Wednesday May 2, 11am (BST)
They still have real Communists in Greece. I met some yesterday at the May Day march. Seeing their red flags almost makes me nostalgic for my boyhood, when the hammer and sickle flew over the eastern half of Europe. You just don’t hear anyone extolling the virtues of the proletariat any more in Britain.
The young man below with the placard is Dimitri Lamprou, a member of the Anti-Capitalist Leftist Coalition for Revolution. In an ideal world, his party wouldn’t need to bother with elections – as the people’s revolution would render them redundant. But until that glorious day it will participate in the democratic process and hope that the anti-bailout Left triumphs.
The man with the red flag is Dimitris Davos, a member of KOE, the Communist Organisation of Greece, a splinter group from Kappa Kappa, the main Communist party – splintering is still popular on the far Left.
“We want the people to rise up and restore our democracy and our national sovereignty,” he said.
There are 29 parties or alliances competing for parliament on Sunday. New parties of both Left and Right are set to benefit from a large anti-establishment, anti-austerity swing. It is possible that the two major pro-EU bailout parties, Pasok and New Democracy, will win enough seats to govern together, let alone separately, as they have been used to doing. That’s when the bailout and the whole austerity remedy could be at risk.
“What’s happening in this election will send a message to the rest of the south in Europe. We can show we don’t have to follow the medicine given to us.
Merkel’s Germany and Sarkozy’s France have imposed something different from what they said Europe would be,” said Dimitri, speaking for many of his compatriots, Left or Right.
Wednesday May 2, 9.50am (BST)
Wednesday May 2, 8.45am (BST)
A strange thing about this deeply important campaign is that there isn’t much campaigning. Part of the reason is that politicians run the risk of being manhandled, verbally abused or having yogurt, or eggs, hurled at them.
This is especially true for members of the main two parties, New Democracy and Pasok, who joined forces to sign the bailout with the EU. It is hard to overstate the contempt in which they are held by many Greeks, who see them as guilty of overseeing a national humiliation.
Recently Adonis Giorgiadis, an ND member of parliament, was sitting innocently in his café with his wife Eugenia Manolidou, a judge on the Greek version of the X-Factor, when people of an unknown background hurled yogurt at them. There is a picture claiming to record the bacterial bunging here.
Hurling yoghurt is a traditional Greek form of abuse, like the cream pie in Britain or the US but without a sometime comic element. The technique is to hold on to the carton and fling, ideally creating an arc of the fermented milk on to its target. Cheaper, runnier brands work best.
Petros Ethimimiyou, a Pasok veteran, had a small meeting with supporters hijacked by black-shirted members of Golden Dawn, an ultra-Right party.
The risk of agro means the major parties are predominantly staging small, invitation-only events, usually indoors.
Their final campaign rallies in central Athens are not being heavily promoted – ND hasn’t yet announced the time its event on Thursday evening will start.
In previous campaigns, tens of thousands of flag-waving party loyalists filled Syntagma Square in the run-up to voting day.
May Day protesters in Athens, Greece
Tuesday May 1, 9pm (BST)
It is not all gloom and doom in Greece. I’ve just left a traditional May Day family gathering. Wreaths are hung on doorways, balconies, chapels and wherever, really. They will be burned in June at the feast of the Holy Spirit. But its origins are in pagan flower festivals.
Of course May 1 is also International Labour Day, courtesy of the Soviet Union, which always brings trade unionists and socialists to the centre of Athens and other European cities.
That was understandably where the cameras were today, but away from the rather damp squib of a protest, families gathered to eat lamb (ideally roasted on a spit), drink copious amounts of wine and amply indulge in the national past time of animated conversation.
At least that’s what the event I attended a short way outside Athens — a mixture of a dozen of my Greek relatives and their friends — was like.
“Don’t write about this,” joked my host, Tassos, gesturing at the long table laden with food.
“We don’t want Angela Merkel to see that we can still put food on our table! If she sees a photo of this we are finished! Tell her we only eat like this once a year!”
There was indeed, a splendid spread: lamb, multiple salads, a chicken from the back yard stewed in a tomato sauce, stuffed vine leaves, feta in olive oil and too many types of sweets to count. The sun was warming but not harsh, the airbrushed with the scent of wild flowers.
