Tag Archives: Dora Bakoyannis

Dora the explorer

Dora Bakoyannis launched her new party, Democratic Alliance, to much fanfare today. To succeed, she will have to ensure that those trumpets sound fresh and hopeful when the next general elections come around, rather than playing the same old tunes that everyone has heard a thousand times before.

Bakoyannis claims that the era of two-party domination in Greece is over. She may be right. Everything over the last couple of years has pointed to that and the debt crisis and the subsequent arrival of the International Monetary Fund has only sped that process up. The emphatic way in which voters turned their backs on PASOK and New Democracy in the local elections this month was evidence that people are now willing to make their dissatisfaction known at the ballot box rather than just at the dinner table. A GPO poll of those that didn’t vote – who were the majority in the second round – indicated that more than half abstained because they were fed up with the political system as a whole.

It is into this no man’s land that Bakoyannis hopes to gingerly tread. She sees an opportunity to attract disgruntled voters from here former party, New Democracy, and PASOK to a centrist, liberal group that wants to eschew the bickering and self-serving of the past.

However, for her party to have any hope of making an impact, she must be careful not to fall into the very big trap she has set herself. First of all, it is unenviable task to campaign against the political establishment and the idea of nepotism and cronyism, when you are a product of this system (Bakoyannis’s father, Constantinos Mitsotakis, was a former ND leader and prime minister and her late husband, Pavlos Bakoyannis, was a conservative MP). To be fair to Bakoyannis, she does not shy away from this fact – nor could she if she wanted to be taken seriously – and responds by saying that she is prepared to do things differently. “The question now is, will we politicians, who are a product of the old way of thinking, get the message right and change ourselves?” she told the New York Times in June. Nevertheless, people will have to see evidence of this fairly quickly if she is going to be convincing. If she slips into the pattern of exchanging barbs with ND leader Antonis Samaras, for instance, people are likely to switch off pretty quickly.

Also, she will need new faces – ones which have not been tarnished by previous political dealings – in her party. The collection of former ND and PASOK deputies who gathered at the launch of the Democratic Alliance at the Badminton Theater in Goudi did not seem a particularly good way of sending out a message that this is a party that will be doing things differently. Bakoyannis needs some old hands on board to add a bit of gravitas and ensure that the media picks up on what some familiar faces have to say but it will not serve her well in the long-term. Having promised to draw a line under the past, she will have to do exactly that.

Under the electoral law that will apply at the next general election, the leading party could be able to form a majority government with just 37 or 38 percent of the vote. So, if Bakoyannis wants to be in a position to be a junior partner in a coalition government, which surely must be her aim, she will need to pick up at least 5 percent of the vote. To do that, she has to ensure she hits the right notes pretty quickly.

Nick Malkoutzis

No time for heroes

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

“The defeats and victories of the fellows at the top aren’t always defeats and victories for the fellows at the bottom,” says one of the characters in German writer Bertolt Brecht’s landmark anti-war play “Mother Courage and her Children.” How fitting that comment seemed this week: As Greece battled to keep the dogs of default at bay and Greeks tried to come to terms with a new economic reality, New Democracy’s hierarchs sought to bicker and settle old scores, prompting the united response of “Who cares?” from the watching public.

At the end of last week, ex-Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis said she would not be attending New Democracy’s central committee meeting on the weekend, as she believed it inappropriate for the party to be debating internal issues when the country is hobbling through its worst post-war economic crisis. In other words, she was trying to put country before party. Her boycott, however, gave the impression of exactly the opposite. It suggested Bakoyannis was a sore loser still seeking the limelight that eluded her when she was defeated in last November’s leadership election and painted ND as a party that cares about little else than itself.

Bakoyannis’s argument that discussing policies or debating current issues with other party members would not be fitting because of the crisis is blatantly absurd. It’s not like Greece is about to be struck by a meteorite and the whole population has to be rooted to the spot, staring up at the sky for the signs of imminent catastrophe. Employees are not calling work saying they’re not coming in because the bond spread has passed 400 percentage points. So, why should politicians stop going about their normal business?

It appears that Bakoyannis’s decision was designed to make waves, to see how the Samaras leadership vessel, barely out of port, weathers the storm. There was no love lost between Samaras and Bakoyannis before their fractious leadership race but the former foreign minister clearly still feels aggrieved at her defeat by the ex-culture minister. There is even talk of Bakoyannis quitting the party and forming her own. Seasoned commentators feel that if she did walk out of the door, only a handful of conservative deputies would follow her. It’s unlikely to be the dramatic mass exodus she may dream or scheme of.

