The minute men

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis for Cartoon Movement

Several hours of discussions, a few dozen pages of minutes, thousands of words spoken and there are probably only a couple of lasting observations one can take away from the recent talks held between party leaders and President Karolos Papoulias in a vain attempt to form a unity government.

The first is the clear impression, which one can sense from the first meeting in which just New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras, Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) leader Alexis Tsipras and PASOK president Evangelos Venizelos took part, that these three men had no intention of making the slightest effort to form a government.

The second telling aspect of the discussions is that for all the talk of austerity, memoranda, bank withdrawals and delegitimization, reforms were not discussed until the debate had almost concluded. Venizelos was the only one of a total of seven party leaders that took part in the talks with Papoulias to make anything more than a passing reference to structural reforms. The PASOK leader devoted five or six sentences to the issue, which barely registered on the Venizelos verbose-ometer but nevertheless meant that one of the key issues dogging Greece and its economy at least got a mention at the negotiating table. It only just made it though: Venizelos’s comment on reforms came on page 34 of the minutes of the very last meeting between party leaders. The discussion ends on page 47.

And with the discussion ended any hope of Greece’s political leaders breaking the boundaries in the same way that voters smashed regimented party lines on May 6. The election result left the Greek politics in pieces but none of the leaders who took part in the ensuing talks seemed particularly keen on the idea of putting them together to form something new.

In keeping with his decision to only take a few hours to try to form a government, Samaras maintained a rather detached stance throughout the talks. He carried the aura of a man whose campaign strategy was so fundamentally flawed that he preferred to play the role of a mildly interested bystander in the post-election melee. Samaras only piped up in the final meeting when he sensed a chance to hack away at his former subordinate, Panos Kammenos, who left New Democracy to form the right-wing protest party Independent Greeks. Kammenos was left red-faced when a proposal suggesting he would be willing to back a unity government if his party was given the post of defense minister and two positions on the board of the state company responsible for gas and oil exploitation found its way into the president’s hands. Papoulias’s office released it to other party leaders but Kammenos denied he had supplied it. His party went as far as suggesting the president’s office, or someone else, forged the document. Sensing a chance to expose Kammenos as the opportunist many believe him to be, Samaras spent most of the final meeting -– the only one in which five of the seven party leaders took part –- goading the former conservative about the document. Their exchanges reach levels of puerility that are only exceeded by Kammenos’s decision to devote a large part of perhaps the most crucial political meeting in Greece’s modern history to read the “seven points” any new government should stick by and which his party had repeated ad nauseum in the previous days.

Similar schoolboy exchanges between Venizelos and Tsipras peppered the talks as the two leaders struggled to dominate the moral high ground. Venizelos felt he had a right to plant PASOK’s flag there as the party that had paid a disproportionate price for having to manage the debt crisis on its own for most of the last 2.5 years. He also believed the Socialists had been the most responsible after the May 6 elections, agreeing to work with New Democracy and any other party that was willing to form a government with them but also agreeing to give SYRIZA their tacit support if they could form a leftist administration. The chances of the latter occurring were zero yet all parties were willing to play a political charade in which Tsipras pretended for a couple of days to look for enough imaginary parliamentary seats and left-wing solidarity to create a government.

Having failed to do so, Tsipras then rejected the half-hearted attempts by Samaras and Venizelos to convince him in front of Papoulias to enter into a common administration. Tsipras’s refusal to countenance any such pact oscillated between the stoic and the foolish. Stoic because Tsipras felt he was remaining faithful to the pre-election position adopted by his party, which was to flatly reject the austerity-minded EU-IMF memorandum as a way out of the crisis and to refuse to work with other parties that would not repudiate any commitment to imposing its unpopular measures. It was foolish because by refusing to consider any possible cooperation, Tsipras and SYRIZA banked everything on new elections and their momentum carrying the party to first place. This outcome is far from certain and the leftists now face a different kind of scrutiny than before the last elections. The June 17 elections will require parties to work together and synthesize their views and SYRIZA has left a mixed impression, at best, of its desire and ability to cooperate. Voters may take this into account next month.

The reason that voters might question how serious Tsipras and his party are about shouldering the burden of government is that among the few serious and potentially productive moments of the meetings with Papoulias was a concrete proposal by the leader of the Democratic Left, Fotis Kouvelis, for the formation of a multi-party coalition. Kouvelis set out a framework for how what he termed an “ecumenical” government could work. While Kouvelis’s party has maintained a memorandum-skeptic stance, Democratic Left was prepared to concede ground to SYRIZA in the hope of persuading it to climb on board.