An idyllic scene then, with old friends exchanging inquiries about each other’s children, stories from their village youth and advice on how to cook a good kleftiko. But it doesn’t take long to turn to politics, the looming election and the crisis that casts a long shadow over all their lives — even without any prompting from a visiting journalist.
Those around the table were a cross section of the Greek middle class whose experiences summed up the national blight: an unemployed skilled carpenter, an importer of tools who has laid off half his staff, the owner of a struggling carpet business, and a dentist who has cut his fees by 30 per cent and sometimes treats old patients in dire need and dire straits for nothing.
Amid the bad times, traditions like the hearty May Day family meal continue, for some
However, amid their despondency lay awareness that they share some responsibility in the nation’s plight. No one believed in the political system, the rich set a bad example, so many of the self-employed saw no reason to always pay the taxes they should.
“There was a huge black economy for years, then as a people and a country we lived beyond our means,” said Tassos, the importer. “It is time we got back to spending what we are earning and no more.” “Greece was 90 per cent reliant on the public sector,” said Adonis, the dentist, exaggerating only slightly. “We had a proper entrepreneur culture.” Maria, 55, who has the carpet business, recognised that the state pension she received in 1999 after just 20 years of government service is part of the problem that sent the government debt soaring. But how she needs that 1,200 euros a month now.
Few know who they will vote for on Sunday, and few believe that the EU bail-out will work or that there is a convincing alternative.
“I think the next five years will be very difficult in Greece,” said Maria.
The Greeks may be fond of arguing a point, but no one around the table could disagree.
Tuesday May 1, 6pm (BST)
Central Athens was closed off on Tuesday for the May Day march organised by major trade unions and Leftist parties.
The attendance was down on previous years, chiefly it seems because of fears of trouble. Sure enough there were a few in the crowd who had a go at the police.
Youths all in black trashed political party stalls and tore down posters.
Loud bangers were set off and then rocks were then hurled at riot police in an attempt, apparently, to provoke a response. It didn’t work and it didn’t take much movement from the police to make them disperse. The whole thing had a choreographed element to it. The brick-throwers thoughtfully moved old ladies out of the way before letting go.
A protester during a May Day demonstration in Athens
No one knows who the black T-shirts are for sure. Some wear anarchist emblems and that is the group normally blamed by the media; some Greek journalists on the march thought they were agent provocateurs trying to start trouble that would discredit the Left.
There was the occasional bemused tourist wandering through the march; they reminded me how different the centre of the city is from normal times.
Shops have been closed down and are encased in corrugated iron; graffiti is everywhere. On Stadiou, leading to Syntagma Square, a cinema lies boarded up and burnt out.
The protests may have calmed down from their peak volatility six months or so ago, but tension persists and the anger at the situation that Greeks find themselves in is almost tangible.
It was summed up by Nikos Charalambopoulos, an unemployed director, on the march with his girlfriend. “We feel the country is under occupation, from the EU, the troika, the German markets. We think the government of Pasok and New Democracy sold the country without reading the fine print when they signed the memorandum [bail-out]. This election is about winning our freedom back.”
During a few hours speaking to people on the baking hot streets today, this is a sentiment heard over and over.
Tuesday May 1, 11am (BST)
Voters are presented with a simple but agonising choice on Sunday: whether or not to support parties that endorse the EU-imposed bailout, or parties that oppose it.
Voting for the bailout means more pain for Greeks, for the medicine has yet to work. Voting against means immense uncertainty, a possible return to the drachma and the potential unraveling of the euro zone.
I’ll be taking the temperature of a country facing its greatest crisis in a generation. Unemployment is at a record 22 per cent; half of 15-24 year olds are out of work. Suicide rates are soaring.
The flame-throwing riots may have subsided for now, but Greek middle class and lower middle class believe they are heading for oblivion.
As I travel the country, gloom and doom won’t be hard to find, as well as simmering rage against the political machine.
I have family in Greece (my name was originally Spillios but was slightly changed somewhere along the way). For the past two years I have received regular updates from family members in Athens of lost jobs, cousins emigrating in search of a life and a deepening dread of years of scarcity ahead.
But I’ll also be looking for reasons to be optimistic; perhaps some awareness that it is not just the politicians who are to blame and some recognition that an over-protectionist, over-regulated economy needs proper liberalisation; perhaps a politician or party with the potential to convince Greeks that true reform offers a way out of the mire.