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The Metapolitefsi (Greek: Μεταπολίτευση, translated as "polity/regime change") was a period in modern Greek history after the fall of the military junta of 1967–74 that includes the transitional period from the fall of the dictatorship to the 1974 legislative elections and the democratic period immediately after these elections.
The long course towards the metapolitefsi began with the disputed liberalisation plan of Georgios Papadopoulos, the head of the military dictatorship. This process was opposed by prominent politicians, such as Panagiotis Kanellopoulos and Stephanos Stephanopoulos. Papadopoulos's plan was halted with the Athens Polytechnic uprising, a massive demonstration of popular rejection of the military junta, and the counter coup staged by Dimitrios Ioannides.
Ioannides's failed coup d'état against the elected president of Cyprus, Makarios III, and the subsequent Turkish invasion resulted in the fall of the dictatorship and the appointment of an interim government, known as the "national unity government", led by former prime minister Konstantinos Karamanlis. Karamanlis legalised the Communist Party (KKE) and founded New Democracy, a center-right party which won by a landslide the elections of 1974 (the first elections in Greece after the fall of the junta).
In September 1973, Georgios Papadopoulos, the head of the military junta that took power in 1967, initiated an attempt at metapolitefsi or process of liberalisation, aiming to legitimize his government and rehabilitate its image as an international, and especially European, pariah after six years of dictatorship during which he appointed himself to a multitude of high-echelon government positions including Regent, Prime Minister, Minister for Defence, and Minister for the Interior. These excesses had the effect of further undermining his credibility and the seriousness of his regime both at home and abroad. Feeling confident of his grasp on power he requested the resignation of the 13 military men in his cabinet and appointed Spyros Markezinis as Prime Minister of Greece, entrusting him with the task of leading Greece to parliamentary rule. Papadopoulos however proposed a constitution that accorded far greater powers to the President of Greece (a position Papadopoulos also held) than those of the Parliament.
Under the condition that Papadopoulos would curtail any military interference that could hinder the process, Spyros Markezinis was the only old guard politician prepared to assist in the controversial mission of helping the transition to some form of parliamentary rule. Having secured quasi-dictatorial presidential powers under the new constitution, Papadopoulos not only acquiesced but ordered a wide range of liberalisation measures, including the abolition of martial law, the easing of censorship and the release of all political prisoners. Even the long banned music of Mikis Theodorakis was allowed back in the airwaves.
Ostensibly free elections were announced soon after, in which political formations including part of the traditional left, but not the Communist Party of Greece (which was banned during the Greek Civil War), were expected to participate.
Papadopoulos failed to convince the better part of the old political elite, including politicians such as Panagiotis Kanellopoulos, Stephanos Stephanopoulos, to participate in his liberalisation attempt. Most old guard politicians could not condone the fact that some of their colleagues were to remain excluded from the political process. Moreover, they were opposed to the concentration of powers delegated to the President, and resented having been demonised by Papadopoulos's junta as palaiokommatistes (meaning antiquated party men) during the previous six years. In fact Kanellopoulos, who was Prime Minister of Greece when deposed by the 1967 junta, remained vehemently opposed to any form of cooperation with the regime throughout the dictatorship years.
A transition from one form of government to another, especially from dictatorship to democracy, is typically difficult and fraught with uncertainty and anxiety for the country that undertakes it. Greece's transition was no different as the military, political elites and students sought to affirm their respective positions in society. In particular, the student movement in Greece had been repressed by the dictatorship and student activists were marginalised and suppressed in the name of anti-communism. Early student activism during the dictatorship included the self-immolation in 1970 of Geology student Kostas Georgakis in Genoa, Italy, in protest against the junta. His action served to demonstrate the depth of the resistance and resentment against the regime.
Student activism in Greece was traditionally strong and, unlike in some dictatorships where democracy was a distant dream, had a long and established record of action in democratic times and, more important, it possessed the memory of past democratic action. In addition, the stiff constraints imposed by the rigid and artificial Papadopoulos transition upon the democratic body politic of Greece antagonised not only the politicians but also the intelligentsia, whose primary exponents were the students.
