The enemy within
There has been much gnashing of teeth over the last few days after coalition MP Giorgos Kyritsis, who is also the government’s spokesman on the refugee issue, suggested in a comment piece in SYRIZA-backed Avgi newspaper that the current coalition was elected in September to shift the burden for Greece’s fiscal adjustment to those who had backed the Yes campaign in last July’s referendum.
Kyritsis referred to this group of people as the MenoumeEvropaioi, or the “StayInEuropes”, based on the “Stay in Europe” (Menoume Evropi) slogan for the pro-EU gatherings before the referendum.
The recrimination this comment provoked was justified because it appeared Kyritsis was suggesting that the fiscal burden placed on each taxpayer should be determined by his/her political beliefs. His remark even gave rise to jokes about Greeks having to declare how they voted in the referendum on their annual tax forms.
In the face of this reaction, Kyritsis tried to clarify his statement. The SYRIZA politician did not apologise but instead explained that what he meant was the government’s task is to ensure that the “haves” pay their fair share and that the cost of adjustment does not fall mostly on the “have nots”. So far, so good. After all, this is a sentiment that has been expressed repeatedly by representatives of the International Monetary Fund, European Commission and Greece’s other lenders.
However, Kyritsis then added his opinion that those who backed the Yes vote were generally better off than those who voted No. Certainly, the pro-EU and anti-austerity gatherings of that period appeared to pitch those who were afraid that a euro exit would lead to them losing everything against those who felt that they had nothing left to lose. Also, exit polls suggested that there were fairly clear dividing lines in Greek society, with the unemployed and young people much more likely to vote No than businesspeople or salaried professionals, for instance.
The question, though, is what does a governing politician have to gain by stressing these divisions when he has been elected to lead the country as a whole? How can someone in power lump people together in such generalised categories? Isn’t he the one who has to serve all these people, recognising that there were also many low-income or jobless Greeks who felt reaching an agreement with the country’s creditors was a safer option then returning to a new national currency?
The answer is that the government, under fire domestically and under pressure from its international lenders, needs to get a foothold on the political rock face or else risk sliding down towards oblivion fairly quickly. SYRIZA’s drastic transformation from an anti-austerity party to one that has accepted the implementation of the third memorandum of understanding has taken a huge toll on the party in terms of its credibility with grassroots voters as well as those who have gravitated towards the leftist grouping during the crisis.
Now, SYRIZA appears to believe that it can regain its working class stripes by highlighting the cleavages in Greek society and presenting itself as a friend of those who have been getting the rough end of the stick in previous years. One method for achieving this goal is to draw attention to the preferential treatment “the other side” has received, another is to paint the concept of excellence as an elitist weapon, whether this is through the seemingly unqualified personnel hired as government advisers or the changes being made to public education.
This has prompted critics to accuse SYRIZA of stoking a class war to serve its own political ends. New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis accused the main governing party of “engaging in an undeclared war in favour of the lower classes and against the more affluent”.
There are two key problems, though, with this approach. Firstly, there is ample evidence to suggest that previous governments have failed to ensure the burden for pulling Greece out of its economic crisis was fairly distributed. A study supported by Germany’s Hans Boeckler Foundation indicated last year that lower income groups in Greece saw their tax burden increase by 337.7 percent from 2008 to 2012, compared to a 9 percent rise for higher income groups. It also found that the bottom three income groups saw their earnings from wages sink the most (by 16.4 to 34.6 percent) between 2008 and 2012, while the top income groups saw their income fall by much less (9.3 to 11.7 percent).
What credibility can politicians who oversaw this sharing of the pain have when they accuse others of sowing division among the classes in Greece? Their first step should be to show how they intend to put right this unfair situation.
The other problem for the government’s critics is that the divisive, perhaps even inflammatory, comment made by Kyritsis (and he is not the first SYRIZA politician to go down this path) is not a new phenomenon. In fact, he is just continuing the kind of polarising approach that has been used by previous governments. Who could forget, for instance, the so-called “theory of two extremes”, which tried to equate SYRIZA and its supporters to Golden Dawn, continuously advanced while New Democracy’s Antonis Samaras was prime minister from 2012 to 2014? Nor can we ignore the long-running battle between the left and right, a continuation of the 1940s civil war by other means, during the 1980s and 1990s, when PASOK and New Democracy were vying for power.
The fact is that in trying to tap into the discord among Greek voters, SYRIZA is going down a very well-trodden path. In fact, the modern Greek state has been built on tectonic plates that are constantly shifting due the friction caused by the dispute of the time, whether this be religion, politics or the economy. In this environment, it has been much easier for politicians to feed the beast and try to profit from this anger than to try to fill in these cracks. Anyone can cause a fight but it takes much more skill and courage to foster unity. For the time being, it seems Greece’s decision-makers continue to prefer the coward’s way out.