the TV told me to be happy that we have a government again

I admit it. I’ve been hiding under a Cyclopean rock.  I started this blog because I wanted it to be a positive, upbeat place, and positive and upbeat are not great words to describe me these past few weeks.

Greece has a government now. A government almost identical to the government it has had for the past several years decades. Is there a reason why things should have changed? Is there a logical, common sense reason why voters might have chosen a different party to form a government – a party that has not been the direct and foremost cause of the domestic factors leading to the crisis? Apparently the answer to these questions is “no, we’re happy with those parties. They represent us well. We trust them. Their leaders are honest, ethical, above corruption, and clearly work for the best interests of the Greek people.”

I don’t have the right to vote in Greece, so at least I am spared the additional frustration that voters for other parties feel, of having cast their vote into the black hole of New Pasocracy.

As a permanent resident, tax-payer, and lover of Greece, however, I share in the same frustrations that most people, everywhere on the political spectrum, feel: the quaintness of voting in a political realm when decisions are being made, just up above, in the banking realm.

And so Greece has sworn in a prime minister who has pledged to continue to do everything exactly as before, when everything before failed comically. It’s been reported that his top pick for the all-important Minister of Finance is the president of Greece’s largest private bank. The government was formed by a coalition with (whom else?) PASOK, and with the small Democratic Left party, a party that serves very little purpose except to absorb the anger that voters felt against the government and then collaborating with the government, essentially nullifying the “protest vote” that they campaigned for. What does a coalition with PASOK and Democratic Left mean? That some members of PASOK and Democratic Left will be in cabinet positions… just not any of the members that anyone actually voted for; the members will be unelected party members. Even the ND cabinet members will be – it has been reported – so called “technocrats,” a Greek word that means “rule by experts” (i.e., unelected bankers and the like).

ND and PASOK campaigned, and came to power, on the platform of “renegotiating the agreement with the Troika.” While the campaign was going on, European political leaders and the German press sent constant inappropriate messages toward Greek voters, telling them that they must vote for these parties. (Inappropriate because voting in a national election is a domestic matter.) But as soon as the government was formed, the message changed dramatically: “no renegotiation is possible. You can ask all you want, but the answer is ‘no’.”

The nice thing about the campaign season, despite the annoying ads, is that people say nice things. Candidates make promises that people want to hear. Bad stuff is put on hold. But now the elections are over and, for the first time in two months, they’ve started again with the constant news reports on the new austerity measures starting in July. S is expecting another pay cut. We’ve lost our prescription drug coverage, but the number removed from the paycheck for health insurance hasn’t gone down at all. We just found out how much we owe (yes, owe – for the first time in our entire lives, we owe) for income tax – and it’s a four digit number.  A kind of large four digit number.  Every last one of those four digits is more than we can afford. But we have to pay it, because if we don’t, we get fined even more. And eventually thrown in jail.  [We owe even though we made much less than the year before.  It’s because the standard deduction was reduced to much less than half of what it was before, and pretty much all tax write-offs and credits were eliminated; there are also several new taxes that were added.  Everyone in Greece is dealing with this same thing right now.]

I have nothing but disgust and distrust for the new government. Their campaign tactics repulsed me. The demography of their voters (retirees for the most part) doesn’t impress me. They are proven failures, every one of them. There is no hope for Greece with this government. False hope would have been better than no hope.

It might seem hard to believe that in Greece in 2012, people would actually vote for “politics as usual,” but it isn’t. There are two explanations: 1) the Greek public was the victim of a campaign of terror launched by the old political parties, the European political and banking community, and the mass media (although only the media were really honest about doing it); and 2) old people tend to be conservative. Greece has a lot of old people.

I did, however, see one small glimmer of hope. I have a friend in Thessaloniki who voted (like everyone in my generation) for Syriza. So did his two brothers. His parents – retired now, one from coal mining and one from working in a factory, who went to Germany to find work after the war when Greece was destroyed but Germany was booming, and who have remained illiterate throughout their lives – have voted for ND in every election since ND was formed, for reasons that they themselves cannot articulate. This year, for the first time ever, they didn’t. They couldn’t bring themselves to vote for a different party, but they decided to stay home. “This is your future… you have to decide,” my friend’s father told him. Despite this gesture, Thessaloniki – due to a last-minute terror campaign by a local ND politician – experienced a massive increase in elderly voting, and was the only major city in Greece that voted for ND – even after voting for Syriza in May.


supermarket politicians

Tonight I stayed up late to watch a program on TV that I was very much anticipating.  Alpha channel, which is one of the less serious channels, but has recently in the past month or so tried to realign itself as a serious/newsy channel, has in so doing chosen to focus on the more “populist” issues.  At this point, the most populist issue in Greece is probably the high cost of food in the supermarket.  It’s easy to talk about the euro currency, illegal immigration, and unemployment, but what really matters to people is if they can get spaghetti on the table for dinner tonight.  With that in mind, they came up with the idea to ask two average moms to share their experiences at the supermarket: how much they have to spend, what they need to buy to get through the week – and then ask the representatives of four political parties – four candidates for Parliament – to shop for those items with €50.

So we meet Liana, a mom of an 8 year old and an 12 year old, who makes €360 per month as a cleaner; her rent and utilities alone are over €400/month; and Anna Georganta, a mom of three who has been unemployed for some time (and no longer receiving benefits but continuing to search for work) and whose husband is, like mine, an employee of the Greek government; he was making €160 per month for the past six months but recently started making €400 per month.  They don’t have €50/week to spend on food – Anna says she goes to the supermarket once per month and spends about €70 – but they decided to give the politicians a break and give them the €50 that studies say the “average Greek” has to spend on food and household goods for a family of four, per week.  Anna got teary-eyed when she talked about how lucky she felt that her children went to a school that provided snacks to the children, a new and very rare concept in a country where schools don’t serve meals – in Anna’s children’s school, they started serving snacks after they had problems with hungry children passing out in class.

