New Year, no time

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

There was little to learn from the marathon meeting of PASOK’s political council this week apart from the fact that if he can preside over 12 hours of non-stop debate, former Prime Minister George Papandreou would soon find work as a telethon host if he chooses not to run for party leader again.

The lengthy and apparently pointless talks among some 40 PASOK heavyweights did, however, sum up perfectly the complete dislocation that now exists between political Greece and real Greece. It is likely that 2011 will go down as a watershed year in terms of the country’s democratic evolution, as the time when Greek decision-makers of all political persuasions found themselves so far behind the public that there was no hope of catching up.

During the 12 hours the PASOK hierarchy engaged in a largely existential discussion about the party, statistics suggest that some 500 Greeks lost their jobs. In the 12 months the previous PASOK government spent trying to avoid touching the inefficient public administration, initially through the transfer of 30,000 civil servants to a labor reserve, some 350,000 private sector workers lost their jobs.

The other parties have been equally guilty of looking on with gormless detachment as Greece’s ills went untreated and what was worth saving was left untended.

In the couple of weeks that it took New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras to clarify if he would give the European Union and International Monetary Fund written commitments to keep to the terms of Greece’s loan agreement, several uninsured pregnant women were turned away from state hospitals because they could not pay in advance for their bill to give birth.

As Samaras waged his crusade against the EU-IMF loan agreement, mainly by bearing before him the questionable cross of lower taxes, the number of Greeks in long-term unemployment and therefore without social insurance and health cover rose above 500,000.

During the past week that the leader of the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS), Giorgos Karatzaferis, and his cohorts have spent portraying the detention of a monk embroiled in controversial property exchanges as a matter of the utmost national importance, it’s been revealed that electricity bills will increase by 9 percent, pharmacies will stop supplying medicines on credit, Greece’s deficit will likely reach 10 percent as a result of declining revenues and two financial prosecutors have made serious accusations about outside interference in corruption and tax evasion probes.

Examples of how parties and politicians have proved themselves to be detached from reality extend beyond PASOK, ND and LAOS but these are the three parties that now form Greece’s coalition government. They are the ones charged with preventing the country from collapsing into a disorderly default and then rolling downhill back to the drachma.

As a result, the best that Greeks can hope for until general elections are held (possibly in April) is that there is a modicum of awareness within the interim government, enough to ensure that options which would prevent the most cataclysmic of outcomes for Greece remain on the table. Negotiating a convincing haircut with Greek bondholders – one that would go some way to making Greek debt viable and keeping other eurozone members on board – would be this government’s most significant achievement.

In the meantime, Greece will remain a country on edge. The core of its society, not just the fringes, is being dragged closer to the drop each day. Turning this situation around will take considerable time and effort. One step will be the 2012 elections, when Greeks will have the opportunity to consign to the dustbin of history the political servants who have failed to serve them. Rooting out the inadequates is about as much as the country can hope for at this stage. The process of political transformation that will lead to more able candidates entering the fray will be a slow one. There are already signs of non-partisan movements taking root but the flowering season is some way off.

The void will have to be filled and it’s up to the Greek people to do so. If 2011 was the year of protest, then 2012 will have to be the year of progress. The only chance of attaining this is if citizens accept that the change Greece needs will have to come from the bottom up. Firms will have to go the extra mile to open up new export opportunities for themselves, those in the tourist industry will need to form a direct relationship with potential customers rather than rely on a convoluted central strategy, new farmers will be required to discover new markets, entrepreneurs will have to learn to dance with shifting domestic demand and – above all – ordinary people must take a firm stance against selfishness of all kinds.

There were signs in 2011 that this is beginning to happen but the window of opportunity is small. Hurry because time is running out, as any good telethon host would say.

Nick Malkoutzis

2 responses to “New Year, no time

  1. From the distance (and not being familiar at all with the political agenda of PASOK and/or Mr. Papandreou), I can only comment as below.

    Mr. Papandreou came across as one of the “classier” political leaders of Europe. He knew how to handle himself with poise; he displayed personal charisma. I could witness him at a meeting with German industrialists where also Chancellor Merkel and the head of the German industrial association spoke. Merkel came across as the “Mutti”; the head of the industrial association came across as the “von-too-sree-German-Prussian” and — Mr. Papandreou came across as a “man of the world”.

    Ever since Barack Obama won the Iowa caucus, I had been hoping that he would use his enormous leadership talent to “kick ass” and turn the country around. When observing Mr. Papandreou, I had similar feelings. In both cases, I was disappointed (at least so far).

    One needs both: the classy and charismatic leader as well as the shrewd political operator. The shrewd political operator will hardly ever be the classy and charismatic political leader. However, the classy and charismatic political leader – if he is smart – can hire the shrewd political operator to translate goals and visions into laws and directives.

    Mr. Papandreou, knowingly or not, had created for himself the “chance of a lifetime” to leave his footprints in history by declaring a referendum. To me, that was the point where he had to demonstrate whether he was of the “Thacher-mold” or perhaps only the “son of the father”. The link below explains my argument and the last comment in the posting shows my resignation.

    With Mr. Papandreou, Greece would have the best “branding” to the outside world. No branding works if it is not followed-up by facts. Someone other than Mr. Papandreou would have to make sure that the facts follow.

  2. Klaus:

    You know of course that Merkel killed Papandreou. It was Papandreou’s reliance on the self-serving Merkel that become his undoing.

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