Kouvelis proposed that all parties give written pledges to support a new government and its agreed agenda. He suggested that this agenda should be drawn up from scratch, as did Venizelos in the first meeting with Samaras and Tsipras at the Presidential Palace. Among the measures that could form the basis for a new government, Kouvelis suggested agreeing to negotiate an extension with the troika to Greece’s fiscal adjustment period, which runs until the end of 2014. He also proposed cancelling the legislation passed earlier this year to reduce minimum wages by 22 percent. He even suggested that the new government should reverse the rolling back of collective contracts and introduce legislation to protect central wage bargaining.

In anyone’s book this sounds like a substantial departure from previous memorandum-dictated policy and certainly provides the basis for negotiating the formation of a government. Kouvelis’s proposals, however, were not seriously discussed. Even the Democratic Left leader, placed in an unenviable position between leftists poised to brand him a traitor and two parties in PASOK and ND desperate to cling to power, seemed to lack the courage of his convictions. Kouvelis refused to leave SYRIZA behind and form a government with PASOK and ND because, as he repeatedly mentioned during the negotiations, his party only gained 6.11 percent on May 6. By repeating the statistic so often revealed Kouvelis’s weakness -– he feared that his 6.11 percent would become 0.11 percent at the next elections if he did not secure the participation of SYRIZA, a rising force that would only gain potency by staying out of a government that would have some testing compromises to make.

“Are we elevating SYRIZA to the role of regulator of the country’s salvation?” Papoulias asked during one of the meetings. It was the voice of a political generation that realized it had hit a brick wall and had no ideas of how to get over, around or through it. “Listen, gentlemen… we have failed,” said the president as he wrapped up the final meeting. “The responsibility is very big. Things are now developing with a momentum of their own.”

For the men whose weaknesses were exposed by the minutes of these meetings, the hands of the clock are now very much moving with a momentum of their own.

Nick Malkoutzis

2 responses to “The minute men

  1. Divided we stand, united we fall!

    Is this what you mean, Nick?

  2. A very apt title. Politically minute indeed, and too often puny. Having praised Tsipras for taking the initiative to ask that the minutes of all those meetings be published, I realised as soon as I started reading them that this was essentially a marketing tactic.

    Strangely enough, apart from Venizelos none of the other leaders seemed to cotton on to the idea that the debates with the Greek President, allegedly on the possibility of forming a unity government, in fact served as a platform for a pre-election debate among the party leaders (given that journalists would cherry pick the most quotable statements, of which especially Tsipras provided plenty), without the annoyances of TV presenters and clocks running. Samaras, as you note, seemed hardly present (on the contrary, Kammenos with his seven pillars of Independent Greek wisdom, was as prolix as ever).

    Two points I found noteworthy: first, in the final, abortive meeting with Papoulias (which Papariga did not attend), Tsipras managed not to make a single unambiguous statement regarding the bailout agreements. ‘We’re not the ones to call the Memorandum null and void, it’s the Greek people who call it null and void’, he says at some point characteristically, conflating deliberately the literal, legal sense and the figurative sense of annulling an agreement, and thus sounding good to any voters who might listen, while remaining totally non-committal.

    A second, long and somewhat worrying moment came shortly before that last meeting was wrapped up, when Tsipras, hoping to trip up Venizelos on the issue of the 15 May bond that Papademos decided ought to be paid, after all, is seen confuse a bond default with a sovereign default. A pretty dubious grasp of economics for someone who aspires to lead the Eurozone’s most compromised economy.

    The proposal that Gerasimos Arsenis should lead the caretaker government, which Tsipras put forward in the meeting all leaders, bar Golden Dawn’s Mihaloliakos, attended, was another low point (for any readers who might not know this: Arsenis’s wife, Louka Katseli, leads a small party with which SYRIZA has been negotiating a possible partnership, so that proposal smacked of mutual back-scratching).

    An enlightening, but utterly frustrating experience, reading those minutes, all in all. I’ve been looking hard and persistently for convincing arguments for supporting SYRIZA, believing in Tsipras. Disappointingly, the more interviews and speeches I hear or read, the more I come to realise that unless SYRIZA surprises everyone with concrete, robust, rationally sound plans for managing a country on the verge of (nervous too) breakdown, produced out of a hat in some last-minute conjuring trick, voting for him in the hope that his rhetoric might be hiding some so far invisible substance would be like taking the chance I never took with a proven successful populist but dismal prime minister, George Papandreou.

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