Not unexpectedly, in November 1973 the Athens Polytechnic uprising broke out starting with the usual student protest tactics such as building occupations and radio broadcasts. The student uprising is believed to have been spontaneous, and not orchestrated by any particular political group in Greece. In fact, a smaller uprising had preceded it two weeks earlier at the Athens Law School and it was still active even as events at the Polytechnic were unfolding.
Unlike a previous strike in the Athens law school in February 1973, prior to their liberalisation attempt, where the regime negotiated at length with the students and bloodshed was avoided, in November 1973 the regime made no attempt to negotiate with the students. At the same time the students taking part in the smaller law school demonstration moved into the Polytechnic, as the events there gathered momentum.
In normal (democratic) times, such a protest might have been defused using tactics based on usual historical precedents such as negotiations with student leaders, and failing that, resorting to using normal crowd control methods followed by more negotiations, as the regime had done with the law students some weeks before.
However, this student protest happened in the middle of the uncertain political experiment of transition from dictatorship to democracy. Given that the main engineer of the transition, Papadopoulos, did not have much experience in democratic transitions, the unfolding events were hard to predict or manage for everyone involved.
In failing to negotiate, the junta made martyrs out of the Polytechnic students. This in turn gave the student protest momentum and it eventually evolved into a near-universal demonstration against the dictatorship. At that point, the transitional government panicked, sending a tank crashing through the gates of the Athens Polytechnic. Soon after that, Markezinis himself had the humiliating task of requesting Papadopoulos to re-impose martial law. The student protests were the first sign that Papadopoulos's attempt at "liberalisation" in Greece had begun to fail.
The inherent contradictions of the coup, carefully suppressed during the dictatorship, became much more visible during the regime's attempt at democratisation. In its strident anti-communism, the junta was opposed by large sections of Greek society which wished to overcome the trauma of the Greek Civil War. Papadopoulos had to be divisive and anti-communist from the beginning because otherwise his coup d'état would not have made sense and now his attempt at metapolitefsi was being derailed, partially, because of that.
The events at Athens Polytechnic unfolded precisely as the dictatorship's more staunch members had hoped. Brigadier Dimitrios Ioannides, leader of a junta within the junta, was disdainful of Papadopoulos, his perceived move to democracy, and his pursuit of a foreign policy more independent of the United States. The conditions for Papadopoulos's overthrow by Ioannides became easier because Papadopoulos would not believe Markezinis and others in his circle when warned about Ioannides's plans to overthrow him. In fact Papadopoulos's reply to Markezinis was: "Mimis [nickname for Dimitrios, Ioannides's first name] is an "Arsakeiás", he would never do something like that". "Arsakeiás", in Greek, is a female student of the Arsakeio, a strict all-female school in Athens in Papadopoulos's time, and a metaphor for a "quiet, shy girl".
Ioannides, a disaffected hardliner and a man with an established anti-democratic record, seized the opportunity. On 25 November 1973 he used the uprising as a pretext to stage a counter coup that overthrew Papadopoulos and put an abrupt end to Markezinis's attempt at transition to democratic rule. In fact, his coup was planned months prior to the events at the Polytechnic.
Ioannides's involvement in inciting unit commanders of the security forces to commit criminal acts during the Athens Polytechnic uprising, so that he could facilitate his upcoming coup, was noted in the indictment presented to the court by the prosecutor during the junta trials and in his subsequent conviction in the Polytechneion trial where he was found to have been morally responsible for the events.
During the Ioannides coup the radio broadcasts, following the now familiar coup in progress scenario featuring martial music interspersed with military orders and curfew announcements, kept repeating that the army was taking back the reins of power in order to save the principles of the 1967 revolution and that the overthrow of the Papadopoulos-Markezinis government was supported by the army, navy and air force.
At the same time they announced that the new coup was a "continuation of the revolution of 1967" and accused Papadopoulos with "straying from the ideals of the 1967 revolution" and "pushing the country towards parliamentary rule too quickly".
Ioannides proceeded to arrest Markezinis and Papadopoulos, cancelled the elections, reinstated martial law, and appointed a puppet government headed by old junta member General Phaedon Gizikis as the new president, and civilian, and old Papadopoulos junta cabinet member, Adamantios Androutsopoulos as the prime minister.
