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The satire after the tragedy

Crime writer Petros Markaris looks at why the Greeks are in no position to solve their crisis of government

The curtain has fallen, and Greece is emerging from this summer's tragedy with a once-and-future government. The chapter dealing with the fires around Attica and the Peloponnese is closed, yet many questions remain open: Have we learned nothing from the disaster? Did those who suffered so much just a few weeks ago learn no lesson from their distress? How to explain that even in those regions where the environmental damage reached catastrophic levels, electors voted overwhelmingly for the governing party - which bears the blame for the total collapse of the state apparatus and hence the devastating consequences?

Forest fire burns on the island of Zakynthos

Greece is going through its worst crisis since the military dictatorship. It is a social, political and environmental crisis. The citizens, municipal authorities and town councils, political parties and finally the different governments have all contributed to it. All of them are guilty of corruption - not just certain circles favoured by the government. All of them share the blame for the fires that destroyed large tracts of our countryside this summer, and almost everyone is trying to get rich at the expense of society, the state and nature. Such a country-wide crisis cannot be the work of a single individual, or of a government. This was a "joint effort."

Now the crisis has reached a point where new governments are no longer expected to take far-reaching measures - no cadastre, no laws to protect nature and the country against the construction Mafia. The majority of Greeks want the government to turn a blind eye when citizens line their pockets at the country's expense.

The Greeks want only money and promises: the three thousand euros distributed by the government to citizens of the Peloponnese, in fact an insult to their human dignity; and promises that the government would rebuild or repair the fire victims' houses. These promises were generously meted out by the outgoing government. Just two days before the elections, the deputy finance minister undertook to give 2,500 hectares of crown land to his party crony, the mayor of Sacharo in the Peloponnese. The mayor can do what he pleases with the land, which includes one thousand hectares of scorched earth. No one in Greece has any doubts about what use he will put it to.

Athens burning, from the Acropolis, mid-july 2007

It's with tricks like this that the governing New Democracy party could win the elections - albeit with losses - while the socialist PASOK party suffered its worst rout since 1981. PASOK president George Papandreou has made nothing but mistakes for the last three and a half years. The socialists had no alternative concept, and could present no convincing programme. Papandreou contented himself with frontal attacks on Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis. "He's counting the days," say the Greeks of someone on his deathbed. During the entire election campaign, Papandreou counted nothing but errors.

The tragic conclusion: two mainstream parties, both of which did everything wrong for three and a half years, courted voters for their support. The winner was the one with the leading margin, and who wasn't afraid to take cynical advantage of it. Voters that were more or less aware of the crisis gave their support to the smaller parties in protest. That led to the best results in 15 years for both the Communist Party of Greece and the Coalition of the Radical Left, especially in the cities. But at the same time it allowed the right-wing nationalist Popular Orthodox Rally party to enter parliament.

NASA satellite image of the fires on July 25, 2007.

The Greeks can now await a weak government (with only a two-seat majority), and a socialist opposition party which will long be busied with itself after its devastating defeat. Despite their successes, the three smaller parties will not be able to bring about much change, with the possible exception of the Popular Orthodox Rally, on which Prime Minister Karamanlis will have to rely partially as a result of his slim majority. Under such circumstances, it would be utopian to expect a new start, or even a way out of the crisis.

The theatrical cycle in Antiquity famously consisted of a tetralogy: three tragedies and a satirical drama, or satyr play at the end. In Euboea, the Peloponnese and Attica, we sat there powerlessly and watched three tragedies. Now the elections have rounded off the cycle.


The article originally appeared in German in Die Welt on September 18, 2007.

Petros Markaris was born in Istanbul in 1937, studied in Vienna and Stuttgart and now lives in Athens. He writes screenplays (among others with Theo Angelopoulos), and has translated Goethe's "Faust I + II" into Modern Greek. He became known internationally with his crime novels featuring commissioner Kostas Charitos.

Translation: jab. - let's talk european