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The politics of suicide: Greece and Europe poised between two elections

New Democracy needs strategies that cut to the bone: it has to foster fright at a surging far left, it has to force home the message that SYRIZA's positions are contradictory. The rhetoric of suicide fits this bill consummately. But it is also double edged. This is suicide season and where will it lead?

Accusations and counter-accusations of immanent political, social and economic ‘suicide’ are setting the tone of the new election campaign in Greece called for 17 June. “Early elections will lead to national suicide”, claims one left-of-centre Minister. Right-wing counterparts equate Greek exit from the eurozone with a deathwish. The rhetoric of suicide has been used by the Governor of the Bank of Greece, as also by a large number of columnists and commentators. Not to be outdone, Alexis Tsipras, leader of SYRIZA, argues that Greece “will not take the road to suicide willingly”. As he has made clear elsewhere, he considers the EU-IMF Memorandum, which he now intends to renegotiate, to be a direct route “to the hell” (sic!). Needless to say, Greeks have no monopoly over the term. “Europe”, according to the Nobel-economist Joseph Stiglitz, “is headed to a suicide”. Paul Krugman agrees. The 'memorandum' is a “national suicide pact”, or, alternatively, a return to the drachma would be a “selbstmord” shout others.

Suicide is not, of course, confined to rhetoric. As recent research into the public health effects of economic crisis would lead us to expect, traditionally low suicide rates in Greece have jumped in the face of bankruptcy, long-term unemployment and poverty. A number of suicide-notes make the link to 'memorandum' policies explicit: the university lecturer, Nikos Polyvas, an active campaigner for those who, like himself, found their university positions, and salaries withheld over many years, in employment limbo; the teacher, Savvas Metoikides; a man from Crete who wrote more simply “I do not like the life we are being forced to live” before hanging himself. The suicide in front of Parliament of the seventy-seven year old Dimitris Christoulas grabbed the international limelight. In his suicide-note he drew parallels with the puppet Tsolakoglou government of 1941-1942, ending with the call: I believe that young people without a future will one day take up arms and, in Syntagma Square, will hang the national traitors upside down, as the Italians did Mussolini in 1945”. 

These acts have been interpreted and reinterpreted... politicians, the press, the internet all feeding into a rhetoric of suicide. But what does this mean for the elections due on 17 June, and, by extension, for a Europe in crisis. 

Europe vs. 'memorandum'

The 17 June election looks set to be close, too close to call at present. An electoral system which awards the first party fifty extra seats out of three hundred means that coming first is of paramount importance. A number of recent opinion polls have put SYRIZA ahead, polling between 22 and 28% of the vote, compared with almost 17% on 6 May. Others have New Democracy squeaking through. PASOK support seems to be holding up, albeit at the very low levels of the 6 May election (around 14%), as does support for the Democratic Left (around 6%). Support for the nationalist Independent Greeks (around 7%), for the Communist KKE (around 7%), as also for the fascist Chryse Avge (around 5%) seem to be trending down. So too, support for two of the three liberal parties, all of which failed to pass the 3% hurdle and enter parliament. The largest of the three liberal parties, Dimokratike Symmachia (Democratic Alliance) garnering 2.6% of the vote, has announced its intention to become integrated into New Democracy. Some former members of parliament of the nationalist LAOS party seem to be headed in the same direction. The Greens, Oikologoi Prasinoi, will fight alone. Changes in Green party leadership and a subsequent shift in policies have resulted in them losing two thirds of their previous electorate on 6 May, mainly to the Democratic Left and liberal parties, while failing to sufficiently increase their appeal among those further left. All in all, increases in support for both New Democracy and SYRIZA suggest that whichever party comes first is more likely to be able to form a coalition government following the elections than was the case after May 6.

The dynamics appear very different from those of the May 6 election. Then it was the balance between rage and fear that resulted in the punishment of the two governing parties. Now two related dilemmas are likely to determine the outcome: whether Greeks are for or against the 'memorandum', and whether Greeks wish to remain in the eurozone or not. Taken separately, the answers to these questions are not in doubt, Greeks being by and large against the memorandum and in favour of eurozone membership. Arguably, the election will be won by the party that succeeds in framing the debate: New Democracy will claim that a vote for SYRIZA constitutes a vote against Greece's European vocation; SYRIZA that it is at the vanguard of the fight against neo-liberalism, and in favour of a renewed democratic, social Europe. Says Tsipras in SYRIZA's election ad: “The time for such a Europe is not tomorrow, it is not the day after tomorrow, it is today”.

Other European governments are not standing idly by. Angela Merkel's recent call for a referendum on Greek eurozone membership to be held on the same day as the elections (subsequently and not very convincingly denied) may have been an attempt to frame the terms of the debate. Laurent Fabius used one of his first interviews as Foreign Minister to emphasise the fact that the question that Greeks were called on to answer on 17 June was whether they wish to remain in the euro. In a clearly coordinated move, David Cameron dittoed. George Papandreou may perhaps be permitted a ghost of a smile at such contortions. 

