ATHENS — After a year with the same old crowd of anarcho-leftists and labor unionists at the endless anti-austerity protests in Athens, I finally met a Greek who might well be the poster woman for the economic crisis.
Meet Louk, the Athenian canine joining the protesters.
Dimitra is a 62-year-old grandmother who lives in the once-fancy, now-bedraggled central Athens neighborhood around Victoria Square. She runs a mini-market that supports not only her, but also her underemployed daughter and two grandchildren. It's about to go under. She has always paid her taxes, even as her tax-evading friends have ridiculed her, and never spent more than she could save. But the austerity measures have driven up her tax and utility bills, so her savings are running out. And if that wasn't enough, her neighborhood is now filled with drug addicts and gangs. She's afraid to go out after dark because she's gotten mugged more times than she can remember. "I am wearing out," she says.
For many years, Greek politicians didn't pay attention to people like Dimitra. They should have. This silent majority -- the Greeks who followed the rules, paid their taxes, and lived within their means -- are now paying for debts racked up by a corrupt, inefficient, and clientelistic political system that gave them almost nothing. The government shouldn't fear the aganaktismenoi, the slogan-chanting Greeks who have camped out for weeks in Syntagma Square in a sit-in anti-austerity protest modeled after Spain's indignados. They should fear Dimitra, and every other Greek like her who has quietly given Greek politicians the benefit of the doubt and, after this year of austerity gone nowhere, finally lost patience with them.
Greece's many problems, of course, predate the embattled government of George Papandreou. The center-left PASOK party that his father, Andreas, founded was elected in October 2009 on a mandate to expand government -- until it discovered that the country was more than $400 billion in debt. Now, a year of austerity measures in exchange for emergency bailout loans to keep the country from going bankrupt has done little to calm markets or creditors, and it has cut deeply into Greeks' disposable income and their sense of security. Papandreou's government will pay the immediate price, even after surviving Tuesday's midnight confidence vote.
But even with early elections, which look increasingly likely as faith in Papandreou's government plummets, the main opposition center-right party, New Democracy, is widely viewed by voters as equally ineffective. "The debt crisis should have been a time for political parties -- and political movements -- to unite to save the country, but instead they have remained attached to their vested interests even as the ship was going down," says political analyst Dimitris Skalkos. "It's like they can't see past their own rhetoric to actually work to get us out of this mess."
Domestically, the mess has many layers, including a stagnant, almost Soviet-style economy that favors patronage over meritocracy, a culture of corruption that has squandered public money, and a recent rise in illegal immigration that's been badly managed by both the Greeks and the Europeans, leaving thousands of unemployed, undocumented, and increasingly desperate migrants stranded in Athens. In the last year, a troubling increase in violent crime has also egged on once-marginal neo-Nazi gangs, whom some longtime inner-city residents now see as a more effective security force than municipal and Greek police.