Economy top concern for Greek students

As the country casts its ballots on Sunday, many students say their country is headed in the wrong direction.

Athens Polytechnic Campus
The recession has led the Greek government to slash public funding for universities [Sam Bollier/Al Jazeera]

Athens, Greece –
Over the past year, Greek students have been at the forefront of demonstrations against a worsening economy, harsh austerity measures, and sweeping reforms to the country’s university system.

On May 6, young Greeks will get a chance to express their discontent at the polls, as the country votes for a new parliament.

Greece is currently led by a grand coalition of the country’s two major parties, the centre-left PASOK and centre-right New Democracy. Both support Greece’s bailout by the European Union and International Monetary Fund, designed to keep the country financially afloat. Known as “the memorandum”, the bailout’s terms require that Greece enact unpopular spending cuts and tax hikes.

Almost all Greeks have felt the effects of rising unemployment, pension cuts, higher taxes and reduced social spending. But young Greeks have been among the hardest hit. The unemployment figures for Greeks under the age of 25 are stratospheric: more than half cannot find a job, according to the latest figures from the European Union’s statistics agency.

Those who can find work often struggle, too: earlier this year, the minimum wage for workers under the age of 25 was slashed by 32 per cent, while also being cut – albeit by a lower percentage – for those 25 and older.

Making ends meet

Students pay no tuition to attend universities in Greece. However, those who attend university away from home have to pay for room and board – which can be expensive, especially in Athens. In good times, these students often found jobs to make ends meet. That’s much harder to do now. And students who rely on their parents financially, as many do here, suffer when breadwinners’ wages are cut.

Once they graduate, many will leave Greece. According to a Eurobarometer survey taken in May 2011, 37 per cent of young Greeks said they would be willing to work long-term in another European country. Tzortzis Nomikos, a biochemistry professor at Harokopio University, said students in his department “didn’t use to have a problem” finding jobs. Now, he says, many are seeking jobs abroad – especially in the United Kingdom. An increasing number of graduates are also learning German in hope of working there.

“It’s pretty hard to find a job now,” said architecture student Omeros Parolas, who added that recent changes to Greek labour law have weakened job security for young workers.

Evi Poulopoulou, a veterinary student at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, explained that, with low wages but high prices, “no one from the middle class can live happily”.

Down with austerity

In a University of Athens courtyard festooned with political posters, students who spoke to Al Jazeera – many of whom will be voting for the first time – unanimously said that the economy was their biggest concern in the upcoming election.

There’s palpable discontent with the current government’s support for the memorandum and concomitant austerity measures. Ioannis Kiatos, a law student at the University of Athens, expressed his belief that “right now the IMF demands that young people pay for the crisis” – a view shared by many of his peers.

Charis Mertis, an articulate architecture student at Athens Polytechnic, links the current situation to his university’s 1973 uprising against the military junta then ruling Greece.

“The demands of ’73 have not been entirely fulfilled yet,” he argued, referring to the movement’s calls for “bread, education, and freedom”. For example, he said, austerity measures have led to “students in [primary] school fainting from hunger”.

In addition to their economic worries, many students are concerned about the future of Greek universities. Public spending on higher education has been cut since 2009, and some worry that the introduction of tuition fees or partial privatisation of the university system could follow.

Right now the IMF demands that young people pay for the crisis.”

– Ioannis Kiatos, University of Athens law student

Last August, MPs from both PASOK and New Democracy voted in favour of legislation that weakened universities’ historical autonomy and reduced the power of the student body. The law also undid Greece’s unique university asylum law, a reaction to junta-era abuses that forbade police from entering campuses without the permission of university leadership.

Michalis Kardalis, who is involved with a PASOK-affiliated student group at the University of Athens, still plans to vote for the party – but was deeply disappointed by its support for the reform law. The repeal of asylum is “very insulting and invasive”, he said.

Choosing a party

Greece’s economic woes suggest an anti-incumbent, “throw-the-bums-out” mood heading into Sunday’s election.

