An election campaign has begun and politicians who wear the labels of “right” and “left” have reverted to type. The conservative candidate is focusing on the nation, history and tackling illegal immigration while the Socialist hopeful is dreaming of rising GDP and social justice. Neither is talking about genuine reform, particularly in the public sector, or generating ideas about where growth could come from.
Greek election campaigns have always imbibed this form of stilted debate but this is not just a description of events on the domestic scene over the past few days, the contest between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist rival Francois Hollande has run along similar lines. In a speech on Sunday, Sarkozy invoked the spirit of Jeanne D’Arc and threatened to leave the European Union’s Schengen Treaty while Hollande promised lower retirement ages. Neither of them focused on tackling France’s public sector problems or the future of the French economy.
The predictable campaign in France is a reflection of the lamentable state of European politics. The paucity of progressive ideas and politicians willing to set aside election or re-election concerns in favor of broader interests is damaging. This is compounded by the growing inability of European politicians to speak to their publics honestly. Truth has often been the victim of political abuse but the economic crisis has led to honesty being hung, drawn and quartered by tormentors in sharp suits.
“The most stalwart European leaders have lost their followers’ trust by baldly saying one thing today and the opposite tomorrow,” Barry Eichengreen, an economics professor at the University of California wrote in a commentary this week.
Beyond the breakdown of trust between politicians and voters, Eichengreen identifies two other areas where faith has been eroded: between European states and among social groups called on to make sacrifices. Greece, more than any other country, has witnessed trust crumble in all these ways over the past couple of years. So, while France — whose economy is in a much better position than Greece’s — may have the luxury of engaging in the politics of style, it is incumbent upon Greek politicians to discover some substance, even at this late hour.
Unfortunately, the election campaign that began unofficially on Sunday has already suggested there is a scarcity of ideas and an inability to rebuild trust. Hearing New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras’s speech to his party’s political committee on Sunday, it was almost as if the crisis had never occurred. Samaras defended his about-turn on the EU-IMF loan agreement, criticized his coalition partner PASOK for its part in the first memorandum, launched an assault on the left and continued his quixotic tilt at the citizenship law, which allows second-generation migrants to apply for Greek papers. He also promised minimum pensions of 700 euros per month. It was as if he was reading from the “1985 manual for winning elections.” In fact, as ND sources have revealed, he has been studying Sarkozy’s previous successful campaign for tips.
Samaras had something to say about growth: It would come from EU structural funds, economic reforms and an overhaul of the tax system. The creative juices have clearly not been flowing at New Democracy headquarters. The conservatives had absolutely nothing original to offer in terms of how Greece might address its past economic failure and find its way onto the road to recovery.
Samaras was not alone in this omission. The two-day PASOK congress that led to Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos being named as the only candidate in Sunday’s pointless leadership election was also full of huff and puff. Aside from a “big, honest apology” for the mistakes that were made in PASOK’s two years in office, Venizelos also had to little to say on the issue of what Greece has to do differently. He fought the urge to present the bond swap, which will shave more than 100 billion euros from Greece’s debt pile, as a major personal achievement, although he made it seem a national success. In a news conference on Thursday, Venizelos accused the emerging parties on the left and right of creating a “front of hypocrisy.”
One has to wonder, though, exactly where the hypocrisy lies and where the truth can be found. Venizelos, for instance, may laud the PSI but will he tell Greek voters that some 80 billion euros is being borrowed to make up for the shortfall the bond swap created?
Venizelos and Samaras will chime that Greek debt has become more sustainable as a result of the restructuring. They have every right to do so, but by way of fostering a new spirit of openness ahead of crucual elections, wouldn’t it also be fair to tell voters that debt sustainability will hang in the balance for some years to come? They will point to the fact that the latest analysis carried out by the troika indicates that the haircut will help Greek debt reach 116.5 percent of gross domestic product by 2020, but they won’t refer to the proviso in the report, which says, “There are significant risks that debt declines may be interrupted or even reversed by shocks.”
What might these shocks be? A failure to “reinvigorate” structural reform, deeper recession, rising unemployment, slower fiscal adjustment and a stuttering privatization process. In other words, factors that are dependent on the political system sticking to the task for the next few years and the public supporting a process that could bring further pain and will certainly cause disenchantment. In what the troika calls the “tailored scenario,” where the quite plausible shocks would buffet Greece, the country’s debt would reach 145.5 percent of GDP by 2020. Shouldn’t now be the time when the two parties that are likely to lead Greece on this winding path of uncertainty make it clear what the obligations of both the political system and the people will be?
Instead of this open discussion, though, we are being plied with more of the same trust-sapping rhetoric. Samaras, for instance, wants pensions to fall no lower than 700 euros. Labor Minister Giorgos Koutroumanis of PASOK also insisted this week that pensions would not fall further unless the recession worsens. Yet a European Commission report on Greece made public this week outlines how Athens will have to find a further 11.7 billion euros in savings next year and in 2014. One of the areas where these savings will come from, according to the report, is further pension cuts.
Trust between voters and at least the main two parties has worn so thin that it can no longer hold the political system together. The emergence of new parties as well as the latest opinion polls suggesting the system’s utter fragmentation are confirmation of this. The Public Issue poll for Kathimerini that was published on Friday showed support for New Democracy declining to 25 percent and for PASOK remaining stuck at 11 percent. However, the smaller parties are going strong. New Democracy’s offshoot, Independent Greeks, which was set up by ousted MP Panos Kammenos, garnered 6.5 percent in the poll. Democratic Left, which is a magnet for disgruntled PASOK supporters, is at 15.5 percent. The Social Pact, formed by ex-PASOK members and formers ministers Louka Katseli and Haris Kastanidis, was not launched in time for this survey but is sure to attract some voters in the weeks to come.
The underlying irony is that PASOK and ND are fading at a time when the clear majority of Greeks are in favor of staying in the euro, an issue on which some of the other parties are equivocal. This suggests that in many cases, voters are deserting the big two because they don’t believe in them any more, not because their beliefs have changed dramatically. The percentage of voters who plan to abstain from the upcoming elections has been dropping steadily. It was at 32.5 percent in January but has fallen to 25.5 percent now. That these voters are drawn to the smaller parties, which are also struggling to produce constructive policies, tells a sad story. At the core of the political system, trust lies in tatters but the system is pervaded by a lack of new ideas. That’s why the drift from PASOK and ND is only likely to serve as a short-term outlet for frustrated voters.
“If this opportunity to rebuild trust is squandered, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for Europe to address its fiscal, economic and institutional deficits,” writes Eichengreen. In Greece’s case, the opportunity to re-establish trust is narrowing all the time and the consequences of failing to do so will be devastating. Without trust, there will be no platform on which to build any progressive policies. Without these constructive ideas, the country will not overcome its problems. Without progress, the country will be mired in deadlock. And for Greece, standing still will mean going backward. Even then, though, the politics of the past will be useless.