The People Have Spoken

“I always tried to explain that democracy is not perfect. But it gives you the chance to create your own destiny.” Aung San Suu Kyi

With my thirteen-letter surname, that some have a problem pronouncing, and my relentless effusion of all things Greek, I’m often asked about the situation in Greece. How is the economy? Have things improved? What do you think about the election results?

I’m happy to talk about Greece and my impressions, but I can’t pretend to know, in any depth, anything about its economy, its politics or even how the ordinary Greek person lives.  All I have is opinions. For what it’s worth here they are.

Six years of recession and austerity measures have crippled the country and left many Greeks financially strapped, psychologically dejected and emotionally disheartened. However, the family is a source of strength and families have helped each other weather the economic storm. Unlike Canada and the United States, where personal debt is high, the amount of personal debt in Greece is low. This helps, as does the Greek habit of socking away for rainy days. Yes, savings are dwindling, but at least it was there to draw from when it was most needed.

The economy, on the surface, seemed to be recovering when we were in Greece in November. There were lots of new businesses, unemployment had gone down slightly, tourism had bounced back and coffee shops and restaurants were full. But when I made that remark, most told me that this proved nothing. “People were still suffering.” Greeks do tend to be fatalists (it takes one to know one), but who was I, a foreigner on vacation, to question them.

In terms of the elections, I was initially worried and thought it might destabilize the progress that had been made on the economic front. But I’ve reconsidered. Perhaps a shake up and a different approach was exactly what the country needed. Austerity, alone, hadn’t led to a whole lot of growth or any significant lasting change.

I’m glad that Syriza came so close to a majority. Majorities are needed to get things done. It also reduces the finger pointing and resulting confusion if things don’t work.

I’m also happy to see that in the birthplace of democracy, people exercised their right to vote and made their feelings known. CBC’s senior business correspondent Don Pittis  said it better than I can: “For those of us who may have grown cynical about democracy and the power of money to influence elections, the Greeks have taught us a wonderful, upbeat lesson. People will accept a lot of hardship in exchange for stability, but they will only be pushed so far. This is a warning to financial markets everywhere that for good or ill, in a democracy voters get the final say.”

My biggest disappointment with the Greek election was the return of the far right neo-Nazi party, Golden Dawn. I had hoped that they would be annihilated and sent back under the rock many of its members crawled from under. Most are currently in jail on various charges ranging from murder to extortion. Yet they garnered third place in the elections last week.

It’s a sad commentary on Greek society that those who fought so gallantly against Hitler’s Nazis and sacrificed so much could vote for such a party. But memory is short and human beings, like democracy, are imperfect.

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