It’s virtually a golden rule of politics that defeat has a dizzying, disorientating effect on the parties that suffer it. So, consider the damaging impact that being kicked out with the rest of Costas Karamanlis’s government and then losing the party leadership from her grip had on Bakoyannis. Allegiance, tradition, obsequiousness – these all tend to evaporate when a party or a politician have been dumped on their backsides, as ND and Bakoyannis – both defeated by a 10-percent margin last year – were.

Even in Japan, where loyalty is pervasive, a small group of conservative rebels led by former Finance Minister Kaoru Yosano have just broken away from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The LDP was ousted from power last year after enjoying 54 years of almost uninterrupted rule. If New Democracy is plagued by self-doubt and loathing after just five years in power, imagine what sort of navel-gazing is going on at the LDP headquarters. In fact, some analysts think that after such a long time in power, the LDP does not know how to be an opposition party. On Saturday, five of its MPs announced the formation of Tachiagare Nippon (The Sunrise Party of Japan) with little hope of making an immediate impact on the political scene. It’s not just the party’s small size that will limit its impact; there are several other vital ingredients missing, as Bakoyannis and Samaras should note. “The party lacks the three most important aspects needed to become a genuine force, which are political vision, specific policy and a fresh face,” political analyst Minoru Morita told the Japan Times.

Neither New Democracy, nor Bakoyannis, posses these qualities. If the ex-foreign minister, who showed ability as a diplomat, is considering forming her own party, then at some point she will surely take time to think about the slew of failed go-it-alone projects, launched by Greek politicians with much less talent than her, that litter the political path to oblivion.

This is why it’s quite likely that Bakoyannis’s boycott, for which Samaras threatened to expel her, will end up being little more than a tiff. However, the damage to ND, which has yet to find its feet under new leadership, has already been done. Over the last few months, all the conservatives have offered is a mixture of stunned silence and shallow attacks on the government, which expose them as having no better ideas about how to tackle the crisis. One minute, ND is blaming PASOK for being too slow in taking action – this, coming from a party that spent five years doing little to build on the legacy of entry into the euro and the successful hosting of the Olympics and even less on tackling chronic structural problems. The next minute, ND is raging against the ills of the International Monetary Fund when it knows the only reason the government is considering accepting assistance from the IMF is that the towering deficit it inherited from the conservatives makes it impossible to borrow at reasonable rates on international markets.

Now, Samaras has begun calling on PASOK – which is still struggling to ensure Greece can pay its bills next month – to start stimulating growth in the economy. It’s like asking someone to run fast when you’ve put treacle in their shoes and chained their legs to a tree. It does little to help the ND leader gain credibility with voters, most of whom are highly skeptical about any theoretical pronouncements politicians have to make at the moment, since they know that only practical solutions to very real problems are going to be of any use.

This need for pragmatism seems to have eluded New Democracy. The Bakoyannis episode was typical of a party that, just as it was in government, is full of big — although not necessarily good — ideas but struggles to make an actual impact. If Samaras is going to change this –- with or without Bakoyannis on board -– he’s going have to accept that pompousness is no substitute for productivity. In Brecht’s play, Mother Courage explains that if a commander needs heroic soldiers, it’s proof he’s not doing his job properly: “Whenever there are great virtues, it’s a sure sign something’s wrong.” Greece doesn’t want heroes now, it just needs people that do their job.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and appeared in Athens Plus on April 16.

Samaras – never say never

By Manos Symeonakis

From outsider to leader in less than two months and from party outcast to party president in over a decade, Antonis Samaras’s unlikely rise to the top of New Democracy is proof that you can never say never in politics.

Contrary to what many people thought, the ND leadership contest will not go to a second round, as Samaras edged past the 50-percent mark on Sunday to dash the longstanding hopes that Dora Bakoyannis had of leading the conservative party.

So why did Samaras win?

Until the start of this year, it seemed the unlikeliest of stories. After falling out with Bakoyannis’s father, Constantine Mitsotakis in 1992, Samaras went on to form his own party the following year. His decision to cross the prime minister by adopting an approach on the Macedonia issue that was too strident, proved ill-fated as Samaras’s party, Poltical Spring, burnt brightly and then fizzled out during the course of the Nineties, never managing to gather more than 5 percent of the vote.

Samaras was brought back into the fold by Costas Karamanlis for the 2004 Euroelections and then stood for Parliament as an ND candidate in the 2007 general election. It was Karamanlis’s decision to make Samaras culture minister in his cabinet reshuffle in this January’s cabinet that gave the former finance and foreign minister the springboard to launch a bid for the party leadership.

Back in the cabinet, Samaras had regained the luster of power but being in charge of the culture portfolio meant that he could hardly be blamed for the conservative governments major mistakes. In fact, fate was on Samaras’s side as his time in office coincided with the opening of the new Acropolis Museum – putting him at the center of a story that had only positive aspects and was a great opportunity to raise his profile at home and abroad.