Unlike Papadopoulos, Ioannides was not particularly concerned with legal or democratic processes. He was prepared for a dictatorship of thirty or more years. Being a more orthodox dictator and thinking in simpler terms than Papadopoulos, he solved the dilemma on how to achieve a democratic transition by dropping the plan completely.
Prior to seizing power, Ioannides preferred to work in the background and never held any formal office in the junta government. Reflecting his penchant for secrecy, the press described him as the invisible dictator. Now he ruled Greece from the shadows, and was the de facto leader of a puppet regime composed by members some of whom were rounded up by ESA soldiers in roving jeeps to serve and others that were simply chosen by mistake. Adamantios Androutsopoulos, the new junta prime minister, was described as a political non-entity by the New York Times. Despite its doubtful origins, the new junta pursued an aggressive internal crackdown and an expansionist foreign policy.
At his frequent press conferences during his rule, Papadopoulos often used the patient in a cast analogy to describe his assault on the body politic of Greece. He usually answered questions on the topic of democratic transition from the press by referring to the patient analogy in a humorous and jovial manner. He used to say that he put the patient (Greece) in a cast ("ασθενή στον γύψο" literally: patient in gypsum) so that he could fix her skeletal (implying political) structure. Typically the "doctor" had to operate on the "patient" by putting restraints on the "patient", tying him on a surgical bed to perform the "operation" so that the life of the "patient" would not be "endangered" during the operation. This analogy aside, Papadopoulos at least indicated his intention of ending military rule once the political system had recovered to his satisfaction and that the treatment would progress on some legal and political basis.
In fact Papadopoulos had indicated as early as 1968 that he was eager for a reform process and even tried to contact Markezinis at the time. He then repeatedly attempted to initiate reforms in 1969 and 1970, only to be thwarted by the hardliners including Ioannides. In fact subsequent to his 1970 failed attempt at reform, he threatened to resign and was dissuaded only after the hardliners renewed their personal allegiance to him.
In contrast, Ioannides did not talk to the press and did not offer any analogies for his proposed treatment. But through his actions one can determine that the cast analogy did not serve his purposes any longer. Ioannides therefore abandoned the patient in a cast analogy that Papadopoulos offered in order to make a political statement that no democratic transition would take place during his tenure in power. This also indicated that Ioannides was not concerned about legal formalities. He was a "ruthless dictator who toppled the [Papadopoulos] junta for being too liberal".
He who enters here exits friend or cripple.
The Ioannides junta introduced repressive measures which have been described as among the harshest ever imposed in Greece. Ioannides's main instrument of terror, was the dreaded interrogators of the Greek Military Police (EAT/ESA, Greek: ΕΑΤ/ΕΣΑ: Ειδικόν Ανακριτικόν Τμήμα Ελληνικής Στρατιωτικής Αστυνομίας translated as: Special Interrogation Section of the Greek Military Police). Using EAT/ESA offices and prison cells as torture chambers he launched an all out assault on Greek civil society. The EAT/ESA torture centre in Athens has been described as the "place that made Greece tremble".
The EAT/ESA became the regime's "Praetorian Guard" which could arrest anyone, even superior officers, if it suspected any anti-"Revolution" activity. One often repeated saying at EAT/ESA was: "Any ESA man is equal to a major in the army". Ironically it was Papadopoulos who in 1969 signed a law which gave "extraordinary legal powers" to ESA, only to have them used against him in 1973 during Ioannides's coup.
Ioannides's junta moved quickly to stifle any dissent and re-instituted repressive measures such as censorship, expulsions, arbitrary detentions and torture, performing these with far greater rigour than the Papadopoulos regime. Gone was the usual anti-communist pretext. Artists, painters, intellectuals who had publicly expressed anti-junta sentiments or created a work that criticised the junta, were automatically dispatched to the nearest neighbourhood EAT/ESA centre. The function of the EAT/ESA torture centers was to intimidate the dissidents and anyone thinking of becoming a dissident. Ioannides's government possessed all the hallmarks of a police state.
