Greece’s Open Wound of Division

A forensics team inspects the car of former Prime Minister Lucas Papademos of Greece after a parcel bomb exploded in Athens last month. Credit Costas Baltas/Reuters
A forensics team inspects the car of former Prime Minister Lucas Papademos of Greece after a parcel bomb exploded in Athens last month. Credit Costas Baltas/Reuters

Many Greeks were surprised when a mild-mannered former prime minister who tried to use unity and consensus to lead the country out of an economic and political impasse was seriously injured by a parcel bomb last month.

What followed was even worse: The attack was not greeted with unanimous condemnation, suggesting that Greece has a long way to go to heal divisions that were exacerbated by the economic crisis, that have shaped politics and that obstruct efforts to get Greece on its feet.

As Lucas Papademos, 69, lay in a hospital, members of a self-proclaimed anti-establishment movement threw pamphlets onto the hospital grounds proclaiming, “Die, Papademos, so we can celebrate.” (There were no arrests; there seldom are when members of the burgeoning anti-establishment scene attack police with gasoline bombs, stage sit-ins or vandalize property.) A senior official of the Athens journalists’ union wrote on Facebook that he would not be “at all upset” if the current governor of the central bank, Yannis Stournaras, were also the target of a bomb. When a prosecutor reportedly started an inquiry into the comment, a government member, Deputy Health Minister Pavlos Polakis, asked sarcastically on his Facebook page, “Where are the sensitive defenders of free speech now?”

Mr. Papademos, currently president of the Academy of Athens, a highly respected research foundation and briefly prime minister while head of a multiparty coalition from November 2011 to May 2012, would seem an unlikely target for Greece’s domestic terrorists. Despite the intensity of Greek politics, no prime minister or former prime minister had been targeted this way since two failed attempts on Eleftherios Venizelos in 1920 and 1933, when the national schism between the liberal republican statesman and royalists dominated politics.

In a sense, though, Mr. Papademos was an unsurprising target. Educated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he served as governor of the Bank of Greece and vice president of the European Central Bank. He was an unelected technocrat who brought together three of Greece’s fractious parties in order to reach agreement with international creditors and keep Greece in the euro at a time when the country’s membership in the common currency was in jeopardy. He was called on when the socialist Pasok government, which had signed the first bailout in 2010, reached a dead end, and a respected personality was needed to head a coalition — someone who could do the job without being a threat to the party leaders’ own aspirations.

Mr. Papademos drew the enmity of populists and nationalists from the left and extreme right who were opposed to the bailout’s demands for austerity and reforms, who saw it as a loss of Greece’s sovereignty. He embodied the country’s elite, leading a government of mainstream parties at a time when rage at elites was at a crescendo. Both the left and the extreme right claimed that his government was a “junta,” a highly charged accusation in a country where the last military dictatorship ended in 1974. The unity expressed in such accusations and insults presaged the coalition that the radical-left Syriza and right-wing nationalist Independent Greeks would forge in January 2015 — and that is still in power. As prime minister, Mr. Papademos was a magnet also for internet trolls.

In a commentary in the newspaper Kathimerini after the attack on Mr. Papademos, the political scientist Nikos Marantzidis described the “new populism” of the bailout era as combining all the divisions “that anyone can imagine: patriots and traitors, the corrupt and incorruptible, ideologues and sellouts.” He added: “Such a level of verbal violence has not been seen since the restoration of democracy. Never were such extreme things said in Parliament or from official lips as in this period,” and continued: “When you call someone a quisling, a sellout, a fascist, a traitor, why wonder when some hothead takes things further?”

On the day that Greece’s president gave him the mandate to form a government, Mr. Papademos made a point of saying that he was not a politician, implying that he would focus on helping Greece without seeking personal power. “The course ahead will not be easy. But the problems, I’m convinced, will be solved,” he said. “They will be solved faster, with a smaller cost and in an efficient way, if there is unity, agreement and prudence.”

It may sound modest, but to call for unity, agreement and prudence in the context of Greece’s politics is to set the bar very high. And a few months later, one of the coalition members, the center-right New Democracy Party, pushed for national elections.

At the start of the Papademos administration, three-quarters of Greeks supported it, polls showed. Fewer people blamed the political system for the country’s troubles than when the first bailout was signed (17 percent in November 2011, down from 21 percent in May 2010). But by May 2012, this had shot up to 29 percent, and it was clear the coalition members could not keep their government together, even with a majority of 255 in the 300-seat Parliament. Anger, disappointment and fear had given way to hope, but hope had given way to disappointment.

Mr. Papademos’s government had reinforced the prejudices of populists on the left and right, who claimed that foreign interests were trampling over Greece’s democracy; at the same time, it failed to break the pattern of fraternal squabbles that have plagued Greece’s politics from the start of the modern Greek state. Inconclusive elections in May 2012 saw Syriza become a major force; new elections in June 2012 resulted in a new coalition, led by New Democracy; the January 2015 elections saw the Syriza-led coalition under Alexis Tsipras come to power.

Mr. Tsipras was relentless in his attacks on previous governments, including Mr. Papademos’s. Now, as he struggles to meet conditions demanded by Greece’s partners in the European Union and by the International Monetary Fund in exchange for more loans, Mr. Tsipras finds himself isolated — both from those he undermined in the past and from erstwhile allies who accuse him of wanting only to stay in power. This makes it more difficult to agree to creditors’ demands, which, in turn, imposes further uncertainty on the economy and society. Without “unity, agreement and prudence,” the country’s wounds remain open.

No group has claimed the May 25 attack on Mr. Papademos, who remains hospitalized, his injuries clearly not as light as initially reported.

Nikos Konstandaras, the managing editor and a columnist at the newspaper Kathimerini, is a contributing opinion writer.

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