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Greece’s uncertain future

As someone who has been thinking and writing about politics for three decades, I like to think I have a handle on what goes on in countries with which I am familiar. But watching events unfold in Athens this week has left me as astonished as everybody else.

One minute Papandreou is holding a referendum on the bailout plan, and maybe planning to quit. Next thing you know, both those ideas have been scrapped and he is staying in office. A coalition government is one possibility, new elections are another. That was the score at the time of writing, anyway. By the time you get to read this, the situation could be something else entirely.

Television news junkies among us are night after night treated to footage of anti-capitalist youth protestors lobbing petrol bombs at heavily tooled up cops. But that is only a fraction of the picture.

This morning I was putting in some work-related phone calls to Greece, in the course of which I asked a long-time Athens resident how things were for him and his family.

As he pointed out, rioting is confined to a small area in the centre of the capital. Demo headcounts typically number in the tens of thousands, in a place where political rallies of the past have sometimes mobilised million-strong crowds.

The majority of ordinary Greeks stay at home, living lives of quiet desperation. My friend, who is on an ordinary middle-class wedge, somehow has to find an additional €10,000 to settle his tax bill this year. But at least he hasn’t seen his salary cut by 30-40%, as many public sector workers have. Most people just want to see somebody, somehow, sort this mess out.

I have visited Greece several times, both as a tourist and a journalist. Of the two pretexts to catch a flight to Athens, I have to say that island hopping holidays have invariably proven more enjoyable than interviewing businessmen.

Yet either way, I confess to having grown fond of the place, and can only watch its apparent descent into chaos with concern rather than relish.

It is not ruled out that the Greek bourgeoisie retains sufficient passive support to force through austerity as the least worst option. Remember how rapidly de Gaulle was able to reassert himself after the crisis of May 1968.

On the other hand, all the strands of leftism beyond social democracy remain stronger in Greece than anywhere else in Europe. The test will be whether these forces can galvanise majority backing in the months. I have read nothing that gives me special confidence in their abilities.

Finally, as the history books readily attest, the nationalist right is powerful also, and behind it stands a military with a relatively recent tradition of political intervention.

The wealthy, of course, retain plenty of options. As luxury residential property specialist Knight Frank recently pointed out, wealthy Greeks have spent £250 million on homes in London over the last year. That’s just for houses and flats worth £2 million and above, mind you.

It’s a safe bet that the story is the same in Paris and New York and other cities favoured by the world’s rich. Anyone would think these guys are running away from something.

So why is a substantial proportion of the Greek elite so obviously preparing to decamp? Probably they have looked at the range of possibilities over the coming period, and decided that from their point of view, none of them are good.

Even so, they do not know what will happen next. As I admitted at the start of this post, neither do I. The worrying thing is that nobody else does, either.


  1. P SPENCE says:

    Why is the Greek government anxious to avoid an election? In part are they not worried that the Left will increase its influence?

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