People were held incommunicado and without EAT/ESA notifying anyone for weeks or months on end and were only allowed limited communication thereafter with their families through the Greek Red Cross, a function that it normally performs in wartime and for enemy prisoners. Loud music blared from the detention centres in order to suppress the screams of the victims."
Inside the ESA chambers the prisoners were subjected to physical and psychological torture. Torture techniques included sleep deprivation, starvation, beatings, and psychological blackmail involving family members. The intensity of violence, depending on the victim, was such that brain injuries could result after the torture sessions. Greek Army Major Spyros Moustaklis, for example, was involved in the Velos mutiny and was left brain damaged, partially paralyzed and unable to speak for the rest of his life after 47 days of torture.
However, according to Ioannides, the new junta was successful. Unlike the Papadopoulos regime which at least tried to take the patient out of the cast, the Ioannides junta caused the vital signs of the Greek body politic to become barely perceptible.
Having successfully terrorised the population, the "junta nova" tried to realise its foreign policy ambitions by launching a military coup against President Makarios III of Cyprus. Gizikis, as usual, obliged by issuing the order for the coup on Ioannides's behalf.
Makarios was at the time both Archbishop and President of Cyprus. He was deposed by military coup on 15 July 1974 and replaced by Nikos Sampson. However the coup backfired as Turkey reacted with Operation Atilla on 20 July; the Turkish invasion of Cyprus had begun.
This military and political disaster for Greece and Cyprus led to thousands of dead and hundreds of thousands of Greek-Cypriot refugees, deeply traumatised the Greek body politic for the long term and was the final straw for Ioannides who had already instigated or participated in three coups in seven years — a record in modern Greek history — with catastrophic results for both countries.
Immediately after the Turkish invasion of Cyprus the dictators, not expecting such a disastrous outcome, finally decided that Ioannides's approach was catastrophic for the interests of the country. The complete rationale for their subsequent actions, even to this day, is not known. Analysis of their motives can improve with time as new details come to the fore but it appears that the junta members realised that the Androutsopoulos government could not deal effectively with the dual crises of the Cyprus conflict and the economy. Androutsopoulos, described as a political non-entity, did not have the clout to effectively negotiate an honourable end to the Cyprus crisis. It is reported that President Gizikis finally realised the need for a strong government which could effectively negotiate an end to the Cyprus conflict.
In the early hours of the Cyprus crisis, indications of panic and indecision in the junta government were manifestly evident from the reaction of the Greek public as they raided supermarkets and grocery stores all over Greece, fearing an all out war with Turkey and sensing the inability of the junta to govern, as well as the anxious attempts of the junta members to communicate with and surrender power to the very same members of the democratic Establishment of Greece that they had demonised and maligned as palaiokommatistes (meaning old party system men) throughout the dictatorship.
They had also worked hard during their seven years in power to create a New Greece (Νέα Ελλάδα) under the slogan of Ellas Ellinon Christianon (translated as Greece of the Christian Greeks) completely devoid of any link with the old party system and its politicians. Now they were ready to relinquish this vision to that same old guard they had maligned as obsolete old party system men.
This paradox is at the centre of the phenomenon known as Metapolitefsi. There are two possible considerations which could assist in resolving this paradox. First, due to the risk of imminent war with Turkey there was no room for negotiations during the transition from military to political rule. Second reason was that since the military failed in the one area they were supposed to be competent by showing inadequate organisation during war preparations and ultimately failing to protect Cyprus from the invasion, they also lost what remained of their political clout and thus they were unable to resist the demands of the politicians. The second paradox was Karamanlis's slow response in cleansing the military from the junta elements. Although the army was politically very weak at the time, Karamalis proceeded with great caution in eliminating junta supporters still remaining within the military. The second paradox can be explained by the fact that at the time, due to the Cyprus crisis, Karamanlis did not want to proceed with measures that would lower the morale of the army, and thus weaken the military, at a time of crisis with Turkey.
Greece is the birthplace of the theatre as well as democracy. In ancient theatrical plays every time the plot got too tangled for a rational resolution, catharsis (Greek for cleansing i.e. resolution as in cleaning up the mess) came in the form of a god (Deus ex machina (translated from Latin as God from the machine)), that descended from above with the aid of mechanical devices such as levers, cranes and pulleys i.e. from a machine, and dispensed resolution to even the most complex of predicaments.
