Greece was on the verge of debt crisis for years

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I was sitting at an intersection in my uncle’s car in Athens on one of my days off this past April. We were idling in a traffic jam at one of the busiest intersections following another routine general strike by the electric company. This was the third day without traffic lights city wide. I noticed a motorist get out of his car, approach another, then proceeded to pull the driver out and beat him with a tire iron. I looked at my uncle for some sort of acknowledgment of what had happened. He turned to me as if he had woken up from a daydream. “Forget about it, Alex,” he tells me. “People are just really tense right now.”

Fast-forward seven months and the discontent is just as prevalent. Pressures from the European Union (EU) to find a solution to the debt crisis and help restore balance to the global economy have taken its toll on tiny Greece.
In years past, general strikes were seemingly unremarkable. They became as routine as the Easter holiday year after year. However tensions have risen beyond civil disobedience. That moment of inception seemed to be in May 2010 when three employees were burned alive at the Marfin bank following a petrol bomb attack in Athens.

With a grim outlook both in the economic and social realms, all eyes are on political leadership as it suffers its own crisis of sorts.

The last in the Papandreou political dynasty, Georgos Papandreou had made clear his defiance to see out the rest of his term despite his claims to the contrary. In fact, it should have come without surprise to onlookers of the Greek political theatre.

His demise began with the announcement of the referendum, once again hurdling Europe into economic despair. Following an emergency meeting in Cannes and dominating the itinerary at the G20 summit, Papandreou faced censure domestically as well. Upon return, three members of parliament (MPs) from his own Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) party nearly crossed the floor. Having just barely survived a confidence vote after finally scrapping the referendum, it was clear that Papandreou would not be able to muster the two-thirds support to approve the EU bailout proposal on his own.

Many have called to question the reasons behind calling a referendum in the first place. Internationally educated, Papandreou had the capacity to foresee the volatility in his choice. What was it that compelled him to suggest a referendum without the consultation of his cabinet nor his EU partners? As always the answer is both simple and complicated.

Papandreou received harsh criticism for the way he handled Greece’s finances. He has faced resistance from within PASOK, from the opposition and from Greek citizens who have challenged what has now become one of the toughest austerity measures ever to be implemented in recent memory. Papandreou has been accused of abandoning the wellbeing of the Greek people in favour of investors and the financialsector.

Furthermore, Papandreou is held accountable for submitting to the will of his EU colleagues, sacrificing the sovereignty and integrity of Greece’s statehood. Casually understood that the idea came from a public poll, Papandreou wanted to gain Greece’s public endorsement of the austerity measures and ultimately its continuing membership in the EU.

Despite best intentions the plan did not work. Good intentions are typically the first casualties in crises, a sentiment well learned following the defeat of Kostas Karamanlis in 2009. Papandreou’s actions didn’t take long to reverberate off of local news media and paint a vivid image of the short time that remained for him in office. His decision to go along with a referendum is evidence of a disempowered leader acting in desperation to gather whatever support remained. He acted out of frustration with a brash and myopic plan. Having lost all credibility and heeding aggressive calls, Papandreou formally stepped down earlier this month.

In his place, Lucas Papademos has assumed the thankless role of interim Greek prime minister. Outside of conventional political circles and armed with a coalition government, he stands as the best chance Greece has to move forward with the EU. While still knee-deep in debt, now is a time for prioritization.

Among many qualities, Papademos possesses a profound self awareness. He realizes that he serves a very limited and functional role: the implementation of the EU austerity package. Having just won a vote of confidence and cabinet approval of the 2012 budget, Papademos should be able to proceed unobstructed despite some minor setbacks from the far-right.

Greece had within its grasp a beautiful moment of reinvention; a moment to refute its past of nepotism and corruption and prove that it still belonged as a robust member of the world’s largest single-market union.

That moment was lost somewhere between Syntagma Square and the Marfin Bank.

Perhaps, next time I’m in Greece, banners will be brandished on every street corner as a parody of the British wartime morale posters, prompting me to: “Keep calm and always pay your debts.”

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