The March of Shame

They are people, like us.

They are young, they are old, they are men, women and children, they are lawyers or masons or doctors or barbers or plumbers or computer engineers. They are people, and they are coming.

Their countries fell apart, their houses were destroyed, their neighbours died. They lost friends and relatives, they lost their loved ones, they lost a limb. They fled. They took trucks or buses or cars or bicycles. They walked. They were smuggled, assaulted, abused, kidnapped on the way. They crossed a border, or two, or three. They were detained, arrested, beaten. They were parked in camps. They were told to live a life without a future, they were told to wait until their country is fixed, they were told to wait with no end in sight.

And then they came.

Of course they came.

They got on those rickety boats to cross the sea. Some of them were pushed back. Some of them sank and had to return to the coast. Some of them drowned. But they kept coming, and instead of greeting them with open arms, our governments screamed, “we’re being overrun!”

Yes, we’re being overrun. It was about time it happened.

Because as much as you expect people to stay put and die out of sight, out of mind, they have other plans for their life. As a matter of fact, they want a life worth living. And they are coming to get it.

They are coming. Get over it, Europe, they are coming. And if we still want to call ourselves people, if we still want to call ourselves human beings, we will not turn our backs on them, we will not tell them to go away, we will not let them sleep in the streets of our harbours, we will not brutalise them, we will not force them to crawl under our fences, we will not write numbers on their skin and we will not ship them off on trains to nowhere.

There’s a limit to how long you can stay behind the safety of your television screen with pictures of dead children and destroyed cities, and your only reaction is, “how sad”.

For them it’s beyond sad. They lost everything. Then they risked what little they had left to come, and they lost even more. ‘Sad’ doesn’t begin to describe that.

They are not swarms, they are not invaders, they are not quotas. They are people. They want a life, a life in safety, with a job, a home and a future for their children.  They are people, just like us.

They are people, and there’s no stopping that.

Today they are walking from Budapest to Vienna. Hundreds, maybe thousands of them, decided that they had enough of Viktor Orban’s nonsense, and when he wouldn’t re-establish the trains, they decided to walk. But these people are only the tip of the iceberg. Europe’s march of shame started thousands of kilometers away.

They are coming because of war, destruction, poverty, hopelessness. But this is a march of shame because we the people, we the European people, elected year after year leaders who don’t care about people but only about votes. And for years, despite our aging population, despite our immense wealth, despite all the good reasons for which we could open our borders, our leaders thought that pandering to the xenophobes was more important than helping people who have lost everything and that we could easily accommodate.

But they won’t wait anymore. They are coming, they are marching on Europe, and they are putting us to shame. For the young man in the picture below, the march of shame started when he pushed his grandmother’s wheelchair out of their family home and onto some road in Afghanistan. He has come thus far. Can anything stop him? Can he be made to go back?

They are coming. And now it is for us to greet them, to care for them, to give them safe passage, to help them build the home they have lost. Not because we are Europeans, not because we have values, not even because we are filthy rich. But because we must be people. Like them.

The title of this post was inspired from this tweet by @sesikar.

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To hell with it – or why I will vote no in the #Greferendum

These last few days must be the worst I have had the misfortune to live through since I came into this world forty-one years ago, and that’s not because Greece is heading towards total economic collapse. It’s because the small modicum of democracy we had in this country since six months after I was born has collapsed, with no hope of revival in the immediate future.

There’s a tragic irony to the fact that the nail in the coffin of democracy came from what should have been the ultimate democratic act: a call for a referendum. Of course, a referendum announced at nine days’ notice about an offer that doesn’t stand is a farce in and of itself, and when the deputy prime minister states on public television that the announcement was merely a negotiating tool, it only adds insult to injury. But in the wider context, this is only one aspect of the political tragedy Greece is living through. Every pretence at respecting the role of institutions in this country has flown out of the window since Friday night, both on the ‘yes’ and the ‘no’ side of the argument. The best example of this is obviously Greece’s oligarch-owned media, that have unleashed an unprecedented campaign of fear and hammer their audience with images of angry citizens forming lines at ATMs while ‘yes’ politicians are given a tribune to repeat ad nauseam how the government is seeking to take us out of the Euro and back to the Middle Ages. Meanwhile, in a feeble attempt at countering what can only be described as shameless propaganda from Greece’s socio-economic elites, the government have set up a website to inform the people about the referendum, and that website conveniently ignores any argument in favour of voting ‘yes’. What makes it particularly bitter for me is that I voted for SYRIZA in the belief that they would seek to restore a functioning democracy. Clearly, I was wrong.

