Supporters of SYRIZA wave flags outside a university building on election night. Photograph: Getty Images
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With the rise of Syriza and Golden Dawn, Greece's status quo has been forever altered

Greek democracy will never be the same after this turbulent month.

I am grateful to expert Louise Mensch, who once had a Greek Salad from Waitrose, for analysing the result of yesterday’s election so that I can grasp it. She said: "When push comes to shove, the Greek people voted for austerity and sanity. Are you listening, Labour?" Obviously I cannot compete with this sort of laser-like analysis, which would reduce Shakespeare’s Othello to "interracial marriages just don’t work". But try, I must.

It is difficult to give you a sense of the tectonic plate shift which has taken place in the Greek political geology in the last few years. If you can imagine, between now and 2015, the Tories dropping thirty-two percentage points, the LibDems disappearing into seventh place with less than 5 per cent, the BNP securing 18 MPs, the Greens emerging from nowhere to become the main opposition and the prospect of a Tory/Labour coalition, you may get a taste.

Let us put aside the facile notion that a fragmented election result is "not decisive". It is, in many ways, a healthier expression of democracy than what has happened in Greece for the last 50 years - a polarised sharing of 80 per cent of the vote between two major parties who swap power every few years. It is as valid a decision as any other. In the case of Sunday’s election, it says loudly and clearly "we trust none of you unfettered or unsupervised". Given the history of corruption and mismanagement which has brought my country to its knees, it seems to me a perfectly sensible position.

The nominal victors are the New Democracy right-of-centre party. With 29.6 per cent of the vote, 2.7 per cent ahead of radical left SYRIZA, they have secured the much coveted "bonus" which, under Greek electoral rules, gives the top party an additional 50 MPs. This leaves them in the unenviable position of having to form a coalition and drive forward with the austerity package. To add to their woes, the most likely coalition partner (both in numerical terms and being pro-austerity) is the left-of-centre PASOK; their sworn enemies for a generation. PASOK, who were in power three years ago with 44 per cent, now languish on a paltry 12.5 per cent of the vote. Their fall from grace is truly astounding. The Communist KKE party has been obliterated into seventh place with less than 5 per cent. Other assorted new, coalition or independent parties have largely lost out too, as the vote became concentrated around New Democracy and SYRIZA.

SYRIZA is the real winner. I notice that both the BBC and Sky News yesterday took to describing them as left-of-centre or leftist. They are about as left-of-centre as Norwich is west-of-Japan. They are a radical left party and anti-austerity – a term which is not, as the Guardian seems to consider, interchangeable with anti-euro. They took shape in the debates of the Syntagma Square demonstrations, with little party funding or organisation, to secure 17 per cent in the May election and have increased that to 27 per cent a month later.

SYRIZA have already declared that they are not willing to play ball in a New Democracy led pro-bailout coalition. This leaves them in a uniquely strong position. Untainted by the corruption and dirty dealing of the past, their hands clean from the misery which will be visited on the electorate over the coming months, they can sit back, maintain their ideological position intact and watch their mandate grow in the opinion polls. Many commentators are now confidently predicting that their leader Alexis Tsipras (who British news outlets have taken to describing as "charismatic", presumably because it would be unprofessional to say he’s "hot") will be Prime Minister in Greece within a couple of years.

And SYRIZA have won in another very important way. They have shifted the whole debate on the bail-out package. So terrifying to Troika and their representatives was the prospect of having someone in charge who might put people above markets, that all the pro-bailout parties have had to water down their position during this campaign. Everyone is now talking about, at the very least, a relaxing of the conditions, a renegotiation of aspects of the package and an emphasis on growth.

Even the Euro-cacophony, which has been hollering that any attempt at deviation from the agreement would see Greece sent to the drachma naughty step, is making softer noises. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said "I can imagine we could do something in terms of the time frame". The Commission and the IMF too, have been talking about helping Greece, using words like "partners" and "family". Are these the same people who told Greece last year to "sell some of its islands" in order to repay its debts?

There was another winner too. The far-right party Chrissi Avgi (Golden Dawn) cemented its position with 7 per cent of the vote and will get 18 MPs. These are not cuddly BNP types. They are a neo-Nazi party with a history of violence which makes Nick Griffin look like Julie Andrews. Their supporters call the leader of the party "Führer" and greet him with the Nazi salute. Their logo is a swastika, thinly disguised as an ancient Greek meander. The country is littered with their graffiti calling for "another holocaust – to clean the place out".

Many had said that the votes they got in the May election were protest votes; votes cast in anger. Many had hoped that their poster boy, Ilias Kasidiaris, viciously beating up a 60-year-old female rival MP live on television, would put voters off. Not a bit of it. Instead Kasidiaris has been elected to Parliament and will sit across from the very woman he assaulted. As one sharp blogger put it, "violence is porn for fascists". And if the woman you’re punching happens to have very loud opinions, happens to be a lesbian, happens to be a communist, happens to be all three, well that’s the "money shot".

Golden Dawn did not just appear out of nowhere. They have been around for a long time waiting for their opportunity. When I left Greece, many years ago, they would be the subject of whispered gossip at the grocer’s: "Did you hear? So-and-so’s son is a Chrissavgitis." It was tantamount to having a criminal in the family; a source of shame. Yesterday, the results from my home-town of Mykonos show that among the four thousand or so voters, 267 people voted for a Nazi party. I probably know some of them. A couple might be my distant cousins. What the hell happened?

Fear and anger happened. And the responsibility must rest squarely with the centre-right parties. Because their reaction to difficult times, their reaction to fear and anger, is to reach for insidious, populist right-wing strategies. More fear. More anger. Attack the immigrant. Blame the unemployed. Demonise the disabled. Wave the flag and clutch at nationalism disguised as patriotism. It’s like an involuntary, political nervous tic. "The mind of the bigot is like the pupil of the eye", said O.W. Holmes, "the more light you pour upon it the more it will contract."

And this is the lesson which I hope the UK reader will take away and ponder. When the leader of New Democracy, Samaras, chooses to say that the reason kindergarten schools are struggling to cope is because of all the foreign kids, he paves the way for Golden Dawn to goose-step their way into Parliament. When Sarkozy courts Marine Le Pen’s voters, when Merkel says multi-culturalism is dead, when Cameron links race and religion to terrorism, they open the Overton window for the far-right burglars waiting outside. They make what was previously impossible, possible.

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On to more important matters now. The deities of football have set up a highly ironic Euro 2012 quarter-final between Greece and Germany on Friday. We should suggest a little bet to Merkel – "Double or Quits. What do you say, Ange?" If by half-time Greece is not performing to Merkel’s expectations, she may well get rid of our manager and appoint a technocrat of her choice. Perhaps Greece will have a government by then. If they don’t do as they’re told, she may do the same. It wouldn’t be the first time.

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.