The list was not luxurious.  There were no eggs, meat, or fruit – items well out of reach of the average Greek, if that €50 figure is correct.  It included basics like potatoes, pasta, tomatoes, cucumbers, condensed milk, flour, oil, and soap.   (Why condensed milk?  Apparently they water it way down for their kids.  I didn’t know about this trick.  I don’t drink milk myself or I would try it!)

New Democracy was represented by the weepy Adonis Georgiadis, who mentioned several times that he felt personally ashamed for the state of these moms.  At one point he told Liana that she, and others like her, were today’s heroes.   Her bitter response was “I don’t know if we’re heroes… or if you’ve turned us into this.”  He seemed – was it real? or just an act? – to be deeply affected by the exercise.  He seemed overwhelmed by the supermarket itself, as if shopping while mentally keeping a budget was too much for him.

PASOK was represented by Katerina Batseli, former Minister of Agriculture, a frowning woman who made it clear from the first moment that this would be very easy for her, because she does the shopping for her family and this is all a load of propaganda anyway.  She was the only one who ignored the directions to buy the things on the list, and just bought the stuff that she wanted to buy.  The moms were not impressed – they estimated that her shopping would feed their families for three days, when the assignment was for seven days.  She seemed shocked when the moms said that they needed to be completely vegetarian; she seemed to think that a chicken, at the very least, was necessary.  She came off as having absolutely no clue, and was immensely unlikeable.  She was a very bad choice; even Georgiadis, who is practically a caricature of himself, was much more likeable.

The Ecologist Greens were represented by Ioanna Kontouli, who appears to be the only member of that party who ever appears in public, and who mentioned several times that her own monthly salary is €1300, but that any day that could be reduced to the amount that Anna and Liana live on.  She ended up in tears, group-hugging the moms and promising to exchange phone numbers so that they could set up a currency-free barter system to feed the moms and kids of Greece.  The look on Anna’s face seemed to say “how do I tell her that we don’t have a telephone number to give her?”

The Independent Greeks party were represented by the actor Pavlos Kontogiannidis, the only one who seemed to find humor in the situation of nice people whose children were obviously going hungry.  Anna had mentioned during the intro that she can’t shop with her children, because she doesn’t want them to see all the food they can’t have, and she can’t get them the things they want, like chocolate, because that means she can’t afford pasta, and chocolate won’t keep them full.  So Kontogiannidis bought some chocolate bars for her kids, saying that he would pay for them out of his own pocket.  Anna had the grace not to say anything, but I wanted to reach through the television screen and choke him.

After the shopping trip, where they all made it through spending €50 plus or minus €10, they all convened for a typical political discussion panel back at the studio with, surprise, Anna the mom in attendance.

The journalist leading the panel asked the politicians why, when salaries have been reduced sometimes to a quarter or a fifth of what they were before, when we haven’t had an increase in sales tax in the past year, prices on food and household goods – supermarket stuff – have gone up, not down.  Only Ms. Batseli tried to answer – she tried to give an economic explanation, blaming increases in the price of fuel, various taxes, including business and sales tax, and other “factors.”  When she was called out on the issue of cartels, which have a long history of price fixing in Greece, she – as former minister of agriculture and therefore the person in charge of breaking up the cartels – didn’t have anything to say.

While the politicians bickered, Anna the mom came across as the most balanced individual in the room – she was dignified and remarkably articulate, staying on topic while appearing knowledgeable on political and economic issues.  She wasn’t angry, desperate, or even irritated with the politicians – even when talking about the pain involved in paying her income taxes this year.  One almost got the feeling that she was used to listening to a bunch of people arguing with each other – maybe her three children prepared her for the panel.

Ms. Kontouli brought up the idea of barter again on the panel, suggesting that she as an engineer could offer her services in exchange for, say, Anna to clean her house.  Ms. Batseli cut her off to suggest that if that happened, sales tax would have to be extremely high to cover the fact that fewer goods would be taxed, and tax revenue would be extremely low.

Of course, the discussion fell apart into the usual bickering and yelling over each other that characterizes every political panel on Greek television since the beginning of time.  Anna sat quietly on the end and watched, head cocked to the side, while they argued over ideological minutiae, blameshifting, off-topic issues like the rate that Spain was able to borrow money today, and lines like “you dare to point your finger at me?”

Anna, mom of three, had the last word, when asked what she expected for the future:  “I’d like to live like a human being.”

Greek election and the IMF

Greece is still reeling from the recent interview of Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, published in the Guardian on Friday.  In the interview, Lagarde is asked if she’s telling Greece that it’s “payback time,” to which she replies “that’s right.”  She now famously compares crisis-stricken Greece to villages in Niger where children only get two hours of school per day and share “one chair for the three of them.”  In her comparison, she says she has more sympathy for Niger because “I think they need even more help than the people in Athens.”

Fair enough.  It would be hard to argue that point – after all, who can forget the food crisis in Niger a few years ago which killed thousands, and again in 2010?  But Lagarde’s statement about Niger, “I have them in my mind all the time,” begs the question:  what does Lagarde’s organization, the International Monetary Fund, have to do with Niger anyway?

Although it can be hard to find good information about the food crises in Niger, the BBC reported (and it is generally agreed) that the main cause of the 2005 food crisis (I think we’re not supposed to use the loaded word “famine”) was not crop failure, locusts, or drought, but rather the high cost of food.  Niger is the poorest country in the world, so when neighboring Nigeria pays higher prices for food, Niger exports its food, reducing local food supply and driving up prices.  If it didn’t export food, Niger – even at the worst of the crisis – would have been able to feed its people without international aid.

