The first thing I noticed coming out of Syntagma station next to the Greek parliament was a man trying to raise money for an operation. On the pavement around him were scattered political leaflets and other remains of the many demonstrations on the streets of Athens.
On first sight, the capital appeared to be just a normal city. But as I walked through the streets I spotted hundreds of closed and boarded shops.
Those that remained open had disconsolate owners standing, arms folded, watching for anyone who checked their pace and might just be a customer.
In the poorer areas listless groups of young men hung around waiting for something – anything – to happen.
The least lucky would reserve their sleeping patch on the main roads by leaving their dog to guard a precious piece of pavement.
The parks have police watching to make sure nobody tries to pitch a place to sleep overnight.
Yet some of Athens looked normal. Tourists frequented the pavement cafes, street stalls and bars, but coaches were all but empty and the drivers despondently cleaned their vehicles to pass the time.
Greece is in the midst of austerity. It has become a laboratory for free-market economic solutions.
Only last week IMF chief Christine Lagarde calmly told the Guardian that she had little sympathy for Greece – Greeks had to pay their taxes and go through the pain.
In a delicious piece of Twitter-originated irony it has emerged that her salary is tax-exempt.
Lagarde’s arrogant judgement on the entire Greek population is echoed by David Cameron.
He told me as much two weeks ago when he replied to my plea to show some support for Greece, claiming that what the country needed was British-style fiscal policies.
The crisis of 2008 affected everyone, but Greece was among the worst-hit. And now four years on, the economy has contracted by a fifth. It shrank by 6 per cent this year and is projected the same for next.
But the Greeks are not taking things lying down, and the political landscape is changing rapidly.
On Wednesday I attended a rally in the town of Keratera, about an hour’s drive from Athens. This small rural town was formerly conservative-leaning, but all that changed when the government tried to impose a privately run refuse disposal plant for Athens there.
The plan was met with violent resistance as all environmental concerns and suggestions for alternatives were brushed aside. Locals blocked the roads and fought pitched battles until eventually the privateers were forced to retreat. The project has now been cancelled.
At a community meeting on cool post-thunderstorm evening, over 2,000 people attended to listen to Alexis Tsipras, the 37-year-old civil engineer leader of left-wing coalition Syriza.
He congratulated the locals on their success in defeating the refuse facility, and then addressed the issues facing the country.
As he elaborated, he gently reminded his audience of the changing political appetite in Greece – at his 2006 election rally in the town he attracted a mere 17 people.
Referring to the corruption of the political system, Tsipras pledged to reopen the inquiry into corruption emanating from the German company Siemens.
He was greeted by rapturous applause, and a wag in the audience shouted “toasters!” – a reference to alleged corporate gifts to ministers.
Tsipras’s quick response was that he wished that were all it was.
He then went on to describe the effects of the 700-page austerity memorandum, which contributed to the downfall of the Pasok government.
Pasok’s support collapsed after it signed off on the “agreement” earlier this year, which led to a fire-sale of state assets, privatisation of services, tearing up of collective bargaining agreements, wage cuts and pension reductions. Beyond this the health service is having trouble coping and schools are short of everything.
Pasok’s legacy can be seen in the stats – official unemployment among adults at 25 per cent, among young people it is over 50 per cent, and the number of families with no income from work now tops 600,000.
The social democratic Pasok party, which has dominated Greek politics for the past few years, approached the May general election on the basis of its “responsible” approach to the crisis – and got a sharp rebuff.
Its vote plummeted to 13 per cent – a drop of 30 percentage points.
Former Pasok MP Sofia Sakorafa described the party’s post-2009 tactics to me. George Papandreou endlessly confronted his parliamentary caucus with “take-or-leave it” threats of collapse unless European Central Bank’s (ECB) austerity package was agreed.
There was a belief among many that the deal was a pre-election fait accompli and that Papandreou would push it through.
Sakorafa, along with others, refused to accept the austerity memorandum – which MPs were given less than two days to consider – and was expelled from the party.
They now form an important part of the Syriza left coalition, and Sakarafa is now one of the most popular political figures in the country.
May’s inconclusive election results and the refusal of the left parties to implement the austerity memorandum have resulted in a caretaker government and new elections on June 17.
Opinion polls vary, but the frontrunners are Syriza and New Democracy both in the upper twenties, all others much lower and Pasok steadily losing ground. On current projections it may not even pass 10 per cent.
There is an uncomfortable lesson here for Europe’s social democratic parties such as Pasok and Spain’s PSOE that the implementation of ECB diktats attack the very fabric of working-class communities with devastating effect.
Labour initially tried to reflate the economy after the 2008 crisis but offered austerity after 2009.
The Tories now form a government so we will never know what might have been – but it shows the need for Labour and the Trades Union Congress to heed the lessons.
Greece is not a small country, far away, of which we know little, as Neville Chamberlain described Czechoslavakia on the eve of World War II. Events there are highly relevant to the here and now across Europe.
We know that implementing austerity packages destroys those who do the bankers’ bidding. So if ever there was a time for socialist ideas, restructuring and action it is now.
Jeremy will be providing a report back on his visit on the 18th June – see here for more info.
Article originally published by The Morning Star.