Tag Archives: Ecologist Greens

Old school

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Who says politics has become a young man’s game? At a time when pension reforms are causing retirement ages to creep upward across Europe, it seems that politicians who may have been facing the twilight of their career are finding a new lease of life and the drive to discover a fresh relevance.

On Sunday, amid an avalanche of goals at the World Cup and the conclusion of New Democracy’s congress in Neo Faliro, it went somewhat unnoticed that a group of just over 500 people gathered in an Athens hotel to launch a new political party, Democratic Left, which will have as its figurehead 61-year-old Fotis Kouvelis. The new grouping has been formed by disgruntled members and supporters of the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA). In early June, Kouvelis led a breakaway group of four MPs, and members of the so-called “renewal wing” of Synaspismos, the largest party in the SYRIZA coalition. Kouvelis expressed a deep dissatisfaction with the line SYRIZA has been taking and by the apparent short-termism of its young leader, Alexis Tsipras.

Kouvelis was soundly beaten by Tsipras in 2008 when he stood for the SYRIZA leadership. Then it seemed that Tsipras, in his mid-30s, was the sort of new breed of politician that Greece needed – young, enthusiastic and free of the ideological burdens that had accumulated in the baggage carried by the country’s political elite. But his star seems to have been extinguished as quickly as it was catapulted over the Greek political landscape. SYRIZA’s share of the vote dropped to 4.6 percent at the last general election in the wake of Tsipras adopting an equivocal stance on rioting and a firm stand against the European Union.

The breaking point for Kouvelis and his friends seems to have come in SYRIZA’s inability to strike a coherent, realistic approach to the economic crisis and its concomitant effects on Greece. In his scramble to find a position, Tsipras began to resemble a high school pupil guessing for the right answer to the wrong multiple choice question. Under his leadership, SYRIZA’s buzzword, much like the Communist Party, has become “resistance.” But it became clear to Kouvelis that when you push against something that ceases to be there because reality has changed, you fall flat on your face.

“We want a left that is daring, which does not settle for the easy option nor make concessions to popular or short-sighted leftism,” Kouvelis said on Sunday. “We went a left that does not feel it is legitimate to defend all workers’ established rights nor to pander to unions and associations for petty political gains.”

The veteran politician, who briefly served as justice minister in 1989 and has a history in leftist politics that stretches back to the pre-junta era, also made it clear that his new party seeks a closer, not more distant, relationship with Europe. “The economic crisis and the threat to the euro make more Europe necessary: We need a closer union and economic governance,” he said.

There are some 50 leftist political parties in Greece, so if Kouvelis’s timely and carefully weighted words are to be more than just pleasant musings on the country’s predicament, the Democratic Left will have to give voters who are lost between PASOK’s lack of conviction and SYRIZA’s lack of awareness something they can latch onto. Kouvelis also said that environmentalism will play a significant role in the party’s policies, perhaps presaging a cooperation with the Ecologist Greens, who were just 0.5 percent short of 3 percent needed for them to gain seats in Parliament in last year’s general election. If Democratic Left can attract support from all these different sources, then it could be looking at a share of the vote at the next poll that would give it double-digit seats in Parliament and a potential say in the formation of the government.

Bearing in mind that New Democracy’s ousted MP Dora Bakoyannis could soon set up her own centrist party as well, Kouvelis could be one of the draftsmen of Greece’s changing political architecture. But all that is still a long way off and will depend to a great extent on whether the gamble of placing Kouvelis – a respectable but hardly inspiring politician who looks rather fatigued after years of public service – in the frontline will pay off. Democratic Left is banking on the crisis fueling the feelings of frustration with politicians who cast themselves as modern-day managers but who manage to do nothing but squander the faith placed in them. This exasperation means that figures of trust – politicians who have stood the test of time and retained their integrity – are a rare and valued commodity.

The appeal of public figures that command respect was evident in Germany’s presidential contest, where the 70-year-old civil rights-campaigning pastor Joachim Gauck had been outpacing conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel’s candidate, the 51-year-old Lower Saxony state premier Christian Wulff, in opinion polls ahead of Wednesday’s vote. Gauck, dubbed “Grandpa Obama,” forced an unexpected third ballot in the 1,244-seat federal assembly before Wulff was declared the winner (there is no public vote to decide who fills the largely ceremonial role).

The decision of the opposition, center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens to pick Gauck, who was responsible after the fall of the Berlin Wall for exposing many crimes committed by the East German secret police, as their candidate says much about where politics in Germany and in Europe as a whole finds itself. It’s an indication that level-headedness is now a more useful political virtue than it has been for a long time.

