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A Wave of Discontent Is Crashing the Status Quo in Greece

Four decades of dominance over Greece by two major political parties is expected to end Sunday with a victory by Alexis Tsipras and his left-wing Syriza party, which will likely reject austerity measures imposed by international groups.
Photo by Nikolia Apostolou

"The dice is cast," said Alexis Tsipras, the 40-year-old leader of the left-wing political party Syriza in his last speech before the Greek election Thursday, echoing Julius Caesar's command for his troops to cross the Rubicon River and conquer Rome.

For Caesar, it was a matter of life and death — as well as honor.

Many Greeks and other Europeans see it that way, too.

Poll after poll shows that Greeks believe they have little choice but to kick out Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, who has imposed a series of harsh tax increases and draconian spending cuts in return for European Union and International Monetary Fund bailouts over the past five years.


While many European leaders believe those harsh austerity measures saved Greece from economic collapse and rescued the euro from monetary oblivion, Greek voters don't see it that way. With joblessness at 27 percent and government services withering, many feel like they've experienced economic ruin.

Tsipras's victory on Sunday is almost a sure thing, a win that will end four decades of dominance over Greece by two major parties, the center-right New Democracy and the center-left PASOK. Opinion polls show the Syriza has up to an 8 percent lead over Samaras' coalition of the two.

The morning after Tsipras audaciously quoted Caesar, taxi driver Antonis Panayiotou was driving around Athens for more than 12 hours in his brand new Mercedes cab. Finding a customer these days is hard, he says. Supply and demand for rides has gone up and down since the economic crisis in Greece started seven years ago.

Thousands of Greeks, from janitors to lawyers, have turned to the taxi business to make ends meet. But for many customers, taking a taxi is a luxury they can't afford.

Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras surrounded by reporters in Greece. (Photo by Nikolia Apostolou)

"This car is an investment for me," Panayiotou told VICE News. Forced to start a new career while in his 40s, he says he offers a kind of psychotherapy to clients that come with troubles of their own.

"I had to shut down my previous business when the banks stopped issuing loans, even though my printing company was perfectly healthy," he said. "But everything we had to import had to be paid in cash up front, for which we didn't have the money for."


Still, Panayiotou is among the few Greeks with zero liabilities: one out of every six owe the government unpaid taxes. Even so, he works 10 hours a day, seven days a week — and his income over the past five years has shrunk by 60 percent. It's a common story among the Greek lower and middle classes these days.

In Panayiotou's car, the radio played nonstop and, suddenly, Sofia Voultepsi, a government deputy, was on the air, railing against a possible Syriza win.

"People think [the current crisis] is bankruptcy," she said. "A real bankruptcy means that imports of goods such as gas and medicine will stop. We've seen the Argentina and the Venezuelan method. They don't have toilet paper in Argentina and Venezuela. I recommend you stock up if Syriza wins."

If Syriza wins, the lingering question is how the EU and IMF will react to his demands: It would be the first Eurozone government to reject austerity measures imposed by the international groups.

'I see that most people feel desperate without a job, stuck in their houses.'

Other Southern Europeans could follow suit.

At the end of Tsipras's speech Thursday, Pablo Iglesias, the leader of Podemos, a new popular Spanish grassroots political movement, issued a statement to Greek voters. "A wind of democratic change is blowing in Europe," he said. "The change in Greece is called Syriza. The change in Spain is called Podemos. Hope is coming. To victory! We will overcome."


Greek elites, meanwhile, are bracing against this wave of discontent. For decades, no major economic or political decision has been made without the input of a small group of Greek oligarchs, the so-called "national contractors" who control the shipping companies and big media outlets.

Greek broadcasters and newspapers often feature propaganda in favor of the current government, said Michael Nevradakis, a PhD candidate at University of Texas at Austin who has been studying the Greek media landscape since the economic crisis started.

"One of the clearest examples of this was the newscasts of ANT1 television, one of the large private networks," Nevradakis told VICE News. "When it covers Syriza or its leader, Alexis Tsipras, it often features text on the screen with messages such as, 'Voters have a choice between stability and chaos.' The message here is clear — Syriza represents chaos."

Alexis Tsipras casts his vote during Greek parliamentary elections.

Syriza claims the status quo is chaos.

Greeks making less than $67,200 (around 60,000 euros) pay more in tax than those earning $112,000 (100,000 euros), Dimitris Charalambis, professor of political science at the University of Athens, told VICE News.

"People feel this injustice," Charalambis said. "In Greece, 75 percent of the tax revenue comes from employees and pensioners, even though they comprise only 50 percent of the population. While, according to official numbers, there are only nine Greeks that make more than 700,000 euros. Something's wrong here."

Before the crisis, Nikoletta Stavroulaki, 28, was happy with her nine to five job at a catering company. Riding her Vespa scooter throughout Athens, she lived off her small paycheck and was content. Life has been a miserable Groundhog Day ever since she lost her job four years ago. She now lives at her mother's house and spends the majority of her time in front of her computer screen, posting on Facebook, watching movies, and messaging with friends — just waiting for something to change.

"Nowadays, everyone lives behind a virtual reality, behind their computers, depressed and lonely," Stavroulaki told VICE News. "I see that most people feel desperate without a job, stuck in their houses."

Stavroulaki has set a deadline of March to find work. Otherwise, she plans to emigrate to Germany.

"All this is not fair but I believe not much will change with the new government," she said. "And if nothing changes, there's nothing left to do here."