Touched by greatness

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

“Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Former Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis does not fall into any of the categories described by Malvolio, a character from William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”. Greatness eluded Karamanlis during the five-and-a-half years he spent managing the country but just two months after voters shunted him aside, his seemingly suicidal decision to call elections on October 4 is now beginning to look like it was inspired.

“Twelfth Night” was designed to be performed at the end of the Christmas season and as this year draws to a close, looking back on the events that played out on Greece’s small but always entertaining stage, one can see similarities between Karamanlis and Malvolio. The Shakespearian steward initially displays a puritanical bent, just as Karamanlis vowed to tackle corruption and implored his deputies to be “meek and humble,” but actually spends his free time fantasizing about lounging in a velvet gown — Karamanlis was accused of lacking gumption.

However, there was no velvet draped around Karamanlis’s shoulders last week when he took his seat on the New Democracy backbenches to hear his successor, Antonis Samaras, address conservative MPs for the first time as leader. In fact, the look on Karamanlis’s face was not one of forlornness for missed opportunities but one of contempt for those who undermined him and pity for those who’ve inherited the problems he could never tackle.

Even a cursory glance at the messy situations Samaras and Prime Minister George Papandreou have to deal with suggest Karamanlis was not the fool many took him for. Instead, it seems he’s handed over the reigns of two rickety wagons – Greece and New Democracy – just in time to avoid being the one responsible for riding them off the cliff.

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said that hindsight is useful for historians but is “sadly denied to practicing politicians.” Foresight, however, is not — it’s a quality that only the politicians with true greatness are able to call upon. With each passing day, it seems that Karamanlis, albeit momentarily, was blessed with it.

Samaras is still beaming after beating the odds and taking control of ND but, in reality, he has taken over a party that’s just an empty shell. The way that the conservatives imploded after they were pulverized at the polls proved how split the center-right party is. A loose thread holds together a collection of traditional right-wingers, nationalists, fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, free marketers, Christian democrats, capitalists with friendly faces, populists and confused leftists who’ve wandered into the wrong political pen.

Karamanlis recognized this when he took over the party. Rather than rely on a pompous, impenetrable ideology to rally ND, he simply set out one condition: “We’re going to be more honest than the other guys.” It was a wafer-thin platform on which to position a whole party but, for a while, it worked. It stopped working when it became clear that ND governments were just as weak in the face of corruption as the ones that had gone before and when the absence of real policies was exposed. The luster of power faded, unity was lost and the conservatives began to fall apart.

Samaras has put his faith in ideology, believing that a party which leans more to the right and which espouses conservative values can be cohesive. The fact that almost 40 percent of some 800,000 ND supporters who voted in the leadership election backed his bitter rival Dora Bakoyannis and that there’s a stigma attached to right-wing ideas among the broader electorate means that Samaras faces a huge task in turning ND around.

His challenge, however, pales into insignificance compared to the difficulty of the mission Papandreou must undertake. Here, again, it seems Karamanlis has stepped out of the firing line at the right time. The logic behind his decision to call snap general elections on October 4 had appeared fuzzy — ND was sinking lower in the opinion polls, had just suffered a defeat in the Euroelections and didn’t have a coherent policy to present to the Greek people.

What Karamanlis knew then, and we know now, was that even though it didn’t seem possible, things were about to get worse, much worse. Rather than hang around and have to manage an economic crisis of mind-boggling proportions, Karamanlis decided that beating a disorderly retreat would be the better option.

Looking back on it now, the election debates between Karamanlis and Papandreou were reminiscent of a parent trying to warn his child about the dangers of driving a temperamental car. Karamanlis’s questions to the PASOK leader about how he would find the money to fix the economy and what tough measures he was prepared to take were not just enquiries meant to score points, they were warnings. He was advising the would-be prime minister to start thinking up some solutions quickly.

Karamanlis knew he didn’t have the answers, just as he was aware the country’s deficit was large enough to sail an aircraft carrier through and Greece was running up a debt faster than a gambler with a stolen credit card. Although nobody was willing to publicly admit the extent of the problem at the time, it has since become clear that Papandreou was also, to a great extent, aware of its terrifying scale. He chose to look away and keep his fingers crossed.

The outgoing prime minister knew the public would not countenance any belt-tightening from his failed government. He also knew he would be setting PASOK up for a fall by allowing it back into power just as it was becoming necessary to adopt emergency measures, such as wage cuts and tax rises that go against every socialist sinew in the party. Predictably, the socialist government has displayed a split personality over the last two months, as it promises tough measures in Brussels but then waters them down in Athens, where the old-school apparatchiks still wield influence.

All this is now someone else’s problem, not Karamanlis’s. He can now sink into the comfortable obscurity of Parliament’s backbenches, from where, like Malvolio at the end of “Twelfth Night,” he might be tempted to turn to his critics and tormentors and cry out: “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you.” It would be his greatest moment.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on December 24, 2009.

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