Existential politics and generational rift 

An examination of New Democracy's advertising strategy leading up to the 6 May election reveals the limits of such an approach. Αn ad released early on in the campaign confronted the dilemmas facing Greeks head on: “unemployment-employment, respect-shame, destruction-creativity, euro-drachma, hope-fear, I punish-I vote” states a voice-over, expressing the thoughts of anxious passers-by on a busy thoroughfare. This rational dilemma-based approach to the election campaign was deemed a failure, and the ad replaced by another, aiming to recapture votes being shed to the nationalist and far-right. Iconic images of Greece's past flash across the screen: Justinian, Ioannis Capodistrias, Eleutherios Venizelos, Constantine Karamanlis, Maria Callas and the Church of St. Sophia (without minarets). “Give me the power of a nation”, Antonis Samaras intones, so that Greece can reveal to the world “with what iron, what stone, what blood and what fire we build, we dream and we sing”. The quote is from the romantic-modernist poet Odysseas Elytis, shown in close-up. 

As we now know, Samaras' attempt at the politics of emotion left the electorate distinctly unmoved. And how could it have been otherwise? Yes, he remains the nephew in fact, and by temperament, of Penelope Delta, the author of many classic novels, who committed suicide on the day the Nazis entered Athens. The EU had, however, already shot down Samaras, its only viable standard-bearer, before the election even commenced: the national unity government was in many ways a suicide pact for all the parties that participated in it, deemed a betrayal by many middle class Greeks. New Democracy's advertising strategy thus ended up revealing the chasm between Samaras’ rhetoric as leader of his nation, and the reality of his constantly caving in to outside pressure. And it is this deeply wounded figure that is being called upon to fend off the charismatic, ironical, Tsipras, his ideological armour largely intact, on 17 June. 

And that is not all. For the 6 May results revealed a deep fault-line running through Greek society. New Democracy carried the day among older voters: among those over sixty-five, it garnered 34% to SYRIZA's 9%. Among younger voters the reverse was the case. New Democracy gained only 7% of those aged eighteen to twenty-four, coming in sixth, and 8% of those aged twenty-five to thirty four. With youth unemployment running at over 50%, New Democracy and PASOK (and, with them, the establishment press) are seen as the parties (and the media) of parents and grandparents, those who have led Greece into its current impasse. It will be hard for New Democracy to overcome this generational rift.   

To win, SYRIZA has to capture much of PASOK's old centre, and Tsipras has spent the last week forging alliances with politicians of the old ruling party. Having moved to the mainstream of Greek politics, SYRIZA's image makers are keen to compare Tsipras with the young Andreas Papandreou, rather than the revolutionary Che. Papandreou-esque key-words have started tripping off Tsipras' tongue, mixing memory with springtime radicalism. Andreas barked but did not bite; similarly, Tsipras has to seem serious about renegotiating the 'memorandum' while at the same time ready to compromise, and fervently pro-European. Still, though his party's opposition to the 'memorandum' is central to its campaign, SYRIZA's positive proposals for restructuring the Greek economy have at times appeared vague. 

New Democracy, which needs to improve by at least 10% on its 6 May result to reach some kind of a safety zone, is obliged to appeal simultaneously to the nationalist right, to the liberal centre, to the young and, also, to the large number of voters who abstained; a tall order, as these groups have precious little in common. The high abstention rate may in part be explained by the cost to many poor Greeks of travelling to their regions of origin to vote (by and large, Greeks do not vote where they live but where they were first registered). As for the rest, the young do not want the old; the liberal centre has argued for more and faster reforms and efforts to reduce the Greek public sector; and the nationalist right wants a charismatic leader who will stand up for Greece against Germany and the EU. All however share in the atmosphere of national humiliation, of despair, of impotence, while at the same time living a daily struggle for survival; survival as individuals, and as a nation without compass, now that the vision of a European Greece, the dominant political ideology over the last thirty years, seems to be evaporating. Only fear of the consequence of a SYRIZA victory can unite these disparate groups. New Democracy needs strategies that cut to the bone: it has to foster fright at a surging far left, it has to force home the message that SYRIZA's positions are contradictory. It has to frame the election as a debate over Greece's existence in Europe, or, rather, as Europe, while reminding the electorate of the consequences of disorderly bankruptcy. The rhetoric of suicide fits this bill consummately. 

Suicide season 

Following the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi which sparked the Tunisian Revolution and by extension the Arab Spring, there can be no doubt that suicide has the potential to bring change.

But the rhetoric of suicide is also double edged: as seen above, Tsipras has his own uses for the term. His is a rather different take on national humiliation. Suicide can fit into a narrative of ‘anomie’, but also into a narrative of insurgency and civil disobedience. Cato the Younger and the Russian critic Alexander Radishchev both took their lives in an ultimate protest against tyranny. The death of Dimitris Christoulas, who presented his act within the framework of the Second World War and the civil war that followed... should be seen as a clear instance of suicide as politics, despite the best efforts of the commentariat.

And there is the rub. His death grabbed the headlines. But, as always, it was followed by a hollow silence, at least on his part. “Let us assume that we have followed a hundred paths to the boundaries of silence” wrote the deeply pessimistic Kostas Kariotakis in “Optimism”, one of his last poems before he too committed suicide, in the summer of 1928. Kariotakis here touches on the most worrying element in the rhetoric of suicide: it is symptomatic of such boundaries, leaving no room for debate, for listening and resolution. Suicide is the negation of a certain type of politics. Even as a rhetorical device, suicide remains an act rather than a word; and democracy needs words.

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About the author

Iannis Carras is an economic and social historian of the 18th century Balkan and Russian worlds. He is active in Greek NGOs and has been a parliamentary candidate in the Athens region for the Greek Green Party.


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