“It’s so wonderful that we have you,” Merkel told Gauck at his recent birthday celebration, “because when you see a wound you always put your finger on it.” In fact, Gauck proved that his finger was on the pulse of German society. “We are at a crossroads in Germany,” he said. “There’s a deep-seated sense of anxiety right now, and we need a new impetus. I notice that people aren’t just interested in consumption and soccer, they also want to be able to believe in people and institutions again.”

Gauck described himself as a “leftist liberal conservative,” reflecting a growing sense that in the current climate strict adherence to a single ideology will simply put up more barriers rather than help overcome obstacles. Kouvelis and his friends similarly seem to have rejected dogmatism in favor of pragmatism and their success or failure may depend on whether this is a switch of convenience or conviction. Gauck perfectly summed up the challenge facing today’s policy makers when he said: “The German people have a deep longing for credibility in politics.” Ultimately, if they are going to make a difference, it is this credibility that politicians must discover, regardless of whether they are young or old.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on July 2, 2010.

All hail the chief

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

George Papandreou took a leaf out of Barack Obama’s book by setting targets for his first 100 days in office – but even the US president would have been impressed by the dynamic start that the PASOK leader has made to his premiership, naming a youthful cabinet, displaying an unprecedented level of openness and holding talks with Turkish officials.

Following on from the inertia of the final days of the New Democracy government, it wouldn’t have been hard for the new administration to seem like a team of over-achievers. But there have been some genuinely positive signs in PASOK’s first week in government; signs which suggest that Papandreou and his team have identified weaknesses and are intent on fixing them as quickly as possible. Of course, whether they manage to is a completely different story.

Papandreou’s first chance to impress was with the announcement of his cabinet. To a large extent, he made the positive impact he wanted. The fact that roughly two thirds of the members of the new government have not served before, and therefore are not tainted by previous failings or misdeeds, is a sign that the new prime minister wants to stick to his promise of renewal.

Also, the presence of nine women (a record for Greece) in the slightly streamlined cabinet adds to the impression that a new page in the history of Greek politics is being written. Although Costas Karamanlis had seven women in his previous government, most were in deputy minister positions, whereas Papandreou has put many of his female colleagues – Anna Diamantopoulou (Education), Mariliza Xenogiannakopoulo (Health), Louka Katseli (Economy ), Tina Birbili (Environment) and Katerina Batzeli (Agriculture) – in charge of their departments.

Many of the members of the new government are close associates of Papandreou, which one might expect, but he has also seasoned his administration with a sprinkling of old hands such as Haris Kastanidis (Justice), Dimitris Reppas (Infrastructure) and Michalis Chrysochoidis (Citizens’ Protection). If the cabinet were a football team, you would say that it seems to have a good blend of youth and experience.

The tough choice for Papandreou was what to do with Evangelos Venizelos – the precocious star of the team. Rather than sideline him, the prime minister gave him a meaty portfolio (Defence) but appointed another political bruiser, Theodoros Pangalos, above him by reviving the long-forgotten post of deputy prime minister.

It seems a shrewd move as Venizelos – who so aggressively challenged Papandreou for the PASOK leadership after the disastrous election result in 2007 – can’t be disappointed by the post but equally will find it difficult to use it as a pulpit for promoting himself should the prime minister’s popularity or grip on the government begin to wane.

The unveiling of the cabinet, however, did not come without some negative aspects. The first was the confusion over who would fill the posts at the newly created Environment Ministry. Papandreou has made much of his green credentials and the intention of his government, unlike the previous ones, to prevent Greece from turning into a barren wasteland.

Therefore, it was surprising that just a couple of hours before the cabinet was named it should emerged that the Ecologist Greens, who narrowly failed to make it into Parliament, were approached with regard to one of their members either taking over at the Environment Ministry or at least becoming deputy minister.

The exact details of the offer remain sketchy, which is doubly worrying as it seems the whole affair was handled in an amateur fashion. One would have thought that since this ministry was one of his priorities, Papandreou would have a Plan A, B and C for how we would make appointments to it and would not have to rely on last-ditch leaps.

The overtures to the Ecologist Greens were in one sense a welcome piece of “hands across the aisle” politics, in a country where the only thing usually crossing the aisles in Parliament are verbal volleys. But the slapdash way in which it was handled undid any of the positives to come out of it. The Ecologist Greens were probably right to turn down the offer as in the end it looked more like a political stunt than a genuine approach.

The other aspect of the cabinet that deserves some scrutiny is Papandreou’s decision to appoint himself as foreign minister. Although he has experience in the position and is at his best when he is rubbing shoulders with the world’s leaders and thinkers, it is also an indictment of the team that he has assembled that he does not feel there is anyone there – at least for the time being – that can do as good a job as him.

Saying that, if Papandreou intends this to be a short-term appointment, giving him enough time to sort out some pressing problems, it could turn out to be a masterstroke. He wasted no time in making his first contact with the Turkish leadership, speaking to both Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the sidelines of a Balkan leaders’ meeting in Istanbul on Friday, four days after being sworn in.

