From Pericles to Potami

A friend and colleague at my newspaper is leaving to run for the European Parliament on the ticket of Greece’s main opposition party. The party, Syriza, has been leading in most polls in the run-up to the May 25 election, but there is no guarantee that my colleague will be elected. Yet, in his mid-50s, he is making the leap.

There is nothing strange in this — as old hacks used to say, journalism is a great profession if you get out in time — but my colleague’s decision reflects something significant: The economic crisis of the past four years is opening the way, after decades of stagnation, for radical change in Greek politics. New people — from business, sports, academia and various professions — are entering politics; new parties are pushing for a place in a field where for generations two parties and a handful of political dynasties controlled developments.

There are serious issues to consider when a widely recognized journalist crosses into politics. Had his politics colored his views as a journalist? Did his journalism help open the way to a new career? In these elections, all parties are fielding a large number of novice politicians from across the social and professional spectrum as they try to gain credibility among voters made cynical by the crisis. Are they exploiting their “brand recognition” rather than infusing their parties with new ideas?

Beyond any window dressing, Greece’s political system needs a radical overhaul, and this can occur only through the presence of talented people who have made their mark in other spheres. Participation is, after all, the cornerstone of democracy, during whose heady, turbulent early years in the fifth century B.C. — years of war, empire, magnificent architecture and the blossoming of the arts — the statesman Pericles stressed that every Athenian citizen had a duty to play a role in public affairs. “We are unique in that we consider any man who takes no part in these not just uninvolved but useless,” he declared. In Roman times, however, the patron-client system made politics a profession and votes a commodity to be exchanged for favors.

And since the founding of the modern Greek state nearly two centuries ago, Pericles’s exhortation has been remembered only in speeches on national holidays. Politics has been dominated by a professional caste whose credibility depended on keeping voters happy. This led to rising demands by interest groups at the expense of the whole society.

After the collapse of the military dictatorship in 1974, families that had been powerful before the junta returned to center stage in Greece’s politics — while a few other powerful families played a leading role in the economy.

Hardly anyone can miss the irony of the current government’s being forced — under pressure from foreign creditors — to dismantle the system of permanent public-sector jobs that were the ultimate goal of voters and their patrons under the old political dispensation.

The years of prosperity and easy credit after Greece joined the European Union had turbocharged the old system, allowing political parties to try to outdo one another with promises to the electorate, until this mentality bankrupted Greece. In those years of plenty, two big parties — the center-right New Democracy and the center-left Pasok — alternated in power. Together, they would routinely get about 80 percent of the vote. Borrowed prosperity, combined with the promise of power, allowed them to control any dissent within their ranks, forcing newcomers to either toe the line or join one of the smaller parties that had no hope of governing.

The collapse of the country’s finances, the international bailout and the harsh austerity that was imposed in 2010 discredited New Democracy and Pasok, and voters left in droves. The parties remain in power only because, after years of antagonism, they formed a coalition.

But since the last national elections, in 2012, fringe parties across the political spectrum have picked up voters and vitality as Greeks sought alternatives. (After the 2009 elections, there were four parties in Parliament; in 2012, they became seven.) Potami (The River), founded only in late April by Stavros Theodorakis, another former journalist, is getting about 10 percent in opinion polls, making it the third largest party, after New Democracy and Syriza. “Every day, every night,” Mr. Theodorakis wrote in his manifesto, people he meets ask him, “‘What are we to do?’ Everyone is at a dead end. Even those who had decided whom they would vote for, after a brief chat would ask themselves, ‘Do we have an alternative?”’

Even before people heard about Potami’s pro-European Union, centrist policies, they were keen to give it a try — simply on the basis of its founder’s likable television persona and a vague idea of what he thought. Mr. Theodorakis has been using social media to encourage citizens to get involved by suggesting candidates for the European Parliament, proposing policies and making small donations. (The party is based in an apartment in Athens and does not have offices around the country — unlike “traditional” parties, hugely expensive political machines that need millions of euros to function.) The Internet allows citizens to once again play a role, in a sense re-establishing the direct relationship between citizens and government that was ancient Athens’s achievement.

No one seems to have answers to the problems that most countries face. How do we assure prosperity when it leads to debt? How do we impose austerity when this stokes the anger and despair that empower populist forces that can derail both the economy and democracy? How do we protect local production and jobs in a global economy?

Political systems, ideologies and economic theories are all struggling or inadequate. Europe is changing. The crisis is breaking down old formations, leading to uncertainty and danger. But this ferment also opens the way for those who feel that now, through public service, they can be not only involved but useful.

Nikos Konstandaras is the managing editor and a columnist at the newspaper Kathimerini.

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