And as if this weren’t bad enough, it seems that everyone, inside Greece and abroad, cares solely about who is to blame for all this, and not one little bit about what will actually happen to Greece and its people. And I am not talking about what will happen when the economy collapses – for all practical purposes, it had already collapsed way before the capital controls were put in place. I’m talking about what will happen now that the question put to the Greeks has become, very simply, do you want a quick and violent death, or a slow and painful one. These are the choices the referendum has to offer, these are the choices democracy in Greece in 2015 has to offer. How does a country, a people, a society recover from that? How do you recover, not from the answer, but from the question itself?

To those who are seeking to apportion blame, I have one thing to say: you’re either too early or too late.

You’re too early because, let’s be frank, no one can claim to know with certainty what the real consequences of a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ vote will be. Whatever the result, the least that can be said is that the relationship between Greece and the European Union has been reshaped in ways that will take years to understand. Maybe ‘no’ means a Greek exit from the Eurozone, or maybe it doesn’t; maybe a return to the drachma is a bad thing, or maybe it’s not. At the same time, maybe ‘yes’ means more austerity of the kind we were subjected to for the past five years already, or maybe it means a new brand of austerity; maybe this new brand will be harsher, or maybe it will be more lenient – one can always hope. But if you claim to have straight answers to these questions, one thing is certain: you’re lying. This is uncharted territory, so please show a little humility. You don’t know, and neither do I.

Alternatively, if you’re apportioning blame with regard to the process that led us too this mess, you’re late, far too late. You’re late because this process has been going on for years, and a ten-year-old with half a brain could have told you that it’s a process gone wrong. A ten-year-old with half a brain could have told you that the Greek economy and the political system propping it up were rotten, a ten-year-old with half a brain could have told you that the bailout programmes were a failure, a ten-year-old with half a brain could have told you that the current, SYRIZA-led government was not speaking the same language as its negotiation counterparts, and, most importantly, a ten-year-old with half a brain could have told you that the shit would hit the fan at some point. Since 2010 we’ve been witnessing a slow-motion train wreck. You’re terribly, terribly late if you start apportioning blame the moment the locomotive gathers full speed.

So where does this leave us? What should we vote? Are there good reasons to vote ‘yes’? Are there good reasons to vote ‘no’? Are there even good reasons to vote at all? Here’s the thing: there are no good or bad reasons when you can only choose between bad options. What there is are real reasons, and here’s mine.

There’s a Greek expression I’ve used a lot these past few months: “είναι κακοί, στραβοί, ανάποδοι, αλλά…” which means “they’re evil, crooked, irksome, but…” This is what I have to say about the current Greek government. They may be evil, crooked and irksome, they may have failed spectacularly on the financial/economic as well as the political front, they may be the worst government we ever had, for all it matters – but they’re our government, and in the end they will be accountable to us.

For the past several years, far too many decisions that have affected our lives in dramatic ways were taken by people who are sitting in Brussels, in Frankfurt, in Berlin and in Washington – far too many, because this robs us of our sense of agency as people and as citizens. These people will never be accountable to us because they are so far out of our reach. Well, let someone else deal with them. We can deal with those who are here.

So I want out. I want out of the Eurozone and I want out of the European Union. I’ll be voting ‘no’ because anything that can possibly, maybe, hopefully take us one step closer to Euro-exit is good enough for me under the current circumstances. I’ve had enough of these unnamed high-ranking European officials who tell the Financial Times how they’re taking decisions for me and how they want ‘regime change’ in Greece. At least, if all I have to deal with is my own government, I can take decisions for them too.

If you ever met me, or if you even only read other bits and pieces I’ve posted on this blog or on Twitter, you’ll know that by my standards, this is an intellectual short-circuit. It is. It’s not a good reason to vote no, but I don’t care. To hell with it. That’s my reason. What’s yours?

Strange bedfellows

The final results of the Greek elections came in early this morning. SYRIZA garnered 149 seats in parliament, two short of a majority, and is entering a coalition with Independent Greeks to form a government. SYRIZA is a more-or-less radical left-wing party, while Independent Greeks is a nationalist-populist right-wing party whose leader, Panos Kammenos, espouses racist, homophobic, antisemitic and occasionally outright lunatic views (such as plane exhaust trails in the sky being unspecified chemical spraying.) This is as if Podemos were forming a coalition with UKIP. How can that happen and what can we expect to happen next? Here’s my two drachmas.  Continue reading

Greek elections 2015: a quick rundown of the electoral system

The Greek parliament has 300 members. 12 of those are elected on a nationwide ballot and 288 in electoral districts. The electoral districts match the administrative division of nomoi, except for the two largest nomoi, Attica and Thessaloniki, which are broken down into smaller electoral districts (five and two respectively).  This means that each party submits a list of 12 nationwide candidates, plus any number of local candidates in each district. Nationwide candidates are elected in order of priority, while voters get to tick the names of local candidates they want to see elected.

Another important specificity of the Greek electoral law is that 250 MPs are elected on the basis of a strictly proportional ballot, but the remaining 50 seats are given as a bonus to the party that garners the largest number of valid votes. 

