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As Greeks prepare to vote in the most important election in their history on Sunday, people in Athens fear they are facing a future full of uncertainty, poverty and violence. Well-publicized crimes help create an atmosphere of violence as the wealthy and vulnerable immigrants alike come under attack. In one incident this week two robbers armed with a gun and a knife took over the house of a shipping tycoon in the well-guarded suburb of Kifisia in north Athens. Evading all security measures, such as high walls, guards and CCTV cameras, they tied up his staff and stole a fortune in cash and jewels before escaping.
On the other side of the capital near the port of Piraeus there was a different and more political crime. A house in which four Egyptian fishermen were living was broken into by 10 men who were evidently inspired by anti-immigrant hatred. As the occupants screamed for help from the windows, the attackers almost beat to death one of the Egyptians who owns a fish shop and has lived in Greece for 20 years.
“Violence is escalating tremendously,” says Liana Kanelli, a Communist MP who can speak with some authority since she has been punched on TV by the leader of the Golden Dawn neo-Nazi movement. She claims that half of the police special forces detachment had voted for the Golden Dawn, going by analysis of the polling stations where they were located.
Golden Dawn may not be large, though it did well in the elections on May 5. But the extremism of its actions and words speaks to a rage felt by many Greeks over the disasters that have hit them. Others may rudely berate a corrupt political elite, but the Golden Dawn slogan is “Burn the Brothel called Parliament”. It may even win support by claiming that its first action on forming a government would be to throw immigrant pensioners out of old age homes and immigrant children out of kindergartens to make way for Greeks.
But deeper even than the fear of violence is a fear in Greece that, inside or outside the eurozone, their country is joining the Third World and is doomed to such a standard of living. Desperation to avoid this fate will play a crucial role in determining the outcome of the second election for the 300-seat parliament on Sunday in which the conservative New Democracy Party and the radical-left Syriza are running neck and neck.
“New Democracy is trying to frighten the voters by saying that if we are elected, rats will run in the streets, children will get no milk and we will take Greece out of the euro,” says Eklidis Tsakalotos, an economics professor at the University of Athens and a Syriza leader. “In the last three or four days I think this is beginning to have an impact.”
In reality, Syriza is far from being a Greek Bolshevik party and its sudden rise has much to do with the implosion of the traditional party of the left, Pasok. Mr Tsakalotos emphasises that Syriza wants to stay in the eurozone and, if this was not its official policy it would not have won its stunning electoral success in the first election.
“The main problem in Greece is that the rich do not pay their taxes,” Mr Tsakalotos says. That is very much what the so-called Troika (EU, IMF and European Central Bank) has been saying since the Greek crisis began. Mr Tsakalotos adds that there is something absurd about the EU negotiating a memorandum for the radical reform of the Greek state to be implemented by the very parties “who were implicated in tax evasion and the clientelist [jobs for party supporters] policies of the past.”
Support for Syriza comes overwhelmingly from the under-50s and from the towns rather than the countryside. The problem for a whole generation of well-educated young Greeks is that there are no jobs for them. Sophia, a pharmacy student, said a problem for her in pursuing her career is that “pharmacies are not being paid for what they sell”. She is hoping to immigrate to the US where she has heard there is a shortage of pharmacists. A problem is that the crisis in Greece has now gone on for so long that it is self-fulfilling. Fear and uncertainty, not corruption and bureaucracy, have become the worst problem. For instance, the one industry that did relatively well last year was tourism, but this year is very different. One woman in Naxos found that a German family that was going to rent her apartment would not sign a contract until after they knew the outcome of Sunday’s election. Another local resident on the island said “tourism is down 70 per cent so far this year because visitors don’t even known if they will be able to use the ATM”.
Everywhere in Greece there is a deep sense of unfairness that is strong in all parties. The left suspects that the crisis is being used to impose a neo-liberal agenda of privatisations on Greece, what one long-term foreign resident described as “Thatcherism imposed at breakneck speed”.
But Dr Vassilis Kikilias, an orthopaedic surgeon who is a member of New Democracy, said “we thought it was going to be Europe for the peoples, but it has turned out to be Europe for the bankers”. He said a main problem facing his patients was that they were “all depressed because either they or their relatives are in a bad way”. He was in the private sector, but about 20 per cent of private patients have run out of money and are now relying on the over-loaded public hospitals. The election of Syriza might be a signal for a run on the banks and the final descent of the Greek economy from crisis to calamity.
Alternatively, the rise of Syriza marks the moment when other European politicians and officials began to take seriously the political impact in Greece of its austerity programme.
The former Prime Minister George Papandreou was treated with open contempt by the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and then French President Nicolas Sarkozy last year when he proposed a referendum in Greece on the memorandum with the EU. Such disregard for Greek public opinion is now less likely.
In the 1940s it was fear of a Communist takeover in Greece that led the US to pour aid money into the country. Sixty years later the threat of a strong and militant left in Greece may soften the way it is treated by EU leaders.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.