, the next government won’t make much difference.

Just for the hell of it, I’ll throw in a bonus prediction: life is going to get more difficult for minorities in Greece, especially for Albanians.

N.B., there’s no joy in this. Greece really is a kind of messed up place, Greek cops do seem to be corrupt and brutal, and a lot of the protesters seem to be earnest kids crying out against the fact that society has systematically screwed them over. You’d like to think that something would change. I just don’t see how it happens. Like the old joke: “if that’s where you’re going, I wouldn’t start from here.”

What do the rest of you think?

This entry was posted in A Fistful Of Euros, Governments and parties and tagged by Douglas Muir. Bookmark the permalink.

About Douglas Muir

American with an Irish passport. Does development work for a big international donor. Has been living in Eastern Europe for the last six years — first Serbia, then Romania, and now Armenia. Calls himself a Burkean conservative, which would be a liberal in Germany but an unhappy ex-Republican turned Democrat in the US. Husband of Claudia. Parent of Alan, David, Jacob and Leah. Likes birds. Writes Halfway Down The Danube. Writes Halfway Down The Danube.

10 thoughts on “Greece: what if nothing happens?

  1. “If PASOK came to power, they’d probably do so in combination with one or more parties of the far left, which would be interesting but would probably not add much to their effectiveness in governing.”

    Really? They still got their unique electoral system, haven’t they?

  2. Always a difficult question to predict the future.

    “Greece’s current government is either incapable or profoundly unwilling to make sweeping changes of any sort”
    The problem is that the protests do not have a clear agenda. It is clear that people are unhappy with the current situation. But that is not enough. To solve problems, you need to know where you are, where you want to go and HOW to get there. This is missing right now. The government may be as you say incapable or unwilling to take even common sense measures, but how to improve the lives of people is not sure. For example, having lived in Greece for some time, I am amazed at the auto-racism applied against greek citizens. I’ve known many people who did great work, built entire systems on their own that were much better than existing ones,not to mention cheaper. Their companies, even state owned ended up buying inferior and much more expensive stuff from abroad. Even more striking was the proposal by the previous government to get british accountants to do an analysis of the pension system, as though you could not find greek accountants to do that(which btw would create a few more jobs, just like the previous cases, which could create spin-off companies). Imagine the UK hiring a company of greek accountants to study its pension system!

    I agree that an imminent government collapse is very unlikely. I also agree that PASOK is
    also widely despised and its current leader is seen as even more incompetent. So your prediction is probably correct.

    Your other prediction is not quite right though:
    “life is going to get more difficult for minorities in Greece, especially for Albanians.”
    First, Albanians are not citizens, but foreign workers, so technically they are not a minority. Anyway, most of Albanians are doing hard work and workwise they are unlikely to suffer as long as they are needed. They will be hit by the crisis as well as everybody else, e.g. if no more houses or roads are being built
    they will be out of work. But then they can always move back to Albania and start something there with some cash they made. Of course many have settled and they will probably try to weather the crisis.

    “Greek cops do seem to be corrupt and brutal”
    This one I am unsure about. A nice rebuttal(more general) is here:

    http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/english/opinion/10582455.asp?yazarid=290&gid=260

    If you contrast with the situation in other countries, like the US, greek police is much more civillized. This is a combination of the junta sensitivities and the fact that comparatively speaking Greece was enjoying a rather low crime rate, which means cops were less worried about their safety and less likely to overreact.

    “protesters seem to be earnest kids crying out against the fact that society has systematically screwed them over”
    Well, the page cited answers that too in part. The fact is that the kid that was shot was certainly not screwed over, but more likely had a very comfortable life. Anarchists are also treated much better than they would be in any other western (or eastern for that matter) country; basically they exploit the leftover sensitivities from the junta era. This has to change. It is true that the average kid is overburdened with junk, e.g. the educational system has been corrupted so that they will not speak fluent english after finishing highschool
    and have to pay for extra courses if they want to, or that they need extra courses to get in the university. But fixing these things is not easy because of a vicious circle of interests.

  3. You are very probably right in all except the last prediction. Immigrant kids were shoulder to shoulder with the greeks in this explosion. And the nazis that tried to push blame on the immigrants have failed miserably so far.