For voters, this means that the ballot they cast contributes to three things:

  • By casting a ballot for a specific party, voters contribute to the percentage of the vote garnered by that party and therefore to the possibility that this party gets the 50-seat bonus.
  • By casting a ballot for a specific party, voters contribute to electing one or more of the 12 nationwide candidates put forward by that party in the order of priority they were listed.
  • By ticking the names of 1, 2, 3 or 4 local candidates (depending on the size of the electoral district), voters contribute to making the specific candidate(s) more likely to be elected. Voters can choose not to tick any names at all, in which case their vote will still count towards the first two items above.

Abstention, blank and null votes are not taken in consideration, so the distribution of parliament seats is based exclusively on the number of valid votes garnered by each party.

The last important specificity of the Greek electoral system is that parties are required to garner 3% or more of the vote in order to enter parliament. This is extremely important because, the larger the number of votes for parties that do not reach this 3% threshold, the lowest the number of votes required for the first party to secure an absolute majority (151 seats) in parliament.

Therefore, to determine the percentage of nationwide votes needed to secure a majority, you should deduct from 100% the percentage of valid votes obtained by parties that did not reach the 3% threshold and multiply the percentage left by 0.404.

Examples:

In the 06 May 2012 elections, parties that did not reach the 3% threshold obtained 19.03% of votes. This means that a party with as little as 32.71% of votes could secure a majority in parliament. In these elections, New Democracy garnered the largest number of votes at 18.85%, meaning only 108 seats, thus the repeat elections of June 2012.

In June 2012, only 5.99% of the valid votes went to parties that did not reach the 3% threshold. This means that New Democracy, with 29.66% of the vote, got 129 parliament seats, and was able to form a coalition with PASOK (12.28%, 33 seats) and DIMAR (6.25%, 17 seats.) These three parties garnered among themselves only 48.19% of the vote, but they had a 179-seat majority in parliament. Conversely, SYRIZA had then garnered 26.89% of the vote but had only 71 seats.

Notes
There is no system of proxy voting, early voting or postal voting in Greece, meaning that Greeks living abroad or living away from the place where they are registered as voters have no option but to travel to their electoral district to vote. Travel will be undertaken at the voter’s expense, unless political parties choose to subsidize travel for their voters.
It must also be noted that the 50-seat bonus for the first party is designed in a way that puts coalitions of parties at a disadvantage. The average percentage of votes garnered by coalition members must be higher than the percentage of votes garnered by the first single party (the average being calculated as the total percentage of votes garnered by the coalition divided by the number of parties constituting the coalition).
Example
If a coalition of 5 parties earns 50% of the vote while the single largest party earns 20% of the vote, the average percentage of votes garnered by the coalition will be 10%. The 50-seat bonus will therefore go to the single largest party.

#Skouries: branding the local community a criminal organization

Tolis Papageorgiou

Prominent Greek environmental activist Tolis Papageorgiou is due to appear in court today 07 July 2014. Together with 28 co-defendants, Papageorgiou faces charges of establishing a criminal organization and instigating violence for his action against ore mining in north-eastern Halkidiki, in particular in the Skouries forest, that has over the past two years become emblematic of the situation.

A civil engineer by profession, Papageorgiou hails from Ierissos, the village at the epicentre of the resistance movement to mining. After a successful career in Thessaloniki, he chose to return to his hometown in the early 1990s, when it became clear that ore mining was set to be expanded to such levels that the whole of north-eastern Halkidiki, a region of exceptional natural beauty and biodiversity, was to be transformed into an industrial wasteland, leading to the utter destruction of its delicate ecosystem and, consequently, of its society and culture.

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Why I’m taking it personally

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been going to bed at night and waking up in the morning thinking of a person I have never met and will likely never meet. I hardly know anything about the man himself. I only know that his name is Kostas Sakkas, that he’s 29 years old and that he was a university student until December 2010. That’s a lot less than what I knew about all the people I wrote letters for when I was a campaigner for Amnesty International.

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Salary and privileges of members of parliament in Greece

A lot has been said recently in the Greek media about the salary, allowances and benefits of members of the Greek parliament. MPs insist that their pay is not all that high, that they incur considerable expenses for the cost of running their office, and that cutting back on their benefits will cause “parliamentarian poverty.” Yet no one really knows how much Greek MPs are earning. The deputy speaker of parliament, Gr. Niotis, rejected on 23 September a proposal by far-right leader G. Karatzaferis to send a letter to the media with details of MPs’ pay, allowances and benefits. So I decided to research the relevant legislation to figure it out for myself. Here is the result of my research, with links to the relevant law/decree/decision for each item.

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Two interviews on BBC radio

Here are two BBC radio programmes I participated in

Below is the BBC Assignment Programme: The Indignant of Greece, 12 September 2011

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/console/p00jwyt1

Below is BBC Global News, 03 October 2011 (go to 6’25”)