Soon after being propelled to international fame for publishing the Lagarde list and facing prosecution for it, journalist Costas Vaxevanis wrote in an opinion piece that “democracy is like a bicycle.” As Greek MPs debated the merits of which politician to probe in connection with the handling of the depositors list for 14 hours on Thursday, democracy began to look more like a unicycle, ridden by a giant clown.
There have been many jaw-dropping moments in Parliament since this crisis began. For instance, who can forget becoming part of a parallel universe as the world waited for George Papandreou to receive a vote of confidence in late 2011 just so he could resign a few days later? Votes on midterm fiscal plans, bailout packages and new austerity measures – Greece has seen it all over the past few years. But none of those moments could match the sheer futile hysteria of Thursday’s debate.
In the buildup, the coalition proposed that just former Finance Minister Giorgos Papaconstantinou be investigated over claims he doctored the Lagarde list to remove the names of three of his relatives. SYRIZA wanted Papaconstantinou’s successor, PASOK leader Evangelos Venizelos, investigated as well. Independent Greeks and Golden Dawn added ex-prime ministers George Papandreou and Lucas Papademos to the list.
Thursday’s discussion began with an argument about what MPs would actually vote on. The government gave in to SYRIZA’s demands for just one vote with four ballot boxes representing each of the four politicians being considered for investigation. New Democracy and PASOK had wanted lawmakers to vote on each of the three proposals made by the parties but realized that this might look like an attempt to stifle MPs and protect Venizelos.
Valuable time was spent on deciding how many votes should take place and how many ballot boxes should be used, when it could have all been sorted out behind closed doors. Instead of a touch of decorum, we were treated to endless delirium as viewers tuned in to hear pointless arguments about procedure and the merits of each party’s position.
After grudgingly declaring that he would back down in favor of one vote being held, Venizelos proceeded to use the debate as an opportunity to throw everything in his vast arsenal of rhetoric at SYRIZA, which has been pursuing him incessantly since the last elections in June.
The leftists see Venizelos as the weakest link in PASOK’s buckling chain and clearly think that if they break him, they will have a clear run at being the next government. In its pursuit of the former finance minister, SYRIZA is also exposing its immaturity. By insisting that there be a vote on whether Venizelos should face an inquiry over charges of dereliction of duty for failing to investigate the Lagarde list, the leftists virtually guaranteed that the PASOK leader will now never face such a committee.
For a minister or ex-minister to be referred to an investigative committee, a judicial investigation needs to provide enough evidence to suggest that the politician in question has committed a criminal offense. So far, financial prosecutors have not found evidence to incriminate Venizelos, unlike Papaconstantinou. Therefore, there were no grounds for the coalition to risk destabilizing itself by voting for the PASOK leader to face an inquiry. Having survived Thursday’s vote, Venizelos cannot face the same charges again in a parliamentary ballot.
SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras did his utmost to play lion tamer to Venizelos’s ringmaster during Thursday’s session but both came out of the debate with little credit. Their slanging match became an esoteric battle of egos that engaged few outside Parliament, where most people’s interest in the Lagarde list relates to whether their government will finally establish if there are any tax revenues to collect from those named on it.
Venizelos and Tsipras even reached the point of discussing details of their respective meetings with German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble as part of a childish “mine is bigger than yours” argument. Vaxevanis, meanwhile, maintained his stake in the Lagarde affair by giving new impetus to his longstanding tirade against Venizelos via Twitter. Even on social media, there was no escape from the day’s frivolity.
The bigger picture, of course, is that with unemployment hurtling toward 30 percent and the latest round of austerity measures about to start biting, the ins and outs of the Lagarde list controversy mean very little to most Greeks. Its most important effect is to erode voters’ confidence, not just in the government but in the political system as a whole. It’s doubtful there are any Greeks whose faith in their parliamentary representatives has been restored as a result of the decision to refer Papaconstantinou to a parliamentary inquiry while choosing not to take any further action against Venizelos, Papandreou and Papademos. In fact, they probably feel less secure about the ability or appetite of the current generation of politicians to be agents for change.
Greeks’ skepticism about state institutions would have been strengthened by the realization that one of those institutions, Parliament, does not even trust itself. Having been treated to the unedifying sight of Venizelos and Tsipras in their bare-knuckled fight, the moment of the vote was delayed by about three hours as the parties argued over the content and wording of the ballot papers.
During that moment, when it became clear that this Parliament could not carry out its basic functions – holding a to-the-point debate followed by a straightforward vote – a painful reality is likely to have hit many households across the country. As Thursday rolled into Friday, the incompetence and incapacity of this set of decision makers to tackle the serious challenges facing Greece were exposed for all to see.
Perhaps sensing the disaster that would unfold on Thursday, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and Democratic Left leader Fotis Kouvelis were absent from the debate. It may turn out to be a good call, but not sullying themselves in the gutter fight that took place will not be enough to ensure people’s unswerving support. It still falls upon them to oversee the reform effort that has to ensure the country’s institutions function properly, that the fiasco of the Lagarde list, where ministers and tax authorities proved unable to process a basic document, does not happen again. Achieving this in the wake of Thursday’s confidence-sapping events has become a tougher challenge. The high-wire balancing act is being called upon to save the circus’s reputation.