If

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

The word “if” is only made up of two letters but it’s a big word in politics, perhaps the biggest. It can make careers but can also break them. “If” precedes many promises but also accompanies excuses when pledges are not met. “If” is the word on voters’ minds when they ignore their better judgement to put their faith in some politicians.

“If” is what dumped Costas Karamanlis so unceremoniously on his backside. If he’d woken up to reality sooner, if he’d pushed his ministers harder, if he’d committed to his policies and if he’d been bolder, he would still be leading the nation rather than fathering New Democracy’s crushing defeat.

“If” has been a powerful ally in George Papandreou’s ascent to power: If he really means what he says, if he can fulfill his potential, if he can put his experience to good use and if he can do things differently, then he’s the right man for the job. Based on these “ifs,” more people than expected bought into the idea of an economy that could be revived, of jobs that could be created, of an environment that could be saved and of a country that could be respected.

Knocking the economy into shape, sorting out the education system, setting up a proper immigration policy, making the health service efficient and doing all the other things on Papandreou’s list will require a superhuman effort. For now, at least, there’s optimism that beneath his cape he has some secret powers, which will be revealed in due course.

These powers, though, will be tested most not by formulating policies or overseeing their implementation but by something that cannot be measured in euros or percentage points: The greatest task that Papandreou faces is reviving the nation’s spirit.

He inherits a country that’s in a recession. But its people are in a state of depression. Shorn of any great hope, without a vision for the future, lacking faith in the country’s institutions and having lost their moral compass, Greeks appear to be ambling aimlessly through the 21st century. If Papandreou’s premiership is to be a success, he will have to reverse this mood.

Somewhere beneath the cynicism, the indifference and the weariness is a flame that is waiting to be rekindled. It’s what author Primo Levi identified in Italy more than 20 years ago and bears a remarkable resemblance to Greece today.

“It often happens these days that you hear people say they’re ashamed of being Italian,” he wrote. “In fact, we have good reason to be ashamed: first and foremost, of not being able to produce a political class that represents us and, on the contrary, tolerating for 30 years one that does not. On the other hand, we have virtues of which we are unaware, and we do not realize how rare they are in Europe and the World.”

If Papandreou succeeds in pinpointing the rare virtues that Greeks possess, he must then bring them to the fore. It’s his task to ensure this country values and nurtures the public official who helps citizens, not himself; the businessman who does things by the book, not the one who cooks his books; the developer who plays by the rules, not the one who bends them and the student who wants more, not the one who settles for less.

With such a long line of “ifs” to confront, Papandreou will need some guidance. Maybe he should start by reading Rudyard Kipling’s poem: If prime minister you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you. If you can trust yourself when your colleagues doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too; If you can fill the unforgiving four-year term with 48 months worth of work done, yours is Greece and everything that’s in it.

As the poet said, if.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on October 9, 2009

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