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Greek Millennials Are Sick of Politics

With voter turnout at its lowest, have the youth of Greece become apathetic?

by Melpomeni Maragkidou
Sep 22 2015, 5:25pm

Photo by Ioannis Stefanidis

This article originally appeared on VICE Greece.

The lazy generation. Those that are less aware but always ask for more. The privileged and ungrateful who never had anything to fight for. The apolitical hipsters who only care about their smartphones. The narcissists with the selfie sticks. Ask any older person in Greece about millennials and he will regurgitate a bunch of stereotypes. But it's normal—at least in this country—to attack anything or anyone you don't understand. When it comes to politics, young people in Greece are labeled rather viciously—rabble-rousers who attack peace by protesting for their rights, those who don't appreciate democracy, the mismatched.

The truth is that if, around the turn of the century, you'd asked a 20-year-old for their views on current affairs, you probably would've got a trivial answer. Back then, Greece was doing well financially (or so we were told) and its people saw the 2004 Olympics as a chance to prove ourselves as the worthy successors of our ancestors. For the young people of Greece life at that point was relatively easy. We would study, enjoy great summers, travel abroad, get a job, and eventually have a big fat Greek wedding.

Then the economical meltdown reared its head and we started to realize that our future seemed kind of dark. That was when we started taking to the streets asking for more transparency, more justice, and more democracy. We actually wanted to make the system work. We had every right to take the streets because the crisis hit us harder than any one else. Our generation became steeped in politics and began studying Marx, Lenin, Bakunin, Foucault—some even Goebbels, unfortunately. We argued over whether Greece should remain in the European Union. We took to public squares in droves and were beaten up and tear-gassed, until we finally packed our suitcases and went to live abroad.

And then everything collapsed. It was Greek millennials who brought the first radical left government of Europe to power, yet nothing really changed and we were called to the polls for the third time in a year. Unsurprisingly, young Greeks began to develop a seeming apathy. A startling number did not even vote in last Sunday's election, while those who did helped Vasilis Leventis (better known for his three-decade-old cult TV show than his political arguments) into power. What happened to the rebellious Greek youth? Have we turned our backs on politics or is this newfound apathy a strategy?

I met up with Panagiotis, a 22-year-old law student who has never voted—instead, he maintains, he engages with politics in other ways: "There are a lot of reasons why I didn't vote on Sunday, but the main reason is that I am opposed to the logic behind it. There is a widespread aversion to the political system and you can see it in the huge numbers of non-voters. When someone doesn't even bother getting up to vote—that indicates they find the gesture meaningless. I believe that elections just recycle the people in power while our misery levels kind of stay the same. I see a structural weakness in the dominant political system and the Greek state. This weakness manifested itself in SYRIZA's rise to power. People really hoped they would bring on change, yet it took a few months for it all to collapse like a tower in the sand."

I talked to 24-year-old journalist Stergios, who's no longer interested in politics: "I've been voting ever since I turned 18. I voted in the referendum but this Sunday I decided to abstain," he said. I thought I'd already made a choice back in January, so I didn't see a reason to vote again. Also, there is no party I traditionally support. I will not be engaging for as long as the terms for Greece to stay in Europe remain unchanged. Our cards are already marked."

I asked him if he was disappointed or tired and if that was what made him change his attitude towards the elections. "Two years ago it was frustration, now it's this feeling of inability to change the world," he replied. "2013 was the last time I had the mental stamina to fight. I have no more fight left. I live my life feeling defiantly weak and irritatingly empty-handed."

Alexander Afouxenidis is a political sociology researcher at the Greek Centre for Social Research. I asked him about the political choices of this generation: Is this bout of political apathy sudden or gradual? His response was that "there are no specific characteristics that define the political makeup of this generation. This generation is not homogeneous enough to be treated as a single group of people. There are varying levels of indifference. The stratifications of 'political apathy' are extremely difficult to document. It is an insubstantial problem."

Photo by Ioannis Stefanidis

He went on: "Apathy is a theme that is used occasionally by political parties to throw the ball back into society's court and say, 'We are trying, but it's your fault for not engaging.' On a scientific level, and with such narrow methodological criteria, it's not possible to substantiate this generation's apathy. Those who say it is are just playing politics."

What about the fact that the rate of abstention was about 45 percent and estimates say that a large proportion of this percentage was made up of young people? "The high abstention rate isn't a Greek phenomenon, it is a global phenomenon. Also someone who doesn't vote doesn't necessarily abstain from political activity. They might just have distanced themselves from the traditional political system," Afouxenidis concluded.

Valina is 24 years old and lives in the Netherlands, where she is pursuing two master's degrees at the same time. She says she left Greece because she couldn't find a job that would allow here to support herself and build a future. "I am doomed to stay uninvolved in the elections because Greek expats cannot vote from the country they live in," she told me. "I have missed some major electoral moments in Greece's history in the past few years." Even though she would like to vote, she can only be registered as absent.

'No' protestors from a rally prior to July's referendum. Photo by Panagiotis Maidis.

Katerina, 30, found herself in a similar conundrum: "I couldn't afford to travel from Athens to Crete—where I am registered—to vote for the third time in a year. It's too expensive."

In the end, should we even be talking about an apathetic generation? I wanted to find out so I got in touch with Communications and Politics analyst George Sefertzis: "We shouldn't be talking about apathy in the younger generation. I will emphasize the importance of the distinction between indifference and abstinence. Abstinence is not a form of political indifference. It is a form of political protest," he said.

"I could use the term 'apathy' if we were talking about the phenomena of abstinence that appeared in the 1980s and 90s, at a time when prosperity gave people the impression that they had solved most of the country's problems. We indeed had the phenomenon of an indifferent younger generation that didn't see any reason to participate back then. This is more a case of frustration and disdain with which the younger generation regards the political system," he said.

"They were let down by SYRIZA, who they elected because it promised to abolish the memorandum but instead signed a third bailout package. This has created a confusion of sorts which could manifest itself in two ways: One is not voting in order to avoid choosing a party. The other was voting for wildcards like the Center Union party of Vassilis Leventis—parties who no one really takes seriously. Voting for Leventis was a calculated choice, an attempt to ridicule the political system."

But could this frustration lead to a period of real apathy? "No. This time, the problems which the new generation, and possibly the next generation face, won't allow for apathy," said Sefertzis.