But why would Nigeria pay higher prices for food?  Nigeria itself was also under the IMF and due to IMF imposed structural reforms, their food prices had skyrocketed.  Although this affected Niger the most, other countries, including Cameroon and the Ivory Coast exported more food than usual to Nigeria.

Niger, like Greece, had a corrupt public health care system which provided doctors, nurses, and hospital care for children and adults.  The IMF required Niger to change to a privatized health care system under the austerity measures program.  Now, according to the BBC:

It has a policy, encouraged by the Western world, of privatised health care so that it costs $14 (£8) for a mother to get a baby a medical consultation. That means almost no-one in the country can afford to see a nurse or a doctor.

It’s hard to think of a more effective way of reducing health care costs for the country – with international aid organizations picking up the tab for what health care there is, the government would no longer have direct health costs to pay for.  This is one of the policies that the IMF uses in Niger that it has been trying to get in place in Greece.  This week, one of the biggest news stories in Greece is the flow of Greek doctors – trained at Greek taxpayer expense at Greek universities where they didn’t pay tuition – to work in Germany, where there aren’t enough doctors.

Since the start of the crisis in Greece, the sales tax (VAT) has been increased several times, with goods such as milk and flour being taxed higher than ever before.  The price of electricity has gone up sharply, and I’m not even talking about the new taxes added to the electricity bill.

Johanne Sekkenes… believes that the IMF and EU pressed too hard to implement a structural adjustment programme. … Under the letter of intent signed between the IMF and the government, [they] agreed to extend VAT to milk, sugar and wheat flour, and reduce VAT exemptions on water and electricity consumption.

The quote above isn’t about Greece – it’s about Niger.  Niger – despite having reserves of uranium and gold – owed a lot of money, so they called in the IMF, which, in exchange for agreeing to lend them money, forced them to sign on to a raft of austerity measures.  Included in these was a measure against allowing the distribution of free food aid to starving people, in order to keep food prices high and not “flood the market” so to speak, which would cause food prices to come down.  The same logic was applied to sell off the government’s food reserves.  (At the time, the IMF claimed that these reports are overstated and/or misleading.)

The strongly anti-IMF WSWS says:

After he was elected to a second term last December [2004], President Mamadou Tandja imposed a 19 percent VAT on basic foodstuffs at the behest of the IMF. Part of the same economic package involved the abolition of emergency grain reserves. The tax was imposed despite the fact that the price of basic foods has risen between 75 and 89 percent over the last five years. At the same time, the sale price of livestock—the main income of the country’s nomadic herders—has fallen by 25 percent.

Traditionally, the IMF has pushed governments to privatize – i.e., to sell things owned by the people as a whole, and force the government to give the money from the sale to the IMF to pay down loans.  That’s because the IMF works in countries that are cash-strapped, and their austerity philosophy leads to the destitution of the people.  Once the people are destitute, there is not much tax revenue, so the best way for the government to pay back IMF loans is to sell off public services, land, and resources.  This month, Greek tax revenues are 30% below what they’re “supposed to be.”  While it’s easy for Lagarde to say

“Do you know what? As far as Athens is concerned, I also think about all those people who are trying to escape tax all the time. All these people in Greece who are trying to escape tax.”

Even more than she thinks about all those now struggling to survive without jobs or public services?

“I think of them equally. And I think they should also help themselves collectively.” How? “By all paying their tax. Yeah.”

it sounds as if she doesn’t see the connection between massive salary cuts, five years of recession, and high inflation on food on the one side, and lower tax revenue on the other side.  When 60% of the shops have gone out of business in a town, business tax revenue will go down.  When a person who used to have a job now is unemployed, income tax revenue will go down.  When 90% of a person’s income goes to pay rent, electricity, and heat, sales tax revenue on food and goods will go down.

(I also wonder if she knows that Greeks’ taxes are withheld from their salaries, just like everywhere else.  S and I filed our obscene 2011 taxes yesterday.  On the news they’ve said that anyone who is owed a tax refund will be unlikely to receive it.  Does she really want to talk about the Greek tax payer right now?)

When the IMF told the government of Malawi to sell part of its grain reserve in 2002, and then thousands of Malawians died of starvation, the IMF’s response was that the Malawi government didn’t give the IMF an accurate report of how much grain they really needed.

According to the Guardian, the same media outlet that interviewed Lagarde on Friday, Malawi spent 20% of its GDP in 2002 servicing its debt – “more than it will spend on health, education and agriculture combined.”

The new agreement that Greece signed with the IMF and the EU this spring guarantees that service on its debt is Greece’s first priority – before spending money on public health, education, defense, or anything else.  It’s been reported that Greece has already used all the money they had put aside for natural disasters – we were shaken awake at 3am a few nights ago to be reminded that Greece is a very seismically active place; and who can forget the forest fires in Greece in 2007?  Not to mention the several very active volcanoes.

Anyway, I’m not here to criticize the IMF’s policies in Africa – and I’m not accusing Lagarde of lying when she claims to lose sleep over Nigerien children.  I’m just mystified that she would say those things just three weeks before the Greek election.

In the last Greek election, on May 6, the major issues were “more of the same vs. change” and “illegal immigration.”  The party in power received 13% of the vote, answering the first question, and the ultra-nationalist Golden Dawn party got into Parliament for the first time ever with 21 seats, answering the second.

