ATHENS – Disputing Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’ assertion that democracy is thriving in Greece, President Karolias Papoulias said an ongoing economic crisis and government-backed austerity has caused it to retreat.
Papoulias’ statement was made at a ceremony marking the restoration of democracy in Greece on the 40th anniversary of the fall of the ruling military junta that is still revered by the ultra-far right Golden Dawn nationalists.
“Democracy has very deep roots in Greece, having been fed by the struggles and sacrifices of the Greek people,” said Samaras later, accompanying Papoulias to an exhibition in the Parliament building on the restoration of democracy in 1974.
The exhibit comemorates the beginning of the so-called Metapolitefsi era, the transition from the rule of the Colonels to Parliamentary democracy and is expected to open to the public in September.
Papoulias, who has supported pay cuts, tax hikes, slashed pensions and worker firings demanded by international lenders, which caused record poverty and deep unemployment, said they had damaged democracy.
“The crisis has caused democracy to regress and this is perhaps the most dramatic side effect of our economic adventure,” said Papoulias in a statement to mark the 40-year anniversary.
“The quality of parliamentarianism, exchanges between parties, political dialogue and the way decisions are taken by the executive has been severely damaged,” he said, noting the rancor between the ruling parties of Samaras’ New Democracy Conservatives and its partner the PASOK Socialists, with opposition groups opposed to austerity.
Papoulias also noted the meteoric rise of Golden Dawn, which the government is now trying to dismantle by charging its leaders and lawmakers with operating a criminal gang.
“One can put forward a number of interpretations for this development, which does not speak well for us as a country or a people, but the essence is that democracy has suffered numerous blows,” he said.
Goernment spokesperson Sofia Voultepsi disagreed with him. She argued that democracy has not regressed but people’s respect for it has diminished and said that there is a clear distinction between the dictatorship and today’s parliamentary system.
“It is not a junta when they cut your salary or pension but when you do not have freedom, when Parliament has been closed and there is torture, imprisonment, exile and gatherings, protests and strikes are banned,” she said.
Ironically, while Greece is technically a democracy, the Parliament is controlled by the ruling parties and any of its lawmakers who don’t vote the way the are told are ejected or reprimanded and Samaras has used civil mobilization orders to break up strikes and force people to work, sometimes without being paid for months.