From this platform, Samaras used his campaign to appeal to New Democracy’s hardcore support: the older generation of right-wingers who were not interested in appeals to middle ground voters; the conservatives, of which there are many in Greece, who were totally dejected and angered by the capitulation of Costas Karamanlis’s government; the ND faithful who felt that Karamanlis decision to compromise the party’s ideology so it could return to power had not been a trade-off worth making.

Samaras tapped into this sense of frustration much better than Bakoyannis during the campaign. The latter’s call for ND to be a much broader church fell on many deaf ears. After the 10 percent defeat to PASOK in the October general election, too many conservatives saw this as more of the same.

Also Samaras’s appeal to conservative values, particularly their nationalist strain, rang true following 5.5 years in which many ND supporters felt that their party had conceded too much ground in foreign policy, on immigration, crime and so on.

However, the decision of Dimitris Avramopoulos to drop out of the race and back Samaras gave the latter’s campaign the real boost it needed going into the final stretch. For, although Samaras was convincing those on the right, by teaming up with the more moderate, populist Avramopoulos, he was sending a message to the more centrist ND voters that he would not close his door or mind to other interpretations of the conservative ideology.

Of course, a part of Samaras’s victory had nothing to do with anything he did. There was a section of the ND support that simply did not want Bakoyannis, under any circumstances, to be the party’s leader. This stemmed back to her father’s time in office but also to a section of the conservative electorate that, having seen the nephew of a former ND leader fail, did not want to continue the nepotism within the party.

So, from a position when the party leadership seemed a distant dream, Samaras now has his hands firmly on the party’s reins thanks to Sunday’s clear victory. What next? A tilt at the premiership? Never say never.

Nick Malkoutzis

New Democracy showdown

Illustration/stats by Manos Symeonakis

New Democracy members around the country will vote on Sunday, November 29, for a new party leader in a hotly contested race that has caused a significant rift within the opposition party.

Ex-Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis and former Culture Minister Antonis Samaras will fight it out for the ND presidency but the third candidate, Thessaloniki Prefect Panayiotis Psomiadis, could end up playing a vital role if the election goes to a second round.

Ever since outgoing party leader and former Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis announced on the night of the October 4 general elections that he would be stepping down following a crushing 10-percent defeat by PASOK, Bakoyannis and Samaras have been the most likely candidates to take over.

Early in the campaign, former Health Minister Dimitris Avramopoulos also declared his candidacy but eventually stepped aside and declared in favor of Samaras.

Avramopoulos’s move into the Samaras camp underlined just how much the contest has split the conservatives. Bakoyannis and Samaras are old adversaries and in many ways both are divisive figures within the party. There has been bad blood between the two since Samaras left the conservative government of Constantine Mitsotakis, Bakoyannis’s father, in the early 1990s. This led to its downfall and apart from Bakoyannis there are many others within the party who are not willing to forgive Samaras.

However, there is also a grouping within ND that was upset with Mitsotakis’s style of governing and does not want to see his daughter in charge, preferring a break with the past. Samaras has played on this theme during his campaign, often referring to “mechanisms” within the party favoring his rival.

Bakoyannis has hit back at Samaras over his decision to quit ND. “All my political life has been spent in New Democracy, I had no breaks or pauses,” said Bakoyannis.

During an extraordinary party congress on November 7 and 8, Samaras and Bakoyannis also set out different visions for the party. Samaras said it needs to be grounded in its right-wing beliefs but Bakoyannis suggested it must have a broader appeal in order to attract the middle-ground voters who usually decide election results.

She accused Samaras of sticking to an ideology that would marginalize the party.

“I am not promoting isolation,” he responded. “I am trying to extend our influence everywhere. We will not let ND be shifted or genetically modified.”

The supporters of the two camps have been involved in increasingly hostile exchanges, which have caused many conservatives to fear for the party’s unity following the election of a new leader.

The process by which the new ND president will be elected also proved to be a source of disagreement. After much arguing, it was agreed that all party members, including those that sign up on the actual voting day, would be able to cast a ballot.

As a result, it has been difficult for pollsters to predict the outcome of Sunday’s vote. Since Avramopoulos joined the Samaras campaign, the ex-Culture Minister has taken the lead in opinion polls. A survey of more than 1,000 people by Public Issue for Sunday’s Kathimerini suggested that Samaras would win the first round but would not gain the 50 percent needed to prevent a second round. In the likely case of a second round, Psomiadis would drop out and Samaras would run off against Bakoyannis. Psomiadis insists he will not tell his supporters who to vote for.

Public Issue’s poll shows Samaras winning this contest as well. However, pollsters point out that only about a third of respondents are ND supporters and of those not all will vote. Also, there may be many new members who sign up at the last minute, making it very difficult to predict the outcome.

