In the annals of ancient combat, central Greece looms large. Notably, in 480 B.C., a small but resolute Greek army held off hundreds of thousands of Persians for several days in the Alamo-style Battle of Thermopylae, a humiliating setback for the all-powerful Persians. Some historians call it the battle that changed the world; 2007’s Hollywood blockbuster 300 stars Gerard Butler as Leonidas, the heroic Spartan king.
It's a gritty and anxious neighborhood that's a microcosm of Greece today: People are worried about crime, money, identity and, most of all, the future. They're also deeply divided about what to do. Sunday's parliamentary elections are expected to be the messiest in decades. No party looks likely to get enough votes to form a government. It's expected to be another anti-austerity vote that, along with a likely win of Francois Hollande in France, could change the dynamics of the eurozone crisis.
It was almost exactly a year ago that the European Union stepped in with a 110 billion euro ($158 billion) bailout for debt-plagued Greece. Yet here we are, a year later, and Greece’s debt is again the primary focus of Europe’s policymakers. A meeting of euro zone officials conceded last week that the current bailout was insufficient. Now there’s talk that Greece might get a whole new rescue deal, possibly including eased lending terms and reform commitments, which would increase the program’s chances of success, as well as fresh bailout funds.
Greece expects that a June audit of its budgets will show that a new financial-aid package of nearly €60 billion ($86 billion) will be needed to cover its financial needs stretching into 2013, a senior Greek government official said Tuesday.
Over the last decade, Greece went on a debt binge that came crashing to an end in late 2009, provoking an economic crisis that has decimated the country’s economy, brought down a government, unleashed increasing social unrest and threatened both Europe’s recovery and the future of the euro.
Greece is, of course, the land of ancient sites and architectural treasures -- the Acropolis in Athens, the amphitheater of Epidaurus, and the reconstructed palace at Knossos among the best known. But Greece is much more: It offers age-old spectacular natural sights, for instance -- from Santorini's caldera to the gray pinnacles of rock of the Meteora -- and modern diversions ranging from elegant museums to luxury resorts.
To be sure, Greek democracy was far from perfect before, suffering from clientelism, nepotism and corruption, but it had made significant strides since the country's entry into the European Community in 1981. Similarly, national sovereignty had become vulnerable way before 2009, as a result of increasing debt to unsustainable levels and a state deficit whose extent was not even calculated properly. Yet what we are seeing now is the undermining of Greece's political class, and a fall in levels of trust in the political system.
Widespread tax evasion, which creates huge deficits, hurts pensioners and the working classes. Ongoing strikes and protests hurt commuters, workers and tourists. Greeks have a love-hate relationship with the state -- they have historically depended on it, while always trying to undermine it.
The role of the state and of the public sector is usually at the heart of political debates between left and right.
Greece’s Highway 83 is not, on the face of it, a likely cradle for a myth. Other places offer fertile ground for the imagination: the peaks of Mount Olympus as a home for the Greek gods, the dramatic crags of Delphi as Apollo’s stamping ground or the whispering olive groves of Arcadia as a hideout for Pan. But driving on this dual carriageway, I struggled to imagine Pheidippides pounding the other way.
At least 10 parties are expected to win seats under the country's electoral system and the likelihood is that, to keep Greece on track and deliver the further cuts needed over the next two years, the two traditional rival parties, New Democracy and Pasok, will be forced into coalition.
Fraudulent benefit claims, including bogus cases of leprosy, cost Greece €111 million last year, according to government statistics.