Picture the scene: It’s two weeks after you’ve led your party to a disappointing election defeat against a faltering government. A high-profile member of your party is mounting a leadership challenge that will require the party faithful to make a choice. What do you do? Recognize where you and your party have gone wrong and explain how you plan to put it right? No. Instead, you call for a vote of confidence from your MPs, which threatens to tear your party apart.
Fast-forward almost four years and you are now prime minister. Your country is standing on the precipice of economic collapse and your foreign partners — who are for the time being preventing this collapse — are losing faith in you. What do you do? Set out clearly what you want to achieve and how you will achieve it? Convince your own party that there is a clear path toward salvation? No. Instead, you make a bungled attempt to form a government of national unity with an opposition that has no appetite for it, reshuffle your Cabinet to appease wavering deputies and then you call for a vote of confidence.
George Papandreou’s move paid off in September 2007, more through luck than design. Objections from PASOK deputies meant that only a half-hearted vote by acclamation was held, which had no bearing on anything. “I cannot fathom what kind of mind, ignorant of the operation of political parties and Parliament, came up with this idea,” said one of the party’s elder statesmen, Apostolos Kaklamanis, at the time. Papandreou had wanted to make a bold move to re-establish his authority but ended up blundering his way through to a leadership election in which he beat off Evangelos Venizelos’s flawed challenge.
Last week’s doomed telephone tennis with New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras and the subsequent underwhelming reshuffle had the similar air of misguidedness about them. There was no basis for any kind of cooperation between PASOK and ND because deep down both parties are in denial about Greece’s position. The conservatives believe there is still scope for scoring political points, as displayed by Samaras’s obdurateness and parochialism in insisting that the citizenship law should have been part of any coalition pact. Meanwhile, the Socialists think they can still avert some of the most austere measures to keep their grassroots support loyal to the party.
But time for all that has run out. The future of the country cannot depend on the outcome of a couple of phone calls between Papandreou and Samaras, as LAOS leader Giorgos Karatzaferis pointed out in Parliament on Sunday. And what a sad indictment of Greek politics it is when the populist Karatzaferis appears to talk the most sense about the plight of the country and its economy over the last 14 months.
Last April, Papandreou stood by the harbor on the island of Kastelorizo to inform the Greek public that his government had asked for a bailout. He spoke of Greece embarking on a new Odyssey. Just over a year later, the good ship Hellas is not faring much better than Odysseus and his crew, veering from one near-disaster to the next.
Greece’s problems can be blamed on the choppy waters of the global economy, on the ill winds of rating agencies and market analysts, on those within the European Union who are dithering about mounting a realistic rescue operation and on the shoddiness of our very own vessel to begin with. But the first who should be held responsible are those that steer the ship.
Throughout this crisis, Greece has not had a firm hand on the tiller and last week’s machinations left the country veering toward the nearest rocky outcrop. The EU is keeping up its calls for consensus but were Papandreou, his ministers and his MPs to unite behind a coherent strategy, the other parties would either become irrelevant or they might be embarrassed into making concessions. Greece now has no option other than to vote through and stick to its medium-term fiscal plan. It’s by no means an ideal solution but the little credibility the country’s decision makers had left was wiped out last week. Greece needs to regain some of this trust before it can argue for a better deal from its partners.
It’s clear that the current method of dealing with the crisis has no long-term future. It is simply piling more unmanageable debt on Greece. It’s in the interests of the EU to come up with a more feasible solution; one that might involve a large part of Greek debt being paid over a much longer period than currently envisioned, for instance. That doesn’t negate the need for Greece to convince its partners it’s worth saving. Politically, it’s much easier for European leaders to sell such an idea to their electorates if the country benefiting in the first instance actually looks like it understands the implications of the situation and is making the appropriate effort.
In Greece’s case, though, the country’s politicians have been sending out the message that they are not interested in saving themselves, let alone being saved by others. Their insularism and selfishness means they are ceasing to represent the people that elected them, people that are very much interested in saving themselves and the country. If Papandreou and his government want to survive and have a chance of steering Greece to safety, he needs to keep up Greece’s end of the bargain, make the cuts that need to be made, pass the reforms that need to be passed, restore credibility and then push for a solution that would ease the burden on the Greek people.
When he spoke to PASOK’s parliamentary group in September 2007, Papandreou said, “We have a duty to engage in tough battles in Parliament to prevent choices being taken that harm the Greek people and the country.” Now, his government has to face up to the fact that by shirking its responsibilities, it is the one harming Greece and its people. Papandreou can no longer afford to get bogged down in the type of mock attempts at leadership that have blighted his record over the past few years. The only place he can lead from now is the front. That’s where he’ll find the vote of confidence he has craved for so long.