View from Athens
“I don’t want to be ashamed of being Greek anymore,” says Pavlos Eleftheriadis, a barrister and associate professor of law at the University of Oxford, explaining his decision to take a plunge into the troubled and idiosyncratic waters of Greece’s political scene. “I’m very happy teaching but happiness isn’t a private matter: I can’t just sit here while my country burns.”
Eleftheriadis, a political novice frustrated by the inequality, endemic corruption and cronyism of his home country, joins fellow academics, artists, farmers and other professionals trying to help “Greece return to what it’s been in the past: a creation of the Enlightenment”. They have formed a new party To Potami (or the River) which will have its first test in this spring’s European elections.
Financial woes have radically reshaped the debt-strapped and austerity-hit country’s politics. The traditional Socialist and Conservative parties, which dominated the scene for the past three decades, were widely blamed for the country’s current financial mess. At the last general election, disaffected voters hoisted a far-right extremist, sporting tattooed swastikas on his biceps, to political stardom. Meanwhile, a small radical left-wing party backed by Maoists and Trotskyists turned into the country’s main opposition. Since the 2012 poll an additional 18 parties have been established.
Some are the creations of fallen politicians who were ousted or resigned from the ruling government and now seek a comeback. Some also appear to cater to megalomania. Rumours have surfaced that special-forces reservists could form a political faction – raising concerns in a country that ousted a dictatorship in 1974.
Since the fall of the junta, Greek politics has traditionally been cleaved between left and right-wing ideologies. But many of the aspiring new politicians hope to take advantage of dissatisfaction with both. The Neo Komma party, whose leader is a musician and members range from financiers to academics, was introduced to the wider public in January and keeps a centrist rhetoric. “We don’t believe in the distinctions of left and right, we believe in the need of reforms. We’re just opposed to a clientelist state,” says Andreas Koutras, a founding member of the party.
Eleftheriadis’s political party follows the same idea. Founded by prominent journalist Stavros Theodorakis in late February, it aims to break the country’s “political routine” by drawing voters from across the political spectrum who support the country’s membership to the EU. Despite the staunch criticism levelled against the River from politicians and some media, in less than a month it managed to leapfrog to third place in the polls, moving above the far-right Golden Dawn. But the River party is accused of being too superficial – one of the problems it has highlighted is long queues at bus stops. “We’re being accused of being apolitical but what’s more political than ordinary life?” asks Eleftheriadis.
Despite this multitude of political options in a country of 11 million people, the River has been the only new party to garner any decent percentage in the polls. For many the European elections may come too soon. In Greece’s constantly shifting political scene, the popularity of parties will wax and wane in the coming months. The most popular preference, however, remains undisputed: none of the above.
The next general election in the UK will see two members of US president Barack Obama’s old campaign team face off against each other: David Axelrod has recently signed on for the Labour party, Jim Messina for the Conservatives. It is not just the personnel who will cross the Atlantic: Obama’s 2012 election message will also influence both parties. Labour will revive the charge Obama used against Mitt Romney that the Conservatives are “out of touch”, while in return the Conservatives will echo Obama’s plea to not “return the car keys to the guys who crashed it” last time around. Whoever ends up in Downing Street next May, it will be an Obama victory.
Germany and Russia share a bond that goes deeper than gas and geopolitics. Some say that this is due to their shared history, the two world wars and 40 years of the gdr in East Germany. Amid calls for Germany to take a mediator role in the Ukrainian crisis, Berlin has taken a more cautious approach than other western allies. It is the most visible display of Angela Merkel’s interpretation of Ostpolitik (the historic policy of living with, not against, the Soviet neighbour on Germany’s doorstep for half a century), which is deeply rooted in pragmatism. Merkel doesn’t have sympathy for Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea but she knows everything happening east of Germany is effectively determined by Russia. “It doesn’t help our interests to condemn Russia for its actions in a part of the world that we have no influence over,” says Josef Janning, senior policy fellow at ecfr in Berlin.
Viktor Orban (pictured), the Hungarian prime minister, has further begun to centralise political and economic power after his recent re-election. The ruling right-wing Fidesz party took 133 out of 199 seats. The left-wing Unity alliance performed poorly, winning 38. Jobbik, the far-right party, won 23 seats after tacking to the centre while the government brushed aside criticism that it had gerrymandered the new electoral system. Over the next four years “there will be a strong focus on economic policy – our fundamental aim is to make Hungary more competitive”, says deputy prime minister Tibor Navracsics.
This may be optimistic – the government’s erratic economic policies will continue to unnerve investors and a Fidesz victory means “more negative news for Hungary”, says Mujtaba Rahman, analyst at political risk consultancy, the Eurasia Group.