On the 17th of June, Greeks took to the polls in a second general election in just over a month. The conservative New Democracy party beat the radical left coalition Syriza by just a few points. Across Europe and in the international markets there was quick sigh of relief. During the campaign New Democracy had vilified Syriza as being anti-European in their stance of rejecting the conditions of the EU bailout agreements. New Democracy had pledged to uphold their commitments to the Troika (the European Central Bank, the IMF, and the European Union) of continued fiscal austerity. With a New Democracy victory it was assumed the economic crisis would be brought under control and the contagion would be stopped from spreading to more European economies.
On Monday, 18th of June, the relief was gone and the tension was back. New Democracy moved quickly to form a coalition with its old enemy PASOK, the Greek Socialists. But the political maneuvering didn’t seem to breed confidence. By the 20th, the new Prime Minister Antonis Samaras was already pleading for leniency from the Troika, as others talked of a third bailout. According to this agreement the Greek government has to cut another 11.5bn Euros from the public sector before 2014.
Social discontent with the original bailout agreement remains widespread, and living conditions for many Greeks continue to deteriorate. In Athens the most obvious sign of this deterioration is the surge in homelessness. Its nearly impossible to walk around the capitol without seeing someone sleeping on the street. One municipal shelter in Athens estimates there has been a 25% increase in the country’s homeless population since 2009. More people are being forced from their homes every day as banks repossess their assets from home-owners unable to pay their mortgages.
Making matters worse, 36% of public health budget has already been cut with serious effects on general populations health. It is estimated HIV transmission between intravenous drug users is up 60% since 2009. The health ministry estimates suicides are already up 40% this year, and no one has a good count on the increase of people suffering from mental health problems. What is clear is people are going to the doctor less and less, and are having a harder time finding the treatment they need in the public health system. Many would argue this deterioration of public health has reached the level of an international humanitarian crisis deserving of the same international attention.
Many people I’ve talked to have said “come in September.” It is suspected that by the fall things will have once again reached a boiling point, much like what happened last fall and winter. Unfortunately I couldn’t help but be struck by a sensation of hopelessness and resignation that permeates throughout Athens and its suburbs. People have come to accept as normal the overwhelming tension in which they live. The political environment has become the most polarized its been since the country’s civil war. In parliament, Golden Dawn, an openly xenophobic fascist political party, share the podium with the Greek Communist Party and Syriza. It is hard to imagine these parties reaching a compromise on just about anything. Let alone tackling the difficult task of pulling the country out of its current predicament.
In Europe and in the government of Mr. Samaras everyone seems to be hoping for the impossible, and imagining the worst. It is time to acknowledge that the worst is already real: Greece has fallen, the contagion has already spread and the only solution are institutional reforms of both the European Union structures and its financial regulation. Greek debt must be forgiven, there must shared European financial risk. Business as usual cannot continue. Any reform short of this will only prolong the inevitable. Greece will leave the European Union and it will not be the last country to do so.