In the new election, coming up on June 17, the major issues are shaping up to be “austerity vs. growth” and “toeing the EU/IMF line vs. national sovereignty.”  The two old parties, PASOK and New Democracy, represent the austerity and EU/IMF side, and the Syriza and Independent Greeks parties, represent growth and national sovereignty.

Recent polls are all over the place.  Some put ND ahead of Syriza, others put Syriza in front of ND.  The only thing they all have in common is that it will be a very close race.  The IMF and the EU have gone way out of their way over the past week to send the message to Greek voters that New Democracy, Syriza, and PASOK are all lying when they all say that Greece can renegotiate its terms with the EU and the IMF.  PASOK claims it can get the IMF/EU to agree to extend the terms of the pay-back by a year.  New Democracy claims it can get the IMF/EU to agree to “renegotiation of terms.”  Syriza claims it will simply trash the entire agreement.

The question for Greek voters obviously isn’t which of those three they want.  The question is which party they trust to do what the voters want.  Clearly PASOK and New Democracy know that they can’t win by saying “we want to stick to the terms of the agreement,” because that was roundly rejected in the May 6 election.  However, voters should pay attention to the voices coming from the EU and IMF.  They are claiming that they will not allow any renegotiation of any terms.  That means that PASOK and New Democracy won’t be able to do what they claim they will do.  Syriza may well do what it says – who knows.  But New Democracy, if it wins, will have to follow the terms of the agreement – that’s what Lagarde is saying.

And that’s why, I think, New Democracy and PASOK protested so loudly when Lagarde said those things.  They need for the EU/IMF to shut up for three more weeks so they can get elected and continue the austerity path.   With interviews like that, not only does she undermine the parties she wants us to vote for, but she pushes voters toward Syriza.

What on earth was Lagarde thinking?

PASOK president Evangelos Venizelos:  “Nobody should humiliate a people during a crisis and I call on Mrs Lagarde, who insulted the Greek people with her attitude, to rethink what she wanted to say.”

Lagarde’s response was heartwarming:  she clarified that when she said “all these people in Greece who are trying to escape tax” when asked about how she “demands measures she knows may mean women won’t have access to a midwife when they give birth, and patients won’t get life-saving drugs, and the elderly will die alone for lack of care,” what she really meant were rich people.

All those rich people who don’t have access to a midwife when they give birth.


Greek election: undemocracy in action

Greeks elected a 300-seat Parliament on May 6, which was sworn in today.  And they go right back to elect another one in exactly a month from today – all in the name of democracy and the will of the people.  But the fact is that the Greek electoral process is a sham, and while the May 6 elections didn’t lead to a government, it seems inevitable that the June 17 elections – if they do produce a government – will not – can not – translate to a government according to the will of the people.

When Greeks voted on May 6, they didn’t vote for a prime minister or a president.  Unlike the American presidential election, or the one in France on the same day, Greek elections are held to choose members of the 300-seat Parliament, analogous to the US House of Representatives.  Unlike the United States, where only two perspectives are taken seriously – that of the Democratic Party and that of the Republican Party – in Greece there are more than two parties.  Of course, the US has lots of parties – but how many US presidents and members of Congress belong to parties that are not in the “top two”?  Not very many.  Greece had two top parties also, PASOK and New Democracy, but it also had several other parties that get a significant portion of the vote.  Because the Greek constitution is designed to represent more than two views at the same time, the 300 seats of Parliament are divided according to how many votes each party gets overall.  So even if a small party’s politician doesn’t receive a majority of the votes in any one district, as long as the party as a whole receives 3% of the vote overall throughout the country, they get seats in Parliament.

As a result of this system, the Communist Party, for example, which received the largest number of votes in only one place in Greece (the island of Samos) still received 26 seats in Parliament.  This system guarantees that parties do not have to be a majority force in any single place, as long as they are a minority force everywhere.

It is a nominally democratic system that puts an emphasis on popular vote rather than majority vote.  However, there are several undemocratic elements to the current electoral system in Greece:

1.  In the city where I live, there is a slight Muslim majority.  This is unique in Greece and is due to the fact that this city was excluded from the Exchange of Populations between Turkey and Greece in 1923, which relocated all Christians in Turkey to Greece, and all Muslims in Greece to Turkey according to the Treaty of Lausanne.  In the past, our Muslim townsfolk here supported a local party that wanted to unite this region with Turkey.  Because the party’s candidates only ran for office here in this town, they made up a tiny fraction of the national vote; but they were the winning party here.  To prevent this party from entering Parliament, lawmakers changed the electoral law so that any party had to have at least 3% of the total popular vote throughout Greece to get into Parliament.  This had the effect of killing any small local movements.  Only political parties that are on the ballot in Athens, Thessaloniki, and other large cities are able to get into Parliament now.   Greek politics must now be conducted on a national or at least urban scale.

The practical result of this undemocratic law is that 19.5% of the voters who voted on May 6 voted for parties that cannot set foot in Parliament.  These voters are completely unrepresented citizens, just as much as those who chose not to vote at all.

This law has one further undemocratic result:  the more votes go to parties that stay outside Parliament, the smaller a percentage the first party needs to get 50 bonus seats (which I’ll explain just below).  So voting for a party that will not get that 3% minimum directly helps give a majority to the party that these voters are voting against.  In fact, voting for a tiny party is a more effective vote for Party 1 than a simple vote for Party 1, arithmetically.  The best way to strengthen Party 1 is to vote for Party 20.

