Battle-hardened Venizelos faces defining moment

It’s a feature of politics at its Machiavellian best that even the worst of enemies can end up relying on each other for survival. So it was on Thursday, when Prime Minister George Papandreou called on his one-time bitter rival Evangelos Venizelos to take on the mammoth task of steering Greece through the economic crisis. Venizelos has craved influence and attention for years but as Greece’s finance minister at this particular juncture, he may find that getting what he wished for wasn’t worth the wait.

The Thessaloniki MP and former defense minister should be aware of the dangers of being thrust into the spotlight when the timing is not quite right. His recent political career has been defined by a moment of political opportunism that went badly wrong. Following a disastrous showing for PASOK in the general election on September 16, 2007, Venizelos attempted to usurp Papandreou as the party’s leader. Even before the final results were in, he headed to Zappeio Hall in central Athens, where the PASOK chief had minutes earlier conceded defeat, to announce he was launching a leadership challenge.

Venizelos wanted it to look like a bold move but he made his announcement standing in the dark outside the conference room in the midst of a scrum of journalists. It looked desperate rather than decisive. It sent out all the wrong messages to the party faithful, who ultimately decided to stick with what they knew and to trust in the Papandreou name, on which PASOK was founded. Venizelos was routed in the leadership election two months later and had to slink out of the spotlight.

In what must have been a frustrating couple of years for a smart and articulate politician, Venizelos had to bite his tongue and put aside his personal ambitions as he watched Papandreou move closer to office thanks to the growing incompetence and inefficiency of the New Democracy government. Venizelos maintained a base of support within the party but PASOK’s clear victory in the European elections in the summer of 2009 put paid to any chances of a full-blown rebellion.

Papandreou led PASOK to a resounding victory in the November 2009 general election and skilfully solved the problem of what to do with Venizelos by making him Defense Minister, thereby giving him a significant portfolio but not one that would give him the kind of public and media platform to launch broadsides at the prime minister. Given his past history as an outspoken and bloody-minded member of government, Venizelos has been remarkably restrained over the past couple of years. He has reserved his strongest criticism for Cabinet meetings, where he often voiced opposition to his predecessor’s fiscal policy.

In the last couple of weeks, though, Venizelos had become more prominent, apparently criticizing Papandreou’s leadership but then backtracking. The media coverage of his views on the economy also increased. It was a by-product of the public anger about the austerity measures being adopted and the opinion polls showing support for PASOK plummeting.

Venizelos distanced himself from moves by MPs over the last few weeks to challenge both Papandreou and Papaconstantinou but it’s clear that these revolts were instrumental in forcing Papandreou’s hand, first to make a clumsy attempt to cooperate with New Democracy and then to announce a reshuffle. Reports suggest Venizelos was not first choice as Papandreou would have preferred a non-political figure but when he had to turn to his political personnel, there were few candidates more experienced than the 54-year-old, who had served in five different ministerial posts.

This gives Venizelos a distinct advantage over the outgoing Papaconstantinou and any technocrat that might have taken up the position because it means he knows how the Greek political system works. One of Papaconstantinou’s weaknesses was that he was never able to communicate his policies properly with his colleagues, MPs and the public. This is a mistake that Venizelos is unlikely to make. Equally, as an active member of the party since 1990, he will have a certain amount of goodwill among PASOK’s parliamentary group. Papaconstantinou had burned all his bridges with the center-left deputies by failing to give them the sense that he was taking on board their views.

The truth is that once Greece signed up for the 110-billion-euro bailout from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund last year, the decision-making process was never one open to much deliberation or debate. Nevertheless, it is one of the skills of a politician to make people feel that their opinion counts, even if it ultimately has no impact. This is a technique that Venizelos should be capable of applying.

Significantly, in his first interview since being appointed, Venizelos displayed an appreciation of the problems the government has faced in convincing its own members and the Greek people that it is on the right track. “We need to let people know there is a beginning, middle and end to this,” he told Mega TV on Friday. The importance of drawing a clear roadmap for the exit from the crisis should not be underestimated if the majority of Greeks are going to stick with the austerity measures.

Maintaining internal support is one thing; achieving the targets Greece has been set to qualify for its loans is another. There are doubts about whether Venizelos has the knowledge to tackle this problem given that he is a constitutional lawyer rather than an economist. But there are those who would argue that Greece doesn’t need an economist to point out that it needs to downsize its public sector, improve tax collection and attract private investors. What it needs is someone to get the job done. In his farewell speech to his Defense Ministry colleagues, Venizelos aptly said: “I’m leaving defense to join a real battle.”

There are concerns that Venizelos (and his new deputy minister Pantelis Economou who has been pulled in from the Socialist party’s more traditional, populist wing – the so-called Deep PASOK) will not have the conviction to push through the tough measures. There are also doubts whether, despite his knowledge of French and time studying in Paris, he will be able to tune into the same wavelength as his European counterparts and the IMF officials that will keep pushing for reforms in Greece.

What’s certain is that if Venizelos fails in any of these tasks, he will be pushed into the shadows permanently and Papandreou will go with him. It would be a tragic and final twist to their rivalry but the pain would be felt by more than just the two of them.

Nick Malkoutzis

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