3 May 2012

Extremist politics on the rise as Greek austerity bites

Extremist parties are on the rise in Greece as elections approach. Inigo Gilmore reports on the despair felt by ordinary families struggling to deal with economic austerity and political turmoil.

We had just finished sharing lunch with the Papadokos family at their apartment in north Athens when Kostas awkwardly confided that he often had to borrow pocket money from his own son to ensure they had enough money to eat.

Sitting close to his father on the sofa, Leo, 13, told me he no longer finds it unusual to share the pocket money he receives from his grandmother. “If Mum and Dad need the money I give it to them,’ he said wearily. “A few days later they give it back to me.”

Kostas admitted this humiliating situation was a painful reminder of just how bad things had become. He said imploringly: “Is it possible for a father to reach a point where he has to borrow money from his kid son? What do we do? We must do something. We must somehow get through the day.”

It was a revealing insight into the lives, not only of the Papadokos family, but millions of Greeks as they struggle in the face of a crumbling economy, unemployment and severe austerity measures.

During a week I spent in Athens I was given rare access to family life and learned much about what Greeks are living through, after being warmly welcomed into the Papadokos family home. In a conservative society, where families are often reluctant to discuss such issues publicly, they were refreshingly open.

Kostas, an unemployed taxi driver, and his wife Vicky have four sons aged 20 months to 13 years and they are close to breaking point. They live in cramped and claustrophobic apartment. They don’t even have enough beds to sleep in.

Mounting debt

The bills are piling up. Like so many other Greeks, Kostas is in trouble with the banks after running up substantial credit card bills. They have not paid their mortgage for about two years. With recent austerity cuts they only receive 300 euros in benefits a month and there is nothing to fall back on. All of their savings were spent on paying medical bills for their youngest son, Anastasis, when he fell seriously ill last year.

“Here’s the water bill,’ said Kostas dismissively, laying it on the dining table alongside several others. “It’s been due for 8 months now. Let them cut it off. I don’t care. I don’t have any money.” He added sadly: “We are literally penniless and homeless. This house is not mine. At any given moment, they might throw us out.”

The prospect of being thrown on to the streets is a source of tension in the family who only have 5 to 10 euros per day to spend on food and upkeep. During my time with them, I traveled with Vicky to the shops, where every purchase has to be carefully considered. I also witnessed their dispiriting – and ultimately futile – quest to find work.

No wonder they can see no way out of the hole they are in. The experience of the Papadokos family is shared by countless other Greeks and the growing dismay over the financial mess has fed into a volatile political atmosphere.

Extremist parties on the rise

As Greeks go to the polls this Sunday, in what are possibly the most important elections in modern times, disillusioned voters are turning away from the mainstream Pasok and New Democracy parties, towards smaller, often extreme parties on the left and right.

During my stay I went to an election gathering of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party whose thugs have been involved in beating immigrants who they blame for rising crime and for taking Greek jobs. There was a febrile, unnerving atmosphere, as their leaders bellowed at their boisterous audience and called for urgent action to expel one and a half million immigrants from the country.

The next morning I was invited to a shop in a working class neighbourhood owned by one of the Golden Dawn leaders. Alongside military-style clothing and nationalist paraphernalia they sell batons, balaclavas and handcuffs. Party t-shirts with Nazi-style emblems sell for 5 euros.

In the area I met several working class Greeks who said they would back the party, with some accusing the immigrants of being ‘criminals’ who were involved in muggings and other attacks on Greeks, and must to be removed. In a rather odd exchange with one of the workers in the shop, called Mary, I asked about the party’s demand to expel immigrants. Mary told me they would try to ensure this happens in a ‘very legal’ way, but did not say how.

I asked what the next step would be if that doesn’t work. “If that does not happen,” she said with a unsettling cackle. “Then we should be more aggressive.”

Mainstream parties under fire

The rise of the neo-Nazis deeply troubles party stalwarts in the mainstream New Democracy party who have often been forced to campaign behind closed doors, such is the anger they face from the electorate. The prospect that Golden Dawn might get seats in the Greek parliament for the first time, fills them with dread.

In the back of a car between visits to the homes of supporters, Miltiadis Varvitsiotis, who is standing for a seat in Athens, admitted it was an unusual election in that they were not campaigning openly. His message to Greeks who were dismayed with his party was to vote responsibly and continue their support for the bigger parties, so as to avert possible post-election chaos and further damage to Greece’s image.

Varvitsiotis, a former Vice Foreign Minister, told me: “A lot of people want to punish the political system by voting for these guys. I don’t know whether they are going to reach the parliament. I hope they will not. I think it’s going to be a great disgrace for Greece, the birthplace of democracy, to have neo-Nazis in its parliament.”