2.  The party that gets the most votes, even if it only receives a few percentage points of votes, gets fifty additional Parliamentary seats.  The 250 remaining seats are then divvied up based on the percentage of votes that each party received.  The purpose of this system is to strengthen the two-party system.  In the past, you would often have elections where 41% voted for Party 1, 40% voted for Party 2, and 19% voted for Parties 3, 4, and 5.  Because nothing can ever get done if one party doesn’t get at least 151 votes for a simple majority – required to pass any law – in our example, there is a problem.  Party 1 would get 123 seats (41% of 300), which isn’t enough to do anything.  To fix this problem, lawmakers give them a bonus.  Party 1 starts with 50 seats, and then gets 41% of the remaining 250 (102 more seats).  This way, they get 152 seats – just enough to form a simple majority and allow the government to function and actually get things done.

However, this is undemocratic for several reasons.  For one thing, it gives over 50% of the seats in Parliament to a party that only represents 41% of the votes.  For another, it makes the discrepancy between a party that got 41% and a party that got 40% very large – a difference of 52 seats with only 1% difference in votes.  Such a big difference makes the government appear illegitimate to the people who elected it.  Third, these fifty seats are “stolen” from the other parties.  Fourth and perhaps most seriously, the knowledge that Party 1 will be rewarded with 50 extra seats serves to extort votes from all voters who feel represented by Parties 3, 4, 5, etc.

The concept of voter extortion is well understood in Greece.  Most voters wrestle with the dilemma of voting for the party they support, or voting for the Big Two party that they hate least.

The two undemocratic laws work together to extort votes.  Those who support a very small party know that it is unlikely that their party will get 3% of the vote.  People can be reluctant to “throw away” their vote on a party that will not get into Parliament.  The logic that “I won’t vote for them because other people will make the same decision not to vote for them for the reason that other people will make the same decision not to vote for them for the reason…” is self-destructive because it ensures an ever-larger pool of voters voting for parties they do not support, and an ever-smaller pool of voters voting for small parties, thus dooming small parties to stagnate, even if they do in fact represent a large number of voters.

Those who support a small, but not tiny, party also have a dilemma.  They can vote their party into Parliament, but by doing so they may “allow” Party 1 to get a majority, even if they prefer Party 2 over Party 1.  So the supporters of smaller parties may choose to vote for Party 2 simply to have a voice in the dominant two-party system.  This undermines the strength of the party they support and further strengthens the two-party system that misrepresents them.

These issues are hardly unique to Greece.  Even the US, with its dominantly two-party system, presents its voters with a similar dilemma.  But in the May 6 election, we saw in a very stark way how undemocratic electoral laws don’t work well in a democratic process.

Party 1, New Democracy, received 18.8% of the vote, winning it an extra 50 seats.  Even with these extra seats, they had no majority.  This points out just how undemocratic the rule of the extra 50 seats is:  though it was applied, and thereby disenfranchised many voters, its application was useless and served no positive purpose.  No majority government could be formed, no matter what – but they still got to take those fifty extra seats.

Party 2, Syriza, received 16.8% of the vote, and got only 52 seats, compared to New Democracy’s 108 seats.  Party 3, PASOK, received 13.2% of the vote and got 41 seats.  So while the difference between Party 1 and Party 2 is 2 percentage points, Party 1 got 56 more seats – more than all of Party 2’s seats; and while the difference between Party 2 and Party 3 was 3.6 points, almost twice the difference between Party 1 and Party 2, still Party 3 only got eleven fewer seats than Party 2.

3.  Something that many voters may not realize, and many people outside Greece don’t know, is that not all parties are eligible to get the bonus 50 seats for being Party 1.  Probably the most undemocratic of all the electoral laws in Greece, it’s also the least understood.  There are two kinds of political parties in Greece:  single parties and group parties.  A group party is a party that has been cobbled together from several political groups but conducts itself as a single political party for all intents and purposes.  An example of a single party is New Democracy.  An example of a group party is Syriza.  Group parties are not eligible for the bonus 50 seats unless they receive an absolutely enormous majority of the popular vote, in which case they wouldn’t need the 50 seats for a majority anyway.  This is because in order to receive the 50 bonus seats, if a group party is made up of five groups, it’s total votes are divided by five; then that number is compared to the numbers of the single parties.  The number must be higher than the single party receiving the most votes in Parliament.

Let’s assume that New Democracy and Syriza’s numbers were switched in the May 6 election.  That means that ND had 16.8% of the vote and Syriza had 18.8%.  One would assume that Syriza would then get 108 seats, and ND 52.  But in fact, Syriza is a group party comprised of 12 member groups.    So what would have happened is that Syriza’s number, 18.8%, would have been divided by 12, and then compared to ND’s 16.8%.  18.8/12=1.6%.  In this case, ND would still receive the fifty bonus seats.  Syriza would get 47 seats, and ND would get 92 seats, even though Syriza received enough additional votes to justify ND getting more than twice Syriza’s seats in Parliament when the names are switched, as on May 6.  If Syriza had won the election on May 6, they would have received fewer Parliament seats then they received for coming in second place.

This serves as perhaps the most extreme version of vote extortion.  It is almost impossible for Syriza to form a government, because it can never receive the 50 bonus seats, unless no other political party receives more than a few percentage points of votes.

That’s fair, according to Greek electoral law.

However, what’s fair and what’s right are not always the same thing.  And that was proven by the week following the elections, when the party leaders tried to form a coalition government between themselves to get a simple majority.  Even if Party 1 and Party 3 joined together, they still had only 149 seats, but no other party in Parliament (3, 4, 5, 6, 7) could be convinced to join them in power, since it was so obvious that Party 2 should be in power.

After days of arguing about it, the president of Greece announced that there was no way to make a simple majority, or even come close with the “tolerance” of the other parties, and the only solution was for everyone to vote again.

But how can that be a solution?  Won’t everyone vote for the same people all over again?

