What’s in the box?

KaramanlisPapandreou_Gump

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

“Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get,” according to Forrest Gump. That doesn’t seem to be the case if you’re a voter in Greece, where you pretty much know what you’re going to get: an empty box.

There have been few election campaigns in this country’s history infused with such pessimism as the current one. Surveys repeatedly show not only exasperation with the New Democracy government but a significant lack of faith that PASOK will do a better job.

In its opinion poll for Kathimerini, for instance, Public Issue found that close to half of voters believe that neither ND nor PASOK will be able to govern the country well. The same survey indicated that seven in 10 voters believe the last five years of conservative rule have been a failure. But despite this soaring rate of disapproval for New Democracy, PASOK still doesn’t have the level of support that would secure it a comfortable majority in Parliament.

Speak about the elections to any young professional – the people that will have to live with the consequences of this and the next government’s decisions – and you’re likely to get the similar frustrated response: New Democracy has lost their trust but PASOK has not done enough to gain it.

This has created a state of confusion that neither leader has helped clear up. On the one hand, voters are faced with doe-eyed optimist George Papandreou and, on the other, washed up pessimist Costas Karamanlis – when all they’re looking for is a capable realist.

Karamanlis now stands a shell of his former self before these younger voters. He once represented the friendly face of conservatism, embodying a desire to stamp out corruption, slash red tape and help the little guy, not just big business. But now his government has hit a brick wall, his party is turning in on itself and he’s lost his vision for Greece.

In 1983, when Britain’s Labour Party produced ahead of the national elections a left-wing manifesto that was completely out of touch with reality, one of its own members called it: “The longest suicide note in history.” At the start of this very short election campaign, Karamanlis has failed to come up with a clear set of ideas for getting Greece out of its rut. He’s not so much submitted a suicide note but a blank page; a portent that this government is about to suffer a painful demise.

Athens Plus GumpIn his interview with Sunday’s Kathimerini, Karamanlis had little new to offer except for proposals to create some extra ministries. His speeches have all revolved around one theme: New Democracy will make the tough decisions, whereas PASOK will take the easy road. But few are convinced by this argument, because since being elected in March 2004, Karamanlis has consistently avoided the tough calls. The number of people willing to trust him to get it right the third time around appears to be dwindling by the day.

That’s not to say that his criticism of PASOK is not valid. Papandreou has not presented a real alternative vision for Greece. Instead he’s been content to pick a few policies, such as pay rises for public servants and cash bonuses for the poor, that he knows will sound good in the current climate but won’t shackle him for the long term.

It’s all part of a wider policy by the Socialists to commit to as little as possible while they wait for New Democracy to lose these elections. But this is a path ridden with pitfalls. If PASOK wins on October 4, it will have some very real and very big problems, not least the economic ones, to deal with. Not coming up with some kind of overall strategy or explaining where it will get the money from is not only irresponsible but immediately creates a relationship with the electorate that is based on dishonesty – or at least a lack of transparency.

This inability to establish credibility with professionals in their 20s, 30s and even 40s is one of Papandreou’s biggest failures. While many of these voters seem to want to believe in him, they’re hearing little to convince them. Instead of being told about pay rises for civil servants, they’d like to know what Papandreou will do to ensure these bureaucrats are doing enough to earn their money in the first place. Instead of handouts for the poor, they would like to know what he will do to create more jobs.

Also, his tendency to revert to the kind of rhetoric more suited to his father, Andreas Papandreou, does nothing for his image as a progressive European or even – global – politician. His recent claim that a PASOK government would seek to buy back into the recently privatized Olympic Airlines – which successive governments have tried to get off their hands for the last two decades – was ridiculous posturing that will not fool the savvier voters. In fact, it will just make them fear more for the future.

Come October 4 though, many of them will vote for PASOK: not because they’ll have been dazzled by some Papandreou brilliance or enthused by an array of groundbreaking policies. No, they’ll vote for the center-left party, as it has succeeded in being the lesser of bad choices and because nestled in the back of their minds there is a small kernel of hope that Papandreou can be the kind of leader that his credentials merit.

There have not been many moments during his five-year presidency of PASOK that suggested Papandreou is up for the task. In fact, his inability to reform and establish absolute control over his own party indicates he’s hardly ready to run the country. Yet, this is where Greek voters find themselves after repeated disappointments: hoping beyond reason that there will be something in the box after all.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on September 18, 2009

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