It also came with its own Deus ex machina (Greek: Από μηχανής Θεός). The machine this time was more modern, it was a jet and there was no actor but a well trusted and famous politician. The function however was the same: Catharsis.
Following the Cyprus invasion by the Turks, the dictators ultimately abandoned Ioannides and his policies. On 23 July 1974, President Gizikis called a meeting of old guard politicians, including Panagiotis Kanellopoulos, Spyros Markezinis, Stephanos Stephanopoulos, Evangelos Averoff and others. The heads of the armed forces also participated in the meeting. The agenda was to appoint a national unity government with the mandate to lead the country to elections and at the same time to honourably extricate Greece from an armed confrontation with Turkey. Gizikis proposed, at first, that the key ministries of Defence, Public Order, and the Interior be controlled by the military — but this idea was summarily rejected.
Former Prime Minister Panagiotis Kanellopoulos was originally suggested as the head of the new interim government. He was the legitimate Prime Minister originally deposed by the dictatorship and a distinguished veteran politician who had repeatedly criticised Papadopoulos and his successor. Raging battles were still taking place in Cyprus' north and Greece's border with Turkey in Thrace was tense when Greeks took to the streets in all the major cities, celebrating the junta's decision to relinquish power before the war in Cyprus could spill all over the Aegean. But talks in Athens were going nowhere with Gizikis's offer to Panayiotis Kanellopoulos to form a government.
Nonetheless, after all the other politicians departed without reaching a decision, Evangelos Averoff remained in the meeting room. He telephoned Karamanlis in Paris to appraise him of the developments and urge him to return to Greece, and, following the call, further engaged Gizikis. He insisted that Constantine Karamanlis, prime minister of Greece from 1955 to 1963, was the only political personality who could lead a successful transition government, taking into consideration the new circumstances and dangers both inside and outside the country. Gizikis and the heads of the armed forces initially expressed reservations, but they finally became convinced by Averoff's arguments. Admiral Arapakis was the first, among the participating military leaders, to express his support for Karamanlis. After Averoff's decisive intervention, Gizikis phoned Karamanlis at his Paris apartment and begged him to return. Karamanlis initially hesitated but Gizikis pledged to him that the military would no longer interfere in the political affairs of Greece. Other junta members joined Gizikis in his pledge.
Throughout his stay in France, Karamanlis was a thorn at the side of the junta because he possessed the credibility and popularity they lacked both in Greece and abroad and he also criticised them often. Now he was called to end his self-imposed exile and restore Democracy to the place that originally created it.
Upon news of his impending arrival cheering Athenian crowds took to the streets chanting: "Ερχεται! Ερχεται!" "Here he comes! Here he comes!" Similar celebrations broke out all over Greece. Athenians in the tens of thousands also went to the airport to greet him.
On 23 July 1974 Karamanlis returned to Athens on the French President's Mystère 20 jet made available to him by President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, a close personal friend. At 4 a.m. on 24 July 1974, Karamanlis was sworn-in as Prime Minister of Greece by Archbishop Seraphim of Athens, with Gizikis attending the ceremony. Subsequently, Gizikis remained temporarily in power for legal continuity reasons.
Despite being faced with an inherently unstable and dangerous political situation, which forced him to sleep aboard a yacht watched over by a naval destroyer for several weeks after his return, Karamanlis moved swiftly to defuse the tension between Greece and Turkey, which came on the brink of war over the Cyprus crisis, and begin the process of transition from military rule to a pluralist democracy.
The events that led to metapolitefsi and the traditional weaknesses of the Greek political and social institutions were not conducive to a comprehensive strategy towards democracy. The civil society was not prepared to articulate a transition strategy "from below" and the groups of resistance were fragmented, despite their political glamor. Therefore the transition process became a "from above" project, whose weight had to fall on the shoulders of Karamanlis.
