Freedom in the World
Greece’s political rights rating declined from 1 to 2 due to the installation of an unelected technocrat as prime minister following anti-austerity riots, and the growing influence of outside entities over the country’s fiscal and economic policies.
The country’s debt crisis continued to worsen in 2011, threatening to spread across Europe and upend the stability of European unity. New rounds of austerity measures passed in June and October led to massive protests and strikes across the country. Prime Minister George Papandreou resigned under pressure in November, and the government appointed Lucas Papademos, former head of the Bank of Greece, to lead a coalition government and tackle the country’s economic woes.
The core of modern Greece gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1830. The ensuing century brought additional territorial gains at the Ottomans’ expense, as well as domestic political struggles between royalists and republicans. Communist and royalist partisans mounted a strong resistance to Nazi German occupation during World War II, but national solidarity broke down in the early postwar period when royalists won national elections and eventually defeated the Communists in a civil war. In 1967, a group of army officers staged a military coup, suspending elections and arresting hundreds of political activists. A 1974 referendum rejected the restoration of the monarchy, and a new constitution in 1975 declared Greece a parliamentary republic.
The Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) governed the country from 1981 to 2004, except for a brief period from 1990 to 1993, when the conservative New Democracy (ND) party held power. New Democracy returned to power in the 2004 elections and won another term in 2007.
Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis called national elections halfway through his four-year mandate in October 2009, partly due to a number of corruption scandals that had rocked his coalition. PASOK led the voting with 160 seats, followed by New Democracy with just 91 seats. The Communist Party of Greece took 21 seats, the Popular Orthodox Rally—a nationalist and xenophobic party—won 15, and the Coalition of the Radical Left took 13. George Papandreou of PASOK was elected as the new prime minister.
A growing economic and debt crisis began at the end of 2009. In early 2010, the government presented a plan to cut the budget deficit and initiated a number of austerity measures, including a freeze on public-sector pay, an increase in the retirement age, and a hike of the value-added tax from 19 to 23 percent. These steps were met with a series of national strikes and protests. In May 2010, a €110 billion ($145 billion) rescue plan, including financing from the International Monetary Fund and 15 eurozone countries, was issued to help prevent a Greek debt default. At the end of 2010, the Greek debt was reported to be as high as 145 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).
Another austerity package was passed in June 2011 as a condition for additional bailout funds, resulting in a string of protests across the country. Parliament passed yet another round of austerity reforms in October despite massive public protests and a general strike. After a failed attempt to hold a referendum on the bailout package and facing pressure from eurozone leaders and bailout creditors to implement the austerity measures or lose further economic assistance, Papandreou stepped down on November 11. Lucas Papademos, former head of the Bank of Greece, was appointed to lead a new coalition government and tasked with negotiating the rest of the bailout deal before elections set for 2012. Journalists covering the protests, which continued throughout the year, complained of acts of aggression by Greek police.
Greece continued to struggle with an influx of close to 100,000 undocumented immigrants during 2011. In October 2010, European Union (EU) Rapid Border Intervention Teams were deployed for the first time to guard Greece’s border as a result of an increase in the flow of immigrants—many of whom claimed to be from Afghanistan—from Turkey into Greece. In January 2011, six European countries refused to send refugees back to Greece due to the country’s inability to treat asylum seekers humanely. These decisions were made shortly after the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Belgium should not have sent an Afghan asylum seeker back to Greece, where he faced degrading and inhumane treatment.
Greece is an electoral democracy. All 300 members of the unicameral Parliament are elected by proportional representation for four-year terms. The largely ceremonial president is elected by a supermajority of Parliament for a five-year term. The prime minister is chosen by the president and is usually the leader of the majority party in Parliament. Lucas Papademos was installed as an unelected leader of the country in November 2011 to head a crisis government after Prime Minister George Papandreou stepped down. The move has been condemned by some in the media as undemocratic and orchestrated by the EU and other powers behind the bailout. The country has generally fair electoral laws, equal campaigning opportunities, and a system of compulsory voting that is weakly enforced. Some representatives of the Romany community complain that certain municipalities have failed to register Roma who did not fulfill basic residency requirements. A 2010 law allows documented immigrants to vote in municipal elections.
