By MARIA MARGARONIS
ATHENS — If you drop a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will instantly jump out. But if you heat the water slowly (or so the story goes), the frog will sit there patiently until it boils to death.
Greek democracy is like that simmering frog. Long weakened by clientelism and abuses of power, stunned by five years of recession and austerity, it is now perilously close to giving up the ghost.
The coalition government of New Democracy’s Antonis Samaras is becoming more and more authoritarian, passing laws by decree and pandering to the agenda of the far-right party, Golden Dawn. References to the junta of 1967-1974 are no longer the sole province of left-wing rhetoric.
The sudden closure of the state TV and radio broadcaster ERT last month, without any debate or vote in Parliament, brought back memories of tanks and martial music for many who would normally reject such crude comparisons.
In the seven years of the colonels’ dictatorship, many Greeks looked to Europe as a source of hope. Some of Europe’s civil bodies have indeed come to democracy’s defense. But the European Union’s political and financial institutions and their partners in the International Monetary Fund are interested only in the bottom line, piling on pressure to plug holes in the balance sheet regardless of the cost to human life and civil liberties.
More than a quarter of the population — and 62 percent of those under 25 — are already unemployed. This week, in exchange for more bailout funds, the lenders demanded that Greece put 12,500 public sector workers into a “mobility scheme” pending possible dismissal, on top of the previously agreed upon 15,000 job cuts by the end of 2014.
Successive governments bear some of the blame for choosing cuts and tax hikes over structural reforms. Even so, the price exacted by the “troika” of the International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank and European Commission cannot be exacted without repressive measures. Economic austerity leads inexorably to democratic deficit.
The departure of the small Democratic Left from the governing coalition has accelerated New Democracy’s steady rightward turn. Since last summer’s election, Samaras’s party has played to xenophobia, speaking of the need to “reconquer” Greece’s cities and rounding up migrants and asylum seekers at random. A 2010 law opening the door to citizenship for second-generation immigrants was repealed.
A scathing report by Nils Muiznieks, the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner, criticizing police tolerance for and alleged participation in racial violence, was dismissed as insulting to Greece. Proposed anti-racism legislation was blocked by the prime minister’s office before it could be refined; it is unlikely now to see the light of day.
All these moves have strengthened Golden Dawn, which now scores 10 to 14 percent in opinion polls and whose 18 members of Parliament openly encourage violence. And given the coalition’s paper-thin majority after the Democratic Left’s departure, New Democracy’s far right now has carte blanche to express its views unchecked.
Indeed, one of its more flamboyant members, Spyridon-Adonis Georgiadis (who has said that the Jews control the banking system and advertised the work of Konstantinos Plevris, a Holocaust denier) has been appointed health minister in the reshuffled cabinet.
His first act was to reinstate a law that allows the police to detain people for forced H.I.V. testing. Introduced by the health minister last year and subsequently overturned, the law was used to name and shame alleged sex workers, most of them immigrants, who were vilified as “health bombs” and kept in jail for months on charges of “intended bodily harm.”
Exhausted by endless recession, disgusted with the politicians, unable to imagine a future, people retreat into private struggles with poverty and depression. Civil liberties become a luxury. The closing of the state broadcaster ERT sparked a brief outburst of protest, but many bought the government’s account of a “sinful” hotbed of waste, a nest of journalistic cronies living off public funds.
Reform seems a hopeless prospect when the two parties in power were the ones that nurtured the rotten system; desperate for change, many Greeks seem happy to see the hatchet fall, but not on them.
Judicial abuses — like the illegal 31-month detention without trial of the anarchist Kostas Sakkas — make little impression. Sakkas has been on hunger strike since June 4; if he should die, it will be, at most, a brief blip on the news. Even the black-shirted thugs of Golden Dawn patrolling central Athens have become a part of the new normal.
The water warms; the frog slips into a deep sleep, and then a coma. During the dictatorship, Europe appeared to be a safe place outside the pot.
Now, Europe itself is turning up the heat.
Maria Margaronis is London correspondent for The Nation and a member of the Initiative for Democracy in Greece