Syntagma Square: A Greek Tragedy
Less than three years ago the Greek Socialist Party, PASOK, won a solid victory in the Greek elections. I worked on their campaign and experienced at first hand a real sense of optimism that despite the Global Financial Crisis, Greece was on a new path with George Papandreou leading the way.
One of the benefits of working on campaigns away from home is the opportunity to become, even fleetingly, part of the ebb and flow of a new city. I stayed in a hotel right on Syntagma Square in the centre of Athens. It was August and the city was at its finest. I got to know the staff at the hotel and every discussion would turn to politics - as it always does in Greece. Politics is always in the air in Athens - it has been so for about 3,000 years.
The weather was, of course, perfect. The summer heat had lost just enough of its bite to make it very pleasant to sit in one of Syntagma Square's open air cafes. Every day I would try to spend some time there - reading, writing or just watching the Athenians going about their routines. It was one of those daily rituals often observed by visitors on extended stays in a foreign city.
The only discord, as far as I was concerned, was the presence in the square of the ruling party, New Democracy, which had a number of stands displaying their materials and a very noisy loud speaker which occasionally showered the locals, the pigeons and me with very strident messages followed by similarly robust music. But no one seemed to mind - it was, I thought, the way Greeks always go about their politics since the departure of the Colonels.
As election day drew closer there was, as expected, a rise in political activity in the square. One night there was a rally in the square and on another day a rather elderly group of perhaps 200 demonstrators marched past the square waving flags and placards protesting against pay cuts - they were, I think, public servants and their demeanour reflected their calling.
All in all, there was little to suggest that Greek politics was very different from anything we would experience in Australia - there were the two mainstream parties and a gaggle of splinter groups on the left and right which appeared to play no real part in the campaign.
In the last week of the election both parties staged marches and rallies in the centre of Athens. The PASOK parade was very impressive - tens of thousands of enthusiastic supporters waved flags and banners in the distinctive green colours of PASOK as they marched through the city from several directions to a big rally addressed by Papandreou and other dignitaries.
I watched the whole event, skyrockets and all, from an apartment owned by a Greek-Australian friend, George Kypraios. George translated some of the speeches for me - and they too had a familiar ring. He explained that Papandreou had been treated with suspicion by some Greeks because, they said, he spoke their language with an American accent. He was also criticised for not being a particularly passionate public speaker - something that escaped me as he whipped the crowd of perhaps 100,000 up into quite a state. In fact, he was so well received by the Party faithful that, after he'd finished speaking and had shaken the hands or embraced the families and officials around him, he gave an encore speech. Never before or since have I seen such a thing. It really did have the feel of a rock concert.
George explained that one of the reasons for such passionate displays of activism was the fact that for so long under the dictatorship of the Colonels any display of partisan politics would have been violently crushed.
A few days later Papandreou and PASOK scored a strong win in the election with 43% of the vote.
As we now know, that euphoria was short lived and within months a far uglier side to Greek politics came to the fore. Usually peaceful citizens responded angrily to the austerity measures imposed by the EU on the country in return for a €110 billion bail out.
The beautiful Syntagma Square, which is situated beside the Parliament, was transformed from sanctuary to battleground. In one particularly violent demonstration in May, 2010 several hundred anarchists, shouting "thieves, thieves" broke away from a huge, largely peaceful rally and tried to storm the Parliament. In the ensuing melee buildings around the square were torched and three workers in a nearby bank died after molotov cocktails were thrown into their offices. How, I wondered, did the staff at my hotel cope?
This was just the first of several confrontations over the next two years which transformed Syntagma Square into a war zone. During very ugly clashes in June last year an estimated 500 rioters and police were injured.
Unfortunately, with no signs of the Greek crisis being resolved, we will probably see more of such scenes. The parties of the extreme left and right are now more powerful than those of the centre. Once moderate voters justifiably feel they have been let down by a system which was meant to protect them from severe economic and political turbulence. As we've seen throughout history, extreme economic measures have led to equally extreme political responses.
With new elections scheduled to try to resolve the political deadlock now confounding Greece and Europe, it’s hard to see Greece remaining for much longer in the eurozone. The anti-austerity parties will almost certainly improve their vote in such a politically charged election and that will put Greece on a collision course with Brussels and more importantly, Germany. What that will mean for the Greek and European economies I do not know - but it can't be good.
We can be sure though, that it will be a long time before that square is again the relaxed place I knew. As goes Syntagma so goes Greece.