    Also the most probable government is a PASOK + Green party, and it likely won’t change much – left parties won’t go near the socialists because they are politically toxic for them. However this malaise will resurface. We saw a different kind of youth, apolitical and blindly violent, which wasn’t there a few years ago. This is a sign of deep social malaise. And we will see more of it. It is only incidentally political IMHO.

    Cops are corrupt and ineffective (and Turkish cops are certainly not a benchmark now are they?). Not all of them (a couple of cops stood up and testified against a local Conservative semifeudal politician in Crete, about the fact that he tried to coerce them into letting local mobsters go) but enough to make life difficult, and they are really bad news if you are young and happen not to look “nice” enough. The immigrant to working-class to upper-middle class profile of the protesters shows that it is a generalized protest. And it isn’t just the police: this is a No-future generation, with very dim prospects.

    I think it’s near-unreformable. My only hope is that the younger generation might keep some of their anger growing.

  4. Certainly nothing will happen if people sit at their homes and vaccilate. The more people that go out and make their presence known by marches, occupations and resistance, the more likely that something will happen

  5. The turkish article was meant to provide a healthy dose of humour. The point is “if you’re complaining, what should we do?” Of course turkish police is definitely no benchmark. Nevertheless, I think brutality charges are absolutely unjustified compared to, for example U.S. cops. In Greece I have not seen as many as 3 youths sitting idly or simply talking and mounted cops coming to tell them “break it up” for no reason. Nor are people routinely handcuffed when arrested, unless they resist.
    Nor is there any list of humiliating police “procedures” as in the US. If you compare the treatment of demonstrators with the US, the US police wins the brutality contest hands down. Demonstrators are not run down and stepped on with horses. Whether police are effective or not(and they certainely are not), is primarily a leadership thing. So far the leadership is sitting in their offices and letting the cop on the street take the blame if he underreacts or overreacts. Another issue is that you will not attract too many quality people in the police force with low pay, and when the job specs are that you have to sit there and take verbal abuse and rocks, molotoff cocktails and bottles thrown at you by anarchists. Quality people are simply not interested in that kind of a job.
    But the main issue is that demonstrations will NOT fix anything. Greece absolutely needs
    someone who understands where the ship must go and HOW to steer it there. All these needed changes will not be easy and are likely to meet heavy opposition. The problem with this government is that it has sided with some of the sectors where change is most needed, like the judiciary.
    Another issue is EU’s role. Take for example the proposed(and failed) constitutional amendment to bring the constitution in line with EU law: The constitution says that Universities are a state responsibility and monopoly(not the exact words), hence private universities are illegal. When this government tried to change that, there was huge student unrest. It is not hard to see why: Private “universities” would use connections to place their graduates, perhaps bribing government and
    other company executives. So they could claim that “their graduates” find work, in contrast to state university graduates. The point is that in this case the EU’s role would create extra opportunities for further corruption.

  6. Widespread dissatisfaction and mistrust for both major political parties is common knowledge here in Greece. Your prediction appears very safe, but I somehow doubt it. I think we have reached a boiling point and major change is likely to happen. Perhaps it will be a great disaster that leaves the public with no other choice but to embrace the opposition.

  7. I strongly doubt that any party would really prefer elections now. That requires a well stated clear strategy and tangible political action plan in a seriously unstable international time when the state itself faces all the accumulated problems of the past years.

  8. I think it all boils down to accountabilty. What is the mechanism for a government and for its individual members (and for its law-enforcement branch and their individual members) to be held accountable? I mean, the Greek PM said he accepts responsibility for the situation and the House erupted in applause. What does he mean ‘I accept responsibility’? This is a genuine question, I really don’t see what the safeguards are for these democratic societies of ours. African politicians siphon off funds to Swiss banks accounts as their countries collapse, and no-one is stopping them. Of course all this is pointless, ND, PASOK, what difference does it make? Denying a party my vote is not punishment enough.

  9. Regarding the first comment, and the question about the “unique electoral system.” I am not sure where the question was headed, but the electoral system was changed somewhat before the last election. A detailed comment at my blog, Fruits & Votes, went over it shortly after the last election.

  10. The 1968 riots were beaten too and initially they led to a right wing reaction (Nixon, De Gaulle). But they set the agenda until at least the 1980s. More recently, the anti-globalist protests were beaten. Yet somehow the triumphal march to ever more globalisation has stopped.

    So I think the main question should not be whether the Greek government will fall but whether the protests will bring some long term changes.

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