Several things will be different this time around.  For one thing, voters will no longer be voting for individual candidates, but for parties as a whole.  When a new election takes place within 18 months after the previous one, Greek electoral law dictates that each region’s winning candidates are selected by the winning party, rather than by the voters.  This is unlikely to change the election results dramatically, since most parties simply rank their candidates by how they did in the first election.

Aside from that procedural change, the real and confounding difference is that many of the smaller parties, especially the ones that didn’t manage to enter Parliament at all, will be looking to hook up with each other in order to increase their votes and hit the 3% minimum.  We may see, for example, several of the pro-business center-right parties, like Democratic Alliance, Creativity Again, and Action band together.  Individually, these three parties received 2.55%, 2.15%, and 1.80% of the vote.  Simply added together, their total would be 6.5% – more than the number of votes received by Democratic Left, one of the most key players in the coalition discussions this past week.

However, that’s not exactly how it works.  Some voters who voted for Action may not like Democratic Alliance enough to vote for the trio.   That sort of defection will cost the trio votes.  But the bigger question is:  how many voters who liked these parties, but didn’t want to “throw away” their votes, will be willing to vote for the party now that is almost certain to enter Parliament?  That should swell the numbers nicely.  Who did all those people vote for in the last election?  Maybe some of them didn’t vote at all, but surely some of them gave their vote away to the Big Two party that they hated least.  In this case, that would be New Democracy, or Party 1.  If Democratic Alliance, Creativity Again, and Action do in fact band together, they will pull almost all their new votes from New Democracy; even with everything else begin equal, it is likely to be enough to push New Democracy’s numbers below Syriza’s, making Syriza Party 1 – not that it will do Syriza any good, since ND still gets the bonus seats.

And of course, these new banded together parties will be group parties – and that means that they aren’t competing with the two big parties, ND and PASOK.

All parties, except ND and PASOK, are doomed to compete amongst themselves, but never with ND and PASOK, for true governance of the Greek Parliament.  Although PASOK took a beating in the May 6 election, with only 13% of the vote, it is still in a better position than Syriza over the long haul, because it can rebuild itself and vie for the fifty bonus seats, which Syriza cannot.

Why would the two big parties write a law that makes participation in the government as anything beyond a fringe party impossible for any party except New Democracy and PASOK?  I wish someone from ND or PASOK would explain this to me in a way that I can understand.  Because every explanation I come up with makes me fear I may be becoming cynical….

As we go to new elections on June 17, it will be interesting to see how voters can possibly resolve these impossible dilemmas.  There is no way to vote in Greece such that New Democracy or PASOK will not control the Parliament over the long term.  Greece is not a plural democracy, despite claiming to be one.  Greece is in fact a two-party system that tolerates a minority of fringe parties in order to diffuse popular discontent with the two big parties, and to conceal the true nature of its Parliamentary system.  It strikes me as very unlikely that the current electoral law can be twisted in any conceivable way that represents the actual will of the Greek people – yet the electoral law is written in such a way that it cannot be changed prior to an election – unless 2/3 of Parliament – a two-party system Parliament always elected under standing electoral law, mind you – votes to change it.  Any changes to electoral law only go into effect in the second election after the law change.

There has been a lot of rhetoric out of the EU lately about respecting the Greek democratic process.  What the EU politicians are not saying is why they respect this particular Greek “democratic” process.  Now that you know, you might read their statements in a different light.

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Greek election: the fascist and the migrant

It surprised many people – both inside and outside Greece – that for the first time ever, a political party with fascist ideology not only received enough votes to enter Parliament (they got 7% of the vote – more than twice the Greens party) but that they were also the #1 party in a number of electoral districts, receiving more votes than any other single party.

The party in question is called Chrysi Avgi, Golden Dawn.  They are perceived more as a gang than as a political party, but in fact they have been on the ballot regularly for years, always receiving much less than 1% of the vote, and never getting close to the 3% required to enter Parliament.

Their basic ideology is one of ultra-nationalism, in which Greeks by blood are inherently superior to others and all immigrants, legal and illegal, must be forced out of the country.  Some of their writings celebrate Adolf Hitler, the SS, and specific Nazi philosophies.  They are famous in Greece for violent attacks against immigrants in Athens.

Politically, although they operate within a democratic context (the Parliamentary system), they are against democracy as a concept, in favor of dictatorship and fascism.  They consider the dictatorship of Ioannis Metaxas in Greece in the 1930s as the true government of Greece.  So while they are able to be democratically elected, they don’t recognize the democratic process.

Pre-election polling suggested that 4-5% of Greeks would vote for Golden Dawn.  Although many people didn’t believe it could happen – remember that Greece lost a higher percentage of its people to the Nazis in World War II than almost any other country, due to suffering one of the most, if not the most, brutal of all the German occupations – the poll result prompted a discussion, outside the general economic debates that characterized the campaign, about whether a fascist party like Golden Dawn could actually be elected into Parliament.

Although the mass media didn’t feature members of Golden Dawn on their endless informal television debates between candidates – and there is disagreement on whether this is because the mass media didn’t invite them, or Golden Dawn refused to appear – there was still some reporting on activities of Golden Dawn in the wider Athens community.

Golden Dawn members were shown distributing food and clothing to poor Athenians as part of the “softer side” of their party.  It also became generally known that members of Golden Dawn made themselves available to serve as security escorts for Greeks living in ghettoized neighborhoods, to take older and frailer Greeks to banks, shopping, etc., so that they could leave their houses without being mugged by illegal immigrants.

Whether it is possible to leave one’s house without being mugged by illegal immigrants in these neighborhoods is a different issue; the fact remains that the image of elderly Greeks trapped in their homes by the drug-addled immigrant menace outside their door circulated widely in Greece in the two months before the election.