Some students do support the major parties, though they’re far from enthusiastic about austerity. “Of course we don’t like all the IMF loans,” said law student Alex Xirofotos, a New Democracy supporter. Nevertheless, he said, adhering to the loans’ conditions means that “we stay in Europe”.

In the past year, Greece’s political centre has fragmented. Leftist parties are seeing large gains, a trend that is mirrored in Greece’s student population.

Some, like Parolas, plan to vote for the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) because, in his words, it’s “more practical” than other leftist parties, and has “more stable opinions”.

Created in 2009, the far-left Anti-Capitalist Left Cooperation for the Overthrow (ANTARSYA) is polling only about one per cent nationwide. But several students say they’ll vote for the party. Why ANTARSYA? Andreas Chardaris, a recent graduate of maritime studies, said it would implement a “more radical solution” to the financial crisis, and try to unite Greece’s fragmented left.

Student supporters of the Communist Party of Greece – one of Europe’s few remaining communist parties with substantial support – refused to talk about the election, noting that all interviews had to be arranged through party headquarters (which did not respond to requests for comment).

Not so radical?

Yet although students – especially Greek students – are often viewed as being prone to radicalism, University of Athens political science professor Dimitri Sotiropoulos believes that “vocal minorities of left-wing students” on university campuses obscure the majority of students who “are either at home or in the classrooms”.

And Theodoros Chatzipantelis, a professor of political science at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, noted that in past parliamentary elections, young people tended to vote “the same way the general electorate votes”.

Indeed, in both the 2007 and 2009 [Gk] elections, exit polls found that voters aged 18-24 and older cohorts voted almost identically.

Chardaris explained that, when it comes to university politics, students often support the left. “But when they have to vote in elections,” he said, “they look for their personal interest” by voting for one of the major parties.

“The most important political issue right now for me isn’t [the] economy, or [whether to] leave Europe. [It’s to] find … people that will act on behalf of the will of Greeks.”

– Evi Poulopoulou, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki veterinary student

Whether this dynamic will hold on May 6 remains to be seen. A minuscule four per cent of Greeks under the age of 25 say their country is headed in the right direction, according to one recent survey, compared with 13 per cent of the general population (however, the survey’s small sample size makes this difficult to confirm).

‘Loss of faith’

Nick Malkoutzis, an editor of the English-language version of the newspaper Kathimerini, wrote in a July 2011 report entitled “Young Greeks and the Crisis” that one effect of Greece’s economic crisis “has been young Greeks’ overwhelming loss of faith in their political representatives … There is a danger that if young Greeks do not find a political outlet for their dissatisfaction and concerns, protest will become their default response”.

This may already be happening: Malkoutzis’ report cited one survey finding that almost six in ten Greeks under the age of 25 had participated in mass demonstrations during the summer of 2011.

For Poulopoulou, Greece’s biggest problem is its loss of credible leaders. “The most important political issue right now for me isn’t [the] economy, or [whether to] leave Europe,” she said. “[It’s to] find … people that will act on behalf of the will of Greeks.”

On May 6, she’ll cast a ballot, not in favour of a particular party so much as “to get rid of the two big political parties”.

George, a 19-year-old journalism student at Panteion University who wouldn’t give his last name, said he planned to vote for ANTARSYA, but thinks the election was not as important as direct action. “Protesting in streets involves the people themselves and not their representatives,” he said. “From the parliament, nothing can be changed.”

Others are against the idea of elections altogether, given Greece’s current financial situation. Dimitris, an architecture student at work building a model in an Athens Polytechnic studio, said “there wasn’t any reason” to call parliamentary elections. “It is costing more money for the government,” said Dimitris, who also did not want to disclose his last name.

Does the election matter? “Not really,” he said. Yet he plans on voting anyway. “Because if you don’t, you support the ones that the others elect.”

Aimiliani Vlachou assisted with translation from Greek.

Follow Sam Bollier on Twitter: @SamBollier

Source: Al Jazeera