Greece elections, the national mood: Battered by crippling austerity, can country be restored by a radical change of direction?

Left-wing Syriza vows to reverse measures that have seen poverty and homelessness soar

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The Independent Online

Even in the midst of Greece’s financial woes a few years ago, not many could have conceived a staunchly left-wing party ever becoming government. But when a cataclysmic crisis comes along and wipes out a quarter of a country’s GDP in a few years, a lot of unexpected things happen.

Undoubtedly, many within Greece and beyond argue that there are positive political results emanating from the financial mess, ushering in a new era of fresh political blood, social dynamism and a change of mentality. The overwhelming repercussions of the crisis, however, have been largely crippling.

Around one in four Greeks are on the brink of poverty, with the number of homeless skyrocketing in the past few years – 20 per cent of which have high or higher education. Athens is not New York or Paris – the sheer number of people wandering the streets in need of shelter or food is shocking in a Mediterranean region where family bonds are strong and the idea of putting relatives in a retirement home is widely considered cruel.

Just across and only a few metres away from the Presidential Mansion in central Athens, the guards have been turning a blind eye to the regular residents of the past few years: a middle-aged man living in a tent (neatly stored away every morning) and an elderly lady, always impeccably dressed, who has taken over a bench with her two suitcases.

 

In the past, a pension or an extra salary would be enough to keep the family together but with the huge cuts and unemployment levels, Greeks are struggling to even stay together. When not homeless, many live without electricity or heating because of high taxes – painful in northern Greece where temperatures can drop below zero for most of the winter. The charred remains of the burnt cinemas and nearby banks on Stadiou, where four people died during a protest in May 2010 when assailants hurled Molotov cocktails in the banks, have been left intact. They are still a stark reminder of what caused this mess. Soon after the attack, the protest movement started dwindling. Greeks have grown weary of fighting this unabated barrage of austerity measures.

Occasionally the government does something radical, like shutting down the country’s state broadcaster ERT and suspending its employees in June 2013, which prompted international condemnation.

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Mr Tsipras signs protocols after his swearing-in as Prime Minister by the President of Republic Karolos Papoulias at the Presidential Palace (EPA)

The public broadcaster may have been widely considered in Greece to be a symbol of state inefficiency and squandering, but the sudden move to shut down an independent press in a country where media is largely owned by oligarchs roused fury. While the former government eventually created a new broadcaster called NERIT, Syriza has vowed to dismantle it and reinstate the old ERT after it rehires all the dismissed employees. That is expected shortly.

Alexis Tsipras has vowed to take on a series of measures to help the victims of the austerity policies that have battered Greeks for the past five years. His party officials are hopeful that by eliminating social injustice and healing the wounds of this humanitarian crisis, it might also reduce the wide appeal of the far-right Golden Dawn party, which managed to be third strongest in parliament.

But the one thing that probably hasn’t really changed and still comes in ample supply is kefi. A Greek word for good mood, it’s prevalent usually when the sun is out – but is also found in abundance in and outside the small cafés and bars sprouting up throughout Greece – the only business doing well, it seems. Because whatever the cost of life, Greeks will sacrifice almost everything to enjoy a drink outside.

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