How big of a problem is illegal immigration in Athens, and why?  After all, with 22% unemployment and 53% youth unemployment, why would anyone looking for a better future want to come here?  Well, the truth is that the vast majority of them don’t want to be in Greece at all.

Greece happens to be located on the very eastern edge of the European Union.  If Turkey were a member of the European Union, this would not be the case; however the fact of the matter is that Turkey is not, and Greece is the first EU country that a person would enter if coming from the east or middle east.

Not only is Greece the first country one comes to, but it also has a particularly bizarre geography:  several thousand islands, the vast majority uninhabited; a long river border with Turkey; and one of the longest coastlines in the world (8,500 miles).   This means that Greece receives by far the most illegal immigrants of any EU country, simply by virtue of its geography.

I’m no specialist, and although I myself am an immigrant to Greece, I don’t know all the details because I have always been legal.  But the general policy about illegal immigration in Greece is to discourage immigrants from crossing the border (there is a plan to build a tall 12.5 km wall between Greece and Turkey in a particularly ‘porous’ spot; border police patrol the border with Turkey), but once someone actually does cross the border, they are processed officially:  photographed, given a piece of paper giving them the right to stay in Greece for thirty days while their application for political asylum is reviewed, and, well, that’s pretty much the end of it.

The city of Alexandroupoli is the first major city you come to in Greece after crossing the border from Turkey.  We spend a lot of time there.  Every time we drive past the train station, there is a clump of several dozen illegal immigrants waiting for the train to Athens.  They have their 30-day asylum paper, and their goal is to get to Athens where they hope to find a place to live, a job, and so on.  When the 30 days is up, they simply don’t show up for a hearing.  Asylum is granted to fewer than 2% of applicants anyway, so they know their chances are better outside the system after the 30 days expires.  Estimates of the number of these undocumented immigrants in Greece vary, but tend to be around 1 to 1.3 million people, or about 10% of the population of Greece.

Of course, there is no work in Athens either.  So most people in this situation hope to go to one of the other EU countries where the outlook is better – Germany, for example.  However, if they are caught outside Greece, they are returned to Greece.  Their return to Greece is required by the terms of an EU treaty.  In this way, other EU countries are able to remove their illegal immigrants legally and cheaply by sending them to Greece or one of the other ‘gateway’ countries like Italy.  As a result of this treaty and geography, Greece currently has to deal – financially and legally – with over 90% of illegal immigrants in the entire European Union.

Greece doesn’t have enough money to deal with this situation.  Greece doesn’t have enough money to pay pensions and wages, so it’s hardly surprising.  It’s easy for Greeks (and others) to criticize the Greek government for the backlog of asylum applications, the poor conditions of the few jails for the ‘caught’ immigrants (some who overstayed the 30 day grace period are jailed, though the vast majority aren’t, because there simply isn’t money or space), and so on.  Having been through the immigration process myself, where it took approximately fourteen months from the date of application to the date of issuance of my residence permit – and that in the best of circumstances, where we did everything perfectly and on time and rigorously legal – I know that the system is slow, overburdened, and terribly underfunded.

As a result of the simple fact that Turkey is not in the EU, the “Dublin II” treaty that sends almost all illegal immigrants in the entire EU to Greece for ‘handling’, the economic crisis in Greece, and the severe unemployment, there is now a very large population of undocumented immigrants in Greece who don’t want to be here, can’t leave, can’t stay, and can’t work.  These immigrants have clustered into certain areas of Athens for a variety of reasons; and there are now entire neighborhoods and districts in Athens which have in effect been ghettoized – actual property values have gone down, businesses have closed, crime has increased, drug use and human trafficking have become problems, and the local Athenian populations have become marginalized – the extent of each of these problems open to interpretation, of course.

This is an issue that has existed in Greece for some years, but of course with the crisis and growing unemployment, it has, as one might reasonably expect, worsened in the past few years.  In the few months before the election last week, in a desperate effort to deflect attention from their own failure to stop the economy hurtling into the abyss during their time in power, the two big political parties, PASOK and New Democracy, settled on this issue as the New Big Deal that we all need to talk about non-stop, and hopefully in that way forget about the economy long enough to vote.

So, New Democracy, traditionally right of center, attacked PASOK for doing nothing about illegal immigration (rightly, I suppose, since PASOK hadn’t; neither had New Democracy of course).  PASOK reacted by swiftly developing the concept of “closed hospitality centers,” which their opponents called “concentration camps” or “a drop in the bucket,” depending on their political orientation.

PASOK claimed that they planned to open a closed hospitality center in every prefecture in Greece.  Each one would hold up to a thousand illegal immigrants found to have overstayed their 30 day grace period.  In a desperate rush to make this a reality before the election, they commandeered disused army camps around the country.  The local populations in the towns and villages nearby erupted into a furor over this:  whether because they didn’t want their town to play host to a concentration camp, or because they didn’t want a huge population of illegal immigrants numbering more than their own population in their town, again depended on the political and social orientation of each person.  But almost nobody welcomed the idea, outside of a few Athenians who were happy to hear that at least some of the illegal immigrants would leave their neighborhoods.

Of course, arithmetically, no such measure could make much impact on the situation in Athens.  A few low-paid jobs at the local level.  A few more spots in the Athens boarding houses for new immigrants.

In the immediate days running up to the election, when this mess had more or less played out with the hopelessness of “shoveling up” (to use the politicians’ phrase) a fraction of the illegal immigrants that arrive in Greece daily, and depositing them in a place where Greek taxes would have to pay their food, sanitation, and ultimate travel costs back to their home countries becoming more and more obvious, the government had to find a quick new way to make an impression.

