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Athens students lose faith in their political parties

Radical politics has a long and rich history in Greek universities. But allegiance to the traditional parties is on the wane as students lose their faith in mainstream politics.

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in Athens

The atmosphere at the Economics faculty at Athens University is reminiscent of the Sorbonne in 1960’s Paris. Political posters line the hallways. The building is suffused with a light smog of tobacco and cannabis smoke and there is a constant hubbub of lively political chatter.

This is the nerve centre of the university, where students meet to drink coffee, play cards and hang out, as students do all over the world. But these students are perhaps more political than in other countries, and in this political laboratory revolutions are plotted, demonstrations are organised and the future of the country is being planned by its future leaders.

“It is student life and it has always been like this,” said student Constantina, who says she is “political but not militant.” And the sheer number of individual political party offices here is testament to a tradition which is not restricted to this faculty. Every Greek university is a hotbed of intense political activism.

Nearly all the students here were at the Sunday February 12 demonstration at Syntagma Square in Athens, protesting the latest wave of austerity measures imposed on their already struggling country. They were also there to voice their rejection of the country’s political system.

Previous generation of students had organised opposition to the military dictatorship (1967 to 1974). The results of this opposition included the 1975 “right of asylum” for students within their faculties. Under this law, police were banned from entering university premises unless they were investigating a serious crime.

The right was used in 2008 after a rioter was killed by police. Other rioters fled to a university campus and claimed asylum, prompting the government to revoke the law. But here in Athens the tradition continues.

“The image of tanks entering the Athens Polytechnic in 1973 [to crush opposition to the dictatorship] is still strong in the collective memory,” said Alexis, who is studying political science.

Deserting the traditional parties

The 2011 university reforms – which included revoking the right of asylum – are central to the students’ struggle against authority. The issue, for them, is just as important as the country’s deteriorating economic situation.

Green posters of the PASOK socialist party, and blue posters of the New Democracy conservatives, dominate. But here in the Economics faculty, overt support for either party, which make up the “traitor coalition”, is frowned upon by the students.

And students have been deserting traditional parties in droves.

George, a political Science student said he had quit PASDEP, the youth branch of the socialist PASOK party. “I didn’t really have time for politics any more”, he said, and after a pause added: “These days it’s hard to balance political allegiances. If you campaign for PASDEP everyone thinks you support the PASOK and Papandreou.”

Former Prime Minister Papandreou’s name has become a universal insult, used by both left and right. Blamed for mismanaging the country’s economy, he resigned in November 2011.

“Both Papandreous, father and son [Andreas, prime minister 1981 to 1989, and George, 2009-2011] played their part in destroying this country,” insisted Georgis, a young militant for the youth wing of the conservative New Democracy Party. “The first created too many civil service posts. The second maintained them. This situation is entirely the fault of the PASOK.”

When another student asks him what miracles the New Democrats (who lead the country’s coalition government) have up their sleeves, Georgis skirts the question: “We are against everything that this government is doing. We are tied to New Democracy, yes, but we have our own ideas and agendas.”

Students want to leave the country

And while Georgis demonstrated on Sunday with his fellow students, it was certainly not under the banner of his chosen party. The same is true of all adherents of other mainstream political movements.

“There is a complete rejection of all mainstream politics,” adds Yannis, who studies statistics and says that despite being a natural conservative he has disowned New Democracy. “We are going through a profound crisis of faith in our political parties.”

This rejection also applies to radical left-wing parties like Arena and Raseak. Polls show that allegiance to these movements, especially among the country’s youth, is weak despite the economic crisis.

Management student Chrysanthi, a member of anti-capitalist Arena, said the crisis had not worked in her party’s favour, saying students were “more interested in getting their degrees and finding work overseas than domestic politics.”

Chrysanthi is bitter about this lack of interest in radical movements: “Being politically active is an obligation in the current climate. If we do nothing, if we don’t fight, we can have no hope for the future. Every young person that leaves the country is another light of hope that goes out in Greece.

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