The Unmotivated Electorate

Greece is a Democracy, not a Republic. That makes it the only state in the world in which supreme power is held by the elected representatives of the people, without being a Republic. Although the difference is minor, it is essential. In a Republic, the people are king. In a Democracy, it's the 'demos' -- the bodies of people that form the various communities that constitute the 'kratos' -- state -- which guarantees the unity of the nation.

According to the Constitution, Greeks decide over their lordship only on two levels: national and local.

On a national level, the prime minister draws the main lines of state policy. He also decides to thrust his power and authority upon whomever he chooses. Offices are allocated in principle to party members. Occasionally a ministry may be assigned to a personality of exceptional skills such as a technocrat, for instance. All elected members of parliament have to move to Athens, where the seat of the government lies, in order to partake in the national administration, distancing themselves from their constituency.

On the local government level, the mayor of a town acts in the same way as the prime minister. (In fact, tenure of this office for the cities of Athens and Salonika is considered a stepping stone in the ladder of power.) Yet on the tighter community level, elected officials in these local councils remain in direct contact with their constituency, sharing its interests and grief. They try to adapt their course of action according to the needs of the inhabitants and to advise both City Hall and Parliament. Unfortunately, they often go unheard.

The general election of June 17 is like no other election in the history of our country.

For the past 38 years, ever since the restoration of Democracy following a seven-year long military government, the Greek electorate has been polarized into two political factions, representing on one hand the center-right (headed by the New Democracy party -- symbolized by the color blue) and on the other the center-left (the socialists, led by PASOK -- green). They have been alternating to power with a third force (the Communist Party -- red). All other parties were considered negligible. This polarization dug deep, dividing trenches in society and leaving very little room for crossovers. Athens, for instance, was partitioned into "blue" and "green" districts with an occasional "red" neighborhood, making it easy for a politician to target supporters during a national election campaign. In fact, general elections were always considered as periods of heightened emotions, during which people were invited to vent their frustration and enthusiasm. Politicians would give speeches in squares filled with supporters and would debate each other in shouting matches on live TV. Kiosks were set up by parties in every square, posters splattered all over the walls of the city, leaflets would cover the pavements, while loudspeakers bellowed political jingles. And in order to let off steam, people would heat-up outdoor cafés with political discussions and arguments.

This year's election is very different. In Athens, a large number of stores have closed down even in prime areas, office buildings lie vacant and graffiti is now covering walls. The marks of the economic crisis are way too visible to be ignored. In my 18 months into office at the community of Central Athens, the city has been faced with the increasing lack of funds that goes hand-in-hand with the curtailing of services. In fact, we are constantly trying to restructure our means in order to minimize the collateral damage and the inevitable breakdown in infrastructure. For instance, a pavement is restored only when considered dangerous, and one becomes more lenient in allowing a business to start in order to help the ailing economy.

Daily we hear stories of people defaulting on their loans, of demoralized professionals whose salaries have undergone cuts, of younger professional forced to move back to their family homes. Unemployment has climbed nationwide to over one million, a staggering figure for a country of about 10 million. In the children's day-care stations (where low-income parents leave their children for the day in order to go to work) the struggle to keep them open has been an uphill battle. Yet, the most horrific side-effect of this economic downturn are the undernourished children. More and more school directors are contacting us, asking us whether our soup kitchens could provide meals for starving children. Faced with a humanitarian crisis, on top of the notorious inflexibility of the public sector, we explained to our underpaid staff the gravity of the situation, only to see them rise to the challenge.

With such a bleak picture, it comes as no surprise that the electorate reserved a punitive vote to the existing political system. The first round of general elections that took place on May 6th gave no mandate to anyone. In fact, it was as if the people demanded from all parties involved to collaborate in a government of national unity to deal with the financial woes of the country. The politicians decided to ignore this and go for a second round, in the hopes of obtaining a clear mandate.

As the days went by it became clear that the electorate was not willing to give a majority to a single party. In an effort to rally the people, fear and anger were mobilized

Anger centers around SYRIZA (a group of 13 small, left-wing political parties loosely bound together in a coalition of post-modern communism, stretching from liberal to radical). SYRIZA, which has grown to a now minor political force, is the great winner of the election. It has risen into second position and is headed by Alexis Tsipras, a young man of small stature with a formidable drive and a huge ambition. Franklin Delano Roosevelt as his idol, Tsipras preaches with a messianic zeal to restore the cut-down wages back to their former heights, to give the unemployed back their jobs, to punish the banking system for having open-handedly given mortgages to the ones that can no longer pay their installments, and to drive a stick into the heart of all evil by cancelling the memorandum. The young, the unemployed, and the employees of the huge public sector, who fear losing their jobs, have joined his ranks. Where Tsipras is going to find the funding to materialize his ambitious plans for social reform and how is he going to negotiate with the leaders of Europe for better terms, once he denounces the memorandum, well, that bridge will be crossed when Mr. Tsipras comes to it.

Fear motivates the supporters of the right-wing party of New Democracy, headed by Harvard alumn Antonis Samaras. A controversial figure, Mr. Samaras violently denounced the first 'memorandum,' drafted by the European Union to reduce Greek public debt. He endorsed the second 'memorandum,' however, about a year later. In this camp, they preach fear of the economic crisis, fear of abandoning the euro and going back to a national currency and above all, fear of Tsipras.

The other supporter of this trend is also the big looser of this election: the socialist former government. PASOK was the great success story of the last 38 years of Greek politics (rising from nothingness and ruling the country for more than two thirds of the period) came tumbling down denounced as the architect of the 'memorandum'

Anger and fear being the two motivational forces of the Greek electorate, are not promising signs for a creative administration. In fact, Greeks are now resigned to choose between the lesser of two evils. On one hand, the evil that is familiar and has been already tested, the side effects of which brought the country to its present state. On the other, the evil that leads through uncharted territories with unimaginable consequences if things go wrong.

For the past two years, Greeks have been under a constant pressure. They not only feel desperate by the decrease of their standards of living, but also humiliated by the derogatory treatment of their fellow Europeans. Yet no candidate in the Greek election seems to be addressing the one ingredient that could make a great difference in this deterioration: the sense of honor deeply engrained in every Greek. Handled correctly, such an acknowledgement could make an immense difference, not only in the life of every Greek, but also in the restructuring of their country.

Michael Radou Moussou is an elected councilor in the Municipality of Athens.