Karamanlis first legalised the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) that was constantly demonised by the junta, using this political move as a differentiator between the junta rigidity on the matter that betrayed its totalitarianism and his own realpolitik approach honed by years of practicing democracy. The legalization of the Communist Party was also meant as a gesture of political inclusionism and rapprochement. At the same time Karamanlis also freed all political prisoners and pardoned all political crimes against the junta. This approach was warmly received by the people, long weary of junta divisive polemics. Following through with his reconciliation theme he also adopted a measured approach to removing collaborators and appointees of the dictatorship from the positions they held in government bureaucracy, and, wanting to officially inaugurate the new democratic era in Greek politics as soon as possible, declared that elections would be held in November 1974, a mere four months after the collapse of the Régime of the Colonels. This statesmanlike approach pleased the right as well as the left and greatly lowered the political temperature of the country. It is also another reason why the democracy-driven metapolitefsi worked.
In the legislative election of November 1974, Karamanlis with his newly formed conservative party, not coincidentally named New Democracy (Νέα Δημοκρατία, transliterated in English as Nea Demokratia) obtained a massive parliamentary majority and was elected Prime Minister. The elections were soon followed by the 1974 plebiscite on the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of the Third Hellenic Republic.
In January 1975 the junta members were formally arrested and in early August of the same year the government of Konstantinos Karamanlis brought charges of high treason and mutiny against Georgios Papadopoulos and nineteen other co-conspirators of the military junta. The mass trial, described as "Greece's Nuremberg", was staged at the Korydallos Prison under heavy security and was televised. One thousand soldiers armed with submachine guns provided security. The roads leading to the jail were patrolled by tanks. Papadopoulos and Ioannides were sentenced to death for high treason. These sentences were later commuted to life imprisonment by the Karamanlis government. This trial was followed by a second trial which centered around the events of the Athens Polytechnic uprising.
A plan to grant amnesty to the junta principals by the Konstantinos Mitsotakis government in 1990 was cancelled after protests from conservatives, socialists and communists. Papadopoulos died in hospital in 1999 after being transferred from Korydallos while Ioannides remained incarcerated until his death in 2010.
The adoption of the Constitution of 1975 by the newly elected Hellenic Parliament solemnised the new era of democratic governance. The parliamentary committee that proposed the draft constitution was presided by Constantine Tsatsos, an Academician, former minister and close friend of Karamanlis, who served as the first elected President of Greece (after metapolitefsi) from 1975 to 1980.
New Democracy went on to win the Greek legislative election, 1977, and Karamanlis continued to serve as Prime Minister until 10 May 1980, when he succeeded Tsatsos as President of Greece and then cohabited for four years (1981–1985) with his fierce political opponent and leader of PASOK, the Greek socialist party, prime minister Andreas Papandreou. PASOK and Papandreou captured the sizeable center-left current in Greece, which emerged from fragmented resistance groups that were active during the dictatorship.
The political and social views expounded by PASOK were in antithesis to the center-right policies followed by the conservative government of ND (1974–1981). According to Ino Afentouli, the political expression of the metapolitefsi, namely the coming to power of a conservative leader such as Karamanlis, did not correspond to the changes which had in the meantime befallen Greek society. Thereby, this current often opposed ND's governments, disdained the old centrist political elite expressed by Center Union - New Forces (and its leader Georgios Mavros) and prompted the rise to power of PASOK and Papandreou in the elections of 1981. Since 1974 Papandreou challenged Karamanlis's choices and objected to his dominant role in defining post-1974 democracy, while other political forces of the opposition, such as Center Union - New Forces and EDA occasionally offered him an inconsistent support, especially during 1974-1977.
In the elections of 1981 Papandreou used as slogan the catchword change (Greek: αλλαγή). Some analysts, including Afentouli, regard PASOK's victory under Papandreou as a culmination of the metapolitefsi of 1974, given that the fall of the junta had not been accompanied by the rise of new political powers, but rather by the resumption of power by the old guard politicians.
However Karamanlis is acknowledged for his successful restoration of Democracy and the repair of the two great national schisms by first legalising the communist party and by establishing the system of presidential democracy in Greece. His successful prosecution of the junta during the junta trials and the heavy sentences imposed on the junta principals also sent a message to the army that the era of immunity from constitutional transgressions by the military was over. Karamanlis's policy of European integration is also acknowledged to have ended the paternalistic relation between Greece and the United States.
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