Corruption remains a problem, particularly within the police forces. A parliamentary panel ruled in October 2010 that five former New Democracy ministers should stand trial on charges of fraud and breach of duty related to the Vatopedi land-swap scandal, which involved exchanging state-owned land for property of much poorer quality owned by the Vatopedi monastery. The abbot of the prestigious monastery was jailed pending trial on fraud and embezzlement in December 2011. Greece was ranked 80 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index, the worst ranking of any country in Western Europe.
The constitution includes provisions for freedom of speech and the press, and citizens enjoy access to a broad array of privately-owned print and broadcast outlets. There are, however, some limits on speech that incite fear, violence, and public disharmony, as well as on publications that offend religious beliefs, are obscene, or advocate the violent overthrow of the political system. Requirements under a 2007 media law place disproportionate burdens on smaller, minority owned and community radio stations, such as the use of Greek as the main transmission language, maintaining a certain amount of money in reserve, and hiring a specific number of full-time staff. A number of journalists were physically assaulted by police while attempting to cover the anti-austerity protests in 2011. Internet access is generally not restricted.
Freedom of religion is guaranteed by the constitution, though the Orthodox Church receives government subsidies and is considered the “prevailing” denomination of the country. Members of some minority religions face social discrimination and legal barriers, such as permit requirements to open houses of worship and restrictions on inheriting property. Proselytizing is prohibited, and consequently, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are routinely arrested and have reported abuse by police officers. Anti-Semitism also remains a problem. In September 2011, Parliament approved a long-delayed plan to build a state-funded mega-mosque in Athens. Academic freedom is not restricted.
Freedoms of assembly and association are guaranteed by the constitution and generally protected by the government, though there are some limits on groups representing ethnic minorities. Nongovernmental organizations generally operate without interference from the authorities, and some domestic human rights groups receive government funding and assistance. Workers have the right to join and form unions. Anti-austerity protests broke out throughout the year, with some turning violent. During protests in June, around 270 people were injured; in October, one person was killed in Athens. Many of the protests were unique in their nonpartisan nature and the use of social media sites to organize and spread information.
The judiciary is independent, and the constitution provides for public trials. Prisons suffer from overcrowding. Acts of violence by left- and right-wing extremist groups remain a problem. In September 2011, the far-right group Chrysi Avgi (Golden Dawn) threatened to physically remove a group of Muslims holding open-air prayers in a public square, but was eventually held back by riot police.
Despite government efforts to combat racial intolerance, it is pervasive in society and is often expressed by public figures. In September 2011, a trial began of 39 members of the Coast Guard who were accused of hurling racist slogans at Albanians and Macedonians during a parade in 2010. Only two of the defendants were convicted and the rest acquitted in December. The government does not officially recognize the existence of any non-Muslim ethnic minority groups. Macedonian is not recognized as a language, and using the terms Tourkos or Tourkikos (“Turk” and “Turkish,” respectively) in the title of an association is illegal and may lead to the dissolution of the group. The Romany community continues to face considerable governmental and societal discrimination.
Immigrants are disproportionately affected by institutional problems in the judicial system. Bureaucratic delays force many into a semi-legal status whereby they are not able to renew their documents, putting them in jeopardy of deportation. A 2010 Amnesty International report noted that asylum seekers are often treated as criminals and face inhuman conditions in detention centers.
Greece passed a law to address domestic violence in 2006; however, the law has been criticized for lacking provisions to give the state power to protect the rights of women. Women continue to face discrimination in the workplace. Women currently hold only 17 percent of the seats in Parliament. The country serves as a transit and destination country for the trafficking of men, women, and children for the purposes of sexual exploitation and forced labor.