They chose to attack some of the most vulnerable members of Greek society – if they can even be considered members at all:  unlicensed illegal prostitutes in central Athens, specifically those who are HIV positive.

Although anyone with two brain cells to rub together knows that paying €20 to have sex with a victim of sex trafficking on the streets of a huge city – without a condom – is one of the better ways to increase one’s chances of catching something unpleasant, the Greek government, and in particular the sinister-sounding Ministry of Citizen Protection, ruled it in the interest of public health to publish the photographs and personal details of HIV positive women accused of prostitution in central Athens, splashing these photos across the TV news and newspapers.  They provided a hotline for men to call if they thought they might have been infected, so they could get hooked up with HIV tests.

Not only did they hope to capture public approval for “breaking the story” so to speak, but they went ahead and charged the women with purposefully trying to infect the public with HIV.  No mention was made of the possibility of illegal immigrant women being forced into prostitution without condoms, or of the need to provide these women with basic medical care.

The public response was a quick condemnation of the government’s decision to expose personal details and photographs of the women.  Although the television reports nightly kept count of how many more HIV positive prostitutes were caught that day, as well as the number of married men calling the government’s hotline, the issue was briskly pushed aside by the election itself.

So, where does that put us?  PASOK, and ND before them, were completely unable to handle the immigration problem.  PASOK’s stumbling attempts to appear “hard on immigration” backfired; ND barely had to say a word to condemn their mess.  But ND themselves had no well thought out position on immigration either.  The parties of the left, like Syriza and the Communist Party, completely reject the concept of being “hard on immigration” in the first place.

It was this series of real and constructed issues in the years and days leading up to the election that most people gave as the explanation for the sudden rise in the appeal of Golden Dawn, the fascist party, in the pre-election polls.  Golden Dawn’s anti-immigrant stance is unmatched by any other party or movement in Greece; a vote for them would appear to be a strong message to the government that some citizens take the issue seriously, one that a few closed hospitality centers and photographs of HIV positive prostitutes can’t solve.

But what actually happened?  Golden Dawn captured 7% of the vote, and 21 seats in Parliament.  Who were all the people who voted for them, putting aside (or approving of and accepting) their fascist and neo-Nazi ideology?  Was it really the frail grandmother in immigrant-flooded neighborhoods of Athens, that appreciated the local Golden Dawn member coming by to escort her to the ATM to get her pension?

Not really, as it turns out.

Greece has a secret ballot; however, there are a few very specific electoral districts that can be more or less picked apart.  Most Greeks vote in their home town, which means that many Greeks have to travel from their residence (often Athens) to their village or town.  This should be the case for police officers also; except that police are considered too essential to lose to this mass exodus, and are allowed to vote in special police electoral districts within Athens itself; and those who work in prisons are allowed to vote on the grounds of the prison itself.

In the Nigrita Prison in Serres, in northern Greece, where the vast majority of voters are police and prison employees (because the prison is not really in use yet), Golden Dawn came in first place.  Likewise, Golden Dawn came in first place in the police electoral districts in Athens – and with much higher percentages than the general population in even the most immigration-hit ghettoes of downtown Athens.

So if the electorate of Golden Dawn is the police, including the riot police who patrol the demonstrations – most of which are left-leaning – in front of Parliament and in the other major squares of Athens – what additional weight does that give to the hundreds – if not thousands – of complaints of police brutality against peaceful protesters (episodes that have been caught on video camera over and over, and while not shown on television, flood the internet)?

What does it say about the use of tear gas, which has reached exceptional levels in Athens?

What does it say about the videos of clearly elderly and disabled citizens being beaten without any provocation?

What does the complete refusal of any other political party to meet with or talk to Golden Dawn say about them, when one considers that the police force is the direct executive arm of the government?

What is the true nature of the connection between Golden Dawn, the Greek police, and the parties that control the Greek police (PASOK, ND)?

What is happening within the Greek police force that young men from good families are becoming fascists?

What role does the EU’s insistence on putting the entire weight of European illegal immigration on Greece’s shoulders play in the growth of extreme nationalism in the Greek police force?

Many people believe that if we have new elections soon – because of a failure of the parties to form a coalition or ecumenical government now – the Golden Dawn vote will decline dramatically.  These people believe that the voters who chose Golden Dawn did it out of anger, to send a powerful message.  But if the voters are police who have developed a fascist ideology, why should their votes change?

Now that Golden Dawn has started to appear on television, where it can’t help but make itself look extremely stupid (their paranoid and megalomaniac antics have to be seen to be believed), it’s hard to believe that most of those voters would vote for them again – unless they have ideological reasons for doing so.  Although Golden Dawn is openly fascist, misogynistic, antisemitic, ultranationalist, and pro-Hitler, they are also the only non-Communist party that supports Greece leaving the Euro currency.

Is the current media trend to make fun of Golden Dawn’s recent antics the right way to deflate them – or is it likely to incite them even further?  Or should the media do as one channel did and give them a voice via an interview on their terms?

What responsibility does the media have to air the voice of a neo-Nazi party, simply because they received 21 Parliament seats, when the Green party received none, yet shows up regularly in television debates and discussions?

How many of Golden Dawn’s voters are simply non-Communists who think Greece would be better off returning to its own currency?

How badly must those people want Greece out of the Euro, to vote for the neo-Nazis?

All these questions are in play as we wait to see if we will go to new elections – something that appears more and more likely tonight – or if a government will be formed with 21 neo-Nazis in Parliament.  And if we do have new elections, will Greece elect twenty-one neo-Nazis, or fewer, or none, or more?