No time for heroes

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

“The defeats and victories of the fellows at the top aren’t always defeats and victories for the fellows at the bottom,” says one of the characters in German writer Bertolt Brecht’s landmark anti-war play “Mother Courage and her Children.” How fitting that comment seemed this week: As Greece battled to keep the dogs of default at bay and Greeks tried to come to terms with a new economic reality, New Democracy’s hierarchs sought to bicker and settle old scores, prompting the united response of “Who cares?” from the watching public.

At the end of last week, ex-Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis said she would not be attending New Democracy’s central committee meeting on the weekend, as she believed it inappropriate for the party to be debating internal issues when the country is hobbling through its worst post-war economic crisis. In other words, she was trying to put country before party. Her boycott, however, gave the impression of exactly the opposite. It suggested Bakoyannis was a sore loser still seeking the limelight that eluded her when she was defeated in last November’s leadership election and painted ND as a party that cares about little else than itself.

Bakoyannis’s argument that discussing policies or debating current issues with other party members would not be fitting because of the crisis is blatantly absurd. It’s not like Greece is about to be struck by a meteorite and the whole population has to be rooted to the spot, staring up at the sky for the signs of imminent catastrophe. Employees are not calling work saying they’re not coming in because the bond spread has passed 400 percentage points. So, why should politicians stop going about their normal business?

It appears that Bakoyannis’s decision was designed to make waves, to see how the Samaras leadership vessel, barely out of port, weathers the storm. There was no love lost between Samaras and Bakoyannis before their fractious leadership race but the former foreign minister clearly still feels aggrieved at her defeat by the ex-culture minister. There is even talk of Bakoyannis quitting the party and forming her own. Seasoned commentators feel that if she did walk out of the door, only a handful of conservative deputies would follow her. It’s unlikely to be the dramatic mass exodus she may dream or scheme of.

It’s virtually a golden rule of politics that defeat has a dizzying, disorientating effect on the parties that suffer it. So, consider the damaging impact that being kicked out with the rest of Costas Karamanlis’s government and then losing the party leadership from her grip had on Bakoyannis. Allegiance, tradition, obsequiousness – these all tend to evaporate when a party or a politician have been dumped on their backsides, as ND and Bakoyannis – both defeated by a 10-percent margin last year – were.

Even in Japan, where loyalty is pervasive, a small group of conservative rebels led by former Finance Minister Kaoru Yosano have just broken away from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The LDP was ousted from power last year after enjoying 54 years of almost uninterrupted rule. If New Democracy is plagued by self-doubt and loathing after just five years in power, imagine what sort of navel-gazing is going on at the LDP headquarters. In fact, some analysts think that after such a long time in power, the LDP does not know how to be an opposition party. On Saturday, five of its MPs announced the formation of Tachiagare Nippon (The Sunrise Party of Japan) with little hope of making an immediate impact on the political scene. It’s not just the party’s small size that will limit its impact; there are several other vital ingredients missing, as Bakoyannis and Samaras should note. “The party lacks the three most important aspects needed to become a genuine force, which are political vision, specific policy and a fresh face,” political analyst Minoru Morita told the Japan Times.

Neither New Democracy, nor Bakoyannis, posses these qualities. If the ex-foreign minister, who showed ability as a diplomat, is considering forming her own party, then at some point she will surely take time to think about the slew of failed go-it-alone projects, launched by Greek politicians with much less talent than her, that litter the political path to oblivion.

This is why it’s quite likely that Bakoyannis’s boycott, for which Samaras threatened to expel her, will end up being little more than a tiff. However, the damage to ND, which has yet to find its feet under new leadership, has already been done. Over the last few months, all the conservatives have offered is a mixture of stunned silence and shallow attacks on the government, which expose them as having no better ideas about how to tackle the crisis. One minute, ND is blaming PASOK for being too slow in taking action – this, coming from a party that spent five years doing little to build on the legacy of entry into the euro and the successful hosting of the Olympics and even less on tackling chronic structural problems. The next minute, ND is raging against the ills of the International Monetary Fund when it knows the only reason the government is considering accepting assistance from the IMF is that the towering deficit it inherited from the conservatives makes it impossible to borrow at reasonable rates on international markets.

Now, Samaras has begun calling on PASOK – which is still struggling to ensure Greece can pay its bills next month – to start stimulating growth in the economy. It’s like asking someone to run fast when you’ve put treacle in their shoes and chained their legs to a tree. It does little to help the ND leader gain credibility with voters, most of whom are highly skeptical about any theoretical pronouncements politicians have to make at the moment, since they know that only practical solutions to very real problems are going to be of any use.

This need for pragmatism seems to have eluded New Democracy. The Bakoyannis episode was typical of a party that, just as it was in government, is full of big — although not necessarily good — ideas but struggles to make an actual impact. If Samaras is going to change this –- with or without Bakoyannis on board -– he’s going have to accept that pompousness is no substitute for productivity. In Brecht’s play, Mother Courage explains that if a commander needs heroic soldiers, it’s proof he’s not doing his job properly: “Whenever there are great virtues, it’s a sure sign something’s wrong.” Greece doesn’t want heroes now, it just needs people that do their job.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and appeared in Athens Plus on April 16.


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