While you were sleeping

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

As Monday night turned from the Night of the Long Knives that some had expected into the Night of the Long Wait that everyone dreaded, and as the reshuffle began to resemble more an open-house barbecue than a precision-timed cull of inefficient ministers, one member of government was likely to have slept through the whole affair much more soundly than any other: Deputy Prime Minister Theodoros Pangalos.

The 72-year-old is one of those rare political beasts that seem untouched by time or the events that unfold around them and who become forces of nature that others have difficulty dealing with. Pangalos had made it very clear to the media in the runup to the reshuffle that he would not be going anywhere. He also informed journalists there was no way he would accept anyone being made his superior, taking over his role of watching over ministers and making sure they were not lollygagging.

It was a typical show of bravado from a politician who has become known for his bold, abrupt and sometimes callous statements. It was also a reflection of the political chicanery that Pangalos has become so adept at in the 50 years since he first stood for office. If there had been any thoughts flitting about in Prime Minister George Papandreou’s mind about prizing Pangalos out of his office, then the implicit threat in his statements – that he would not go quietly – were enough to convince him to play musical chairs with other ministers’ seats. It also meant the government played down one of the most significant aspects of the reshuffle – the appointment of Interior Minister Yiannis Ragousis as the central policy coordinator of a small team of ministers that will meet regularly with Papandreou. Maybe they were hoping that if they didn’t say it too loudly, Pangalos would not notice someone had been given a very similar remit to his.

If all other things were equal, though, Pangalos would have little cause for complaint had he been one of those to lose their jobs on reshuffle night. He was given one task and one task only when appointed last October: to watch over ministers like a hawk, make sure that they were not falling behind with their workload and, if necessary, knock some heads together. Yet, 11 months later, the Cabinet has been overhauled mainly because there was a lack of coordination within government ranks and too many projects were slipping behind schedule.

In other words, it appeared that Pangalos was not up to the task. His chosen method for proving that progress was being monitored was the slacker’s ultimate decoy tool: the excel spreadsheet. Anybody logging on to the deputy prime minister’s website (http://antiproedros.gov.gr) can open the regularly updated tables which indicate how closely ministers are keeping to the timetables they have been assigned for various projects. It’s embarrassing that in a government as technologically savvy as Papandreou’s is supposed to be and for a man as intelligent and authoritative as Pangalos, all he has to show after 11 months, during which some phenomenally challenging reforms were undertaken by those around him, are a collection of measly spreadsheets. It brings to mind the late US comedian George Carlin’s comment about God being unable to do anything about, among other things, war, disease, destruction, hunger, poverty, torture and corruption. “Something is definitely wrong, this is not good work,” he said. “Results like these do not belong on the resume of a supreme being. This is the kind of thing you’d expect from an office temp with a bad attitude.”

Nevertheless, these shortcomings have to be weighed against what Papandreou gains by including the 72-year-old in his government. Pangalos, who, like all true Socialists was once a member of the Communist Party, has earned his leftist spurs. He had his Greek nationality stripped from him for opposing the military junta and has stood for election since 1981 in the working class district of Elefsina, west of Athens. This has won him the respect of his party’s left wing and old-timers. At a time when Papandreou and his team have to take thoroughly unsocialist decisions, such as cutting wages and adjusting pension requirements, it’s useful to have a revered leftist voice within the party telling people how painful but necessary these choices are for PASOK.

Also, having a man of Pangalos’s intelligence and experience in its ranks helps give the government added gravitas. Pangalos studied and later researched and taught at the Sorbonne University. He’s also held three ministerial posts. He’s the type of politician who commands people’s attention when he speaks, not just because he has no qualms about being controversial but also because he often has something thought-provoking to say, as opposed to the politician-speak-for-dummies that many of his colleagues opt for.

It became clear this week that the reasons that convinced Papandreou to include Pangalos in his Cabinet are the same ones that prevented him from removing him. His qualities imbue him with more power than his deficiencies detract from him. Pangalos has carved out a niche similar to the fiefdom created by Gordon Brown when he was the British chancellor. You can imagine Papandreou saying about Pangalos some of the things former Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote about Brown, who he described as “someone of extraordinary ability and capacity,” in his newly published autobiography, “A Journey.”

Blair’s self-declared “difficult” relationship with Brown and the anguish he suffered over whether to sack him or not will be familiar to Papandreou and gives us a good indication of why politicians like Pangalos are such survivors. “When it’s said that I should have sacked him, or demoted him, this takes no account of the fact that had I done so, the party and the government would have been severely and immediately destabilized,” writes Blair. “I came to the conclusion that having him inside and constrained was better than outside and let loose or, worse, becoming the figurehead of a far more damaging force well to the left,” he adds.

The reality for Papandreou is that he cannot afford to leave Pangalos outside the city walls, free to take potshots at his government’s crumbling defenses. It’s for this reason that in this week’s reshuffle he included in his new Cabinet several MPs – such as Dimitris Kouselas, Michalis Timosidis, Yiannis Koutsoukos and Manolis Othonas – who had been critical of the government’s choices over the previous 11 months. It’s one of the strange quirks of politics that those with the bluntest opinions and loudest voices are the ones who have the least to worry about, while those with the task of working with them face plenty of sleepless nights.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on September 10, 2010.

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