Nick Malkoutzis

Bringing down the walls

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

It’s one of life’s great ironies that the people who would derive most satisfaction from anniversary celebrations are rarely around to enjoy them. So, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel took ex-Polish President Lech Walesa and former Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev by the hand for a walk through a unified Berlin on Monday to mark 20 years since the fall of the Wall, several key figures were absent.

Late US President John F. Kennedy, who made it clear that America would stand by West Berlin with his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in 1963 is an obvious absentee. But perhaps the person that would have enjoyed Monday’s proceedings most was a man who shared the platform with Kennedy on that June afternoon: the late mayor of West Berlin and subsequent Chancellor of Germany Willy Brandt.

Brandt was one of the architects behind the wall’s collapse. As mayor he ensured his city was a beacon of freedom, as chancellor he used this freedom to unite people. Upon being elected West German leader in 1969, he embarked on a policy of “Ostpolitik,” which sought closer relations with East Germany, the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc countries. While some of his compatriots and many in the West saw this as appeasement of totalitarian regimes, Brandt realized that bringing people closer together would help obliterate the barriers, the walls, between them.

One of Brandt’s defining moments came in 1970 when he spontaneously knelt at a memorial to victims of the Second World War’s Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The gesture didn’t go down well with some Germans but won him many friends in Poland. “His courage was his biggest political asset, his greatest personal characteristic, and was based on deep moral and political convictions,” says Jens Bastian, senior economic research fellow for southeast Europe at ELIAMEP (Hellenic Foundation for Foreign and European Policy). “Such politicians don’t grow on trees, neither in Germany, nor in Greece.”

Brandt’s gesture in Warsaw sent a clear message: we must embrace our past but not let it hold us back. “The future will not be mastered by those who dwell on the past,” he said. His comment came to mind this week when switching attention from events in Berlin to those in Greece, where politicians like Brandt certainly don’t grow on trees. Anyone looking at Greece would gain the impression of a country condemned to live in the past rather than looking to the future.

10_okv_The dispute at the port of Piraeus, for example, had on the one side the dockworkers behaving like extras in the Marlon Brando classic “On the Waterfront,” while on the other a government treading on eggshells for fear of triggering a popular revolution – scenes of industrial relations from a bygone era.

At least in the case of the police, Citizens’ Protection Minister Michalis Chrysochoidis was honest enough to admit that the force is “stuck in the 1950s” as he announced a raft of changes. These came as officers made plans for policing the November 17 protest march that marks the 1973 student uprising against the junta. The event epitomizes how Greeks are so obsessed with the past that they want to keep recreating it: each generation of students feels they have to prove themselves like those of 1973 and even teenagers will talk about an oppressive state when they live in what is possibly the most anarchic country in the European Union.

But even if they want to escape the past, they can’t. The media fuel this obsession with history. They say journalism is the first draft of history but in Greece the media serve as history’s photocopying machine, constantly rehashing, regurgitating and reheating the events of the past through features, supplements and DVDs.

At the center of this historical vortex is the country’s political scene. As the New Democracy leadership contest between Dora Bakoyannis and Antonis Samaras becomes closer, what divides them is not the direction in which they will take the country but what happened in the past – namely, Samaras’s decision to quit the ND government in the early 1990s when Bakoyannis’s father was prime minister.

It’s ironic that Greece’s hopes for breaking the chains of history currently rest with George Papandreou, who wouldn’t even be in this position were it not for the legacy of his father and grandfather. Papandreou is no Willy Brandt but following in the German’s footsteps might prevent Greece from slipping further into history’s quicksand. “Brandt’s idea of democratic renewal after he took office in 1969 was to “dare democracy”, in other words to make West German society more tolerant, open, accountable and democratic,” says Bastian.

George Papandreou’s domestic agenda also reflects a desire for more openness. There are similarities in foreign policy as well. “Papandreou’s openings toward Turkey and Skopje are a reflection of his intention to exit from the past, to understand the past, but not be tied by it,” said Bastian. “In other words, Papandreou’s version of Ostpolitik is his foreign policy courage in Greece’s immediate neighborhood – the Balkans, Cyprus and Turkey.”

Papandreou’s efforts to achieve transparency may be arriving a quarter of a century after Gorbachev’s “Glasnost” and his attempts at rapprochement may be a pale imitation of Brandt’s risky diplomacy but they give the impression of the first, tentative steps toward changing the course of history.

Looking back on the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years later, it might appear that it had been inevitable, but that’s just a trick that time plays on us. The Wall’s collapse was more revolution than evolution. As German daily Die Welt wrote on Monday: “The Wall didn’t fall, it was brought down.”

The walls that hold Greece back won’t fall on their own, they too must be brought down. Papandreou has the task of toppling them. We can only hope he has Brandt’s strength of conviction and that he will finally be the one to master the future rather than dwell on the past.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on November 13, 2009.