Like extras from The Sopranos, some of Greece’s decision makers and opinion makers have been swearing with abandon over the past few days. It is another sign of the decay that has beset Greek public life.
In the big scheme of this crisis, a foul-mouthed exchange between politicians and journalists may seem trivial. In many ways it is, until you consider the failures that led Greece to this precarious point. Key among these weaknesses was the deterioration of public life, propelled by vacuous politics and the growing entanglement of parties, the public sector, the media, banks and big business.
The crisis has exposed the unsustainability of this incestuous relationship but has not yet led to a break up. This week’s exchanges involving Parliamentary Speaker Vangelis Meimarakis, journalist Nikos Hatzinikolaou and former Interior Minister Prokopis Pavlopoulos will test people’s tolerance a little more.
In a fit of testosterone-fuelled rage after a report claimed he was being investigated for large-scale money laundering, Meimarakis, who is Greece’s third most senior politician in constitutional terms, lashed out at the allegations. He denies the claims and said he was ready to enter a street-fight, taking off his speaker’s suit. “When I undress, I take my trousers off first,” he reportedly told journalists. Meimarakis’s perplexing sartorial practices were interpreted as a sign that he was prepared to scare off detractors by flashing his austerity-busting assets.
In response, Hatzinikolaou, who over the last few years has moved from a high-profile journalism career into publishing, used his radio show to return the jibe, and then some. The publisher of Real News, the weekly that ran the allegations against the parliamentary speaker, warned Meimarakis that if he intends to parade around semi-naked, he should “keep his back to the wall”. Big boys’ playtime didn’t end there, though.
The stakes in this game of innuendo were raised when, in full earshot of parliamentary correspondents, Meimarakis berated his New Democracy colleague Pavlopoulos for going on Hatzinikolaou’s show. Allegedly, the speaker suggested that the former minister did not have to stray so far from home if he was interested in performing sexual favors. The pants were off in this grubby little conflict between some of Greece’s most prominent personalities.
This puerile exchange may provide a fitting epitaph for Greek public life over the last couple of decades, when so many political pigmies and moral midgets stood on the stilts built by power and easy money in an era awash with wasted opportunities and excess egotism. “I take my trousers off first” would fit nicely on the tombstone.
This tawdry episode is that they have placed authority in the hands of too many people that did not deserve it. Voters, viewers and consumers cannot abrogate their responsibility in turning gutter-dwellers into power-wielders. Too many were willing to turn a blind eye to this either in their daily lives or when they approached the ballot box because in one way or another it suited them. Too many people had something to lose from the system breaking down because transparency and responsibility at the top would mean an end to impunity further down. The crisis is sucking the money and influence out of the system and the pyramid scheme is collapsing, leaving its ugly remains on view to a far more sober public, no longer drunk on the fumes of false prosperity.
The big challenge for the political system since the start of this crisis has been to keep pace with the public as it comes to terms with the causes of Greece’s demise and pushes for the changes needed to get on the road to recovery. However, politicians have spent most of the last few years lagging behind voters, unable to have an impact on public opinion. At the same time, faith in the political system and institutions has been eroded. Few carry hope that out-of-touch, compromised politicians can lead the drive for change. The last few days have only compounded this belief. There is a danger that the leaking of the names of more than 30 former ministers, deputy ministers and MPs being investigated for corruption will lead to a complete collapse between voters and decision makers, rather than just the disconnect we have at the moment.
This creates the condition for a whitewash rather than a catharsis. On the one hand, the political system could choose to cover up, as it does so well, its past crimes. On the other, the public could choose to dismiss all politicians as corrupt and the government lacking the legitimacy to rule, even though many on this list might be proved innocent. Either reaction would be disastrous, undermining any hope of each side assuming its share of the responsibility for today’s woes and making a fresh start.
This leads Greece to a dead-end as even those within the system who remain untainted are treated with contempt, any progress is dismissed and efforts to take a new direction are derided. The only way this cynicism can be overcome is to rethink the way Greece is trying to reform itself. If the scatter-gun approach to reforms is abandoned and they are prioritized in a way that shows Greeks that changes are taking place right at the top. If the nexus between parties, the public sector and private interests is broken, then people will believe that change is possible and be more accepting of reforms that may bring disconcerting changes in their daily lives.
For instance, look at all the political capital that was invested and all the time invested in trying to liberalize the taxi sector. After countless clashes and strikes, only 64 people in Athens have applied for new cab licenses, while their soon-to-be colleagues sit forlornly at cab ranks hoping passengers will appear. In contrast, as the Wall Street Journal revealed a few days ago, the fuel market remains tightly sealed. The newspaper quoted a draft International Monetary Fund report that puts the cost of the lack of competition in the sector, which the IMF believes is maintained artificially, at $1 billion a year to consumers.
That’s the kind of thing that should be producing a steady stream of expletives. The rest is just bull.