With Greece entering its fifth year of recession and dealing with harsh austerity measures imposed as part of a eurozone bailout deal to save it from default, its society is in upheaval. Opinion polls suggest the old political system is collapsing, and extremist parties are gaining popularity ahead of spring elections.
At a recent protest in Athens, a large bronze bell tolled as thousands of policemen in full uniform marched solemnly through the streets. They ominously waved their handcuffs at Parliament, shouting, “Take your bailout plan and get out of here.”
Christos Fotopoulos, president of the police union, accused Greece’s international lenders of plundering his country, and he called for their arrest.
Nick Malkoutzis, deputy editor of the Kathimerini English-language daily newspaper, says this protest is one sign of widespread loss of trust in Greek institutions.
“What we’re seeing is the crumbling of the political system that was constructed over the last three decades,” Malkoutzis says. “It was a political system built around the middle classes and two main parties.”
Polls show plummeting approval for the Socialists and the conservative New Democracy, which approved the bailout plan. But small parties further to the left and further to the right that oppose the terms of the agreement are gaining ground. The four small leftist parties are ahead by 43 percent and could win a majority and, in theory, form a governing coalition.
That terrifies Greece’s creditors, some of whom have questioned the wisdom of holding elections. But postponing the vote, Malkoutzis says, can only exacerbate Greeks and incite more protests and more violence.
“There is the issue whether people here in Greece feel their opinion is being heard, whether they have the right to express it,” he says.”There are huge democratic issues at stake.”
And it’s not just the left that’s gaining popularity; so are two new far-right movements.
One is the ultranationalist and neo-fascist Golden Dawn, which preaches the superiority of the white race. It is polling above the 3 percent necessary to enter Parliament.
In a bookshop filled with tracts on Nazism and Hitler T-shirts, a large crowd listens to a Golden Dawn member who identifies herself only as Georgia.
“We reject the idea that all races and nations are created equal,” she says. “We have become economic slaves of the Zionist economy and usurers.”
At the other end of the political spectrum, one of the parties doing well in the polls is the far-left SYRIZA that wants to renegotiate the terms of the bailout. Member of Parliament Dimitris Papadimoulos says austerity has sharply widened the gap between rich and poor.
Papadimoulos calls for a wide governing coalition because Greece, he says, faces the same dilemma the West faced after the crash of 1929 — a progressive or an authoritarian outcome.
“In the U.S. we had the New Deal and Roosevelt; in Europe we had Hitler and Mussolini,” he says.
Publisher and commentator George Kirtsos is a conservative, but he agrees that Greece risks class warfare.
“You cannot have a functioning democracy without some positive economic and social results,” Kirtsos says.
With the economy going from bad to worse, Kirtsos says, the country is in permanent political crisis.
“At one point or another you will have to declare martial law to impose all these measures,” he says.
Elections are likely at the end of April, and the leaders of the pro-bailout Socialist and New Democracy parties want to woo back their angry supporters. The conservatives have a tough law-and-order and anti-immigrant platform, and the Socialists say they saved the country from default.
But current polls show that one-third of the electorate is still undecided, and an equal number say they’ve given up on politics and refuse to vote.