It seems that Papandreou’s intention is to get relations with Turkey back on an even keel, so that this can then have a positive knock-on effect on negotiations in Cyprus. If these two areas stop to weigh Greek diplomacy down, then the prime minister/foreign minister can focus on sorting out the name dispute with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).

None of the three will be easy tasks but Papandreou clearly has faith in his diplomatic ability. He has shown that he plans not to waste time either. If this new dynamic leads to solutions, then, who knows, maybe like Obama, Papandreou will also be picking up a Nobel Peace Prize as well. For now though, he will settle for getting through the first 100 days of his government with as many plaudits and as much positive energy as the first week.

Nick Malkoutzis

Democracy, the game show

weakestlink

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

“A celebration of democracy” – it’s a cliche, used to describe the voting process, that you’ll hear repeated on TV and radio throughout Sunday. But the truth is that voting has ceased to be a cause for celebration in this and many other countries for some time.

Too many voters enter polling booths not filled with the joy of someone about to pick the most suitable party but weighed down by the anxiety of choosing the one that’s least likely to disappoint. In an age when few politicians have convictions, let alone the courage of them, voters have become participants in democracy’s great game show – in the absence of talented candidates to vote in, they simply vote the failures out.

This rather subdued month-long campaign looks like it will culminate in exactly this manner. It has answered few of the questions the electorate had at the start and none of the parties has been able to present a convincing plan for rescuing and reviving the country’s economy, while a range of social issues have not featured at all.

The fewer the topics of discussion, the better for Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis and his party. He’s the game show contestant who’s finding life under the spotlight uncomfortable. Neither Karamanlis nor New Democracy is in the mood to answer difficult questions about their shortcomings over the last 5.5 years. But the government’s failure to engage with the electorate over the last month has strengthened the feeling that this administration’s time is up.

Karamanlis’s decision to call snap elections only made sense if it allowed New Democracy to get a head start on PASOK but the conservative party’s machinery creaked onto the campaign trail and was soon lagging behind the Socialists who set the agenda with their plan for their first 100 days in government. Karamanlis gambled on a snap election, hoping it would reinvigorate his party and renew people’s faith in his government but he forgot to give people some new ideas to believe in. “More of the same” is not a prize anyone wants to claim.

As a result, PASOK leader George Papandreou has limited himself to the role of the contestant who takes as few risks as possible and waits for his opponent to slip up. But this prompts the question: is he really limiting himself or are these actually his limits?

Doubt about Papandreou’s leadership is just one of the reasons that PASOK goes into Sunday’s voting sweating on whether it will get a clear parliamentary majority. Another is that although plenty of people are willing to believe the Socialists can do a better job in a number of areas, such as environmental and immigration policy, not so many have faith in their plans for the economy.

Athens PlusPASOK’s intention to increase public spending on wages and pensions still does not add up. Papandreou says he’ll find the money from uncollected taxes and tax dodgers. But these taxes have been uncollected for years and PASOK would have to conduct some serious restructuring of the tax collection system to gather them. This is a long-term project. Papandreou doesn’t have that sort of time. So, the question remains – where will he get the money?

If you ask Communist Party (KKE) leader Aleka Papariga, she’ll tell you the working classes will end up footing the bill. In the current economic climate, it’s a response that resonates with quite a few people and KKE is likely to increase it’s share of the vote, cementing it’s role as a strong voice in opposition but nothing more.

Papariga is the contestant who’s good with the questions about history but no so comfortable with the one involving numbers. The credibility gap in her and KKE’s positions means that the party will only ever attract true believers and those that want to poke ND and PASOK in the eye.

The Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), however, has much more riding on this election. Its leader, Alexis Tsipras, has been the young challenger who too often blurted out the answers before engaging his brain. It has cost him and the leftist party points, so SYRIZA goes into Sunday hoping for enough support (more than 3 percent) to get into Parliament.

Provided it achieves this, it could even be a coalition partner for PASOK if the Socialists fail to get a parliamentary majority. Perhaps that’s why Tsipras has been more prudent in recent weeks, thinking things through before putting his hand on the buzzer.

One leader perfectly cut out for the game show format is the leader of the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) Giorgos Karatzaferis. But even this master of the camera seems to have lost his touch during this campaign. Lacking his usual car salesman slickness in the TV debates and not knowing whether to attack PASOK because it is likely to be the next government or New Democracy because that’s where most of his voters come from, Karatzaferis has become trapped in his own nationalist-populist rhetoric.

The Ecologist Greens leader, Nikos Chrysogelos, has put in a more convincing performance, prompting many to cheer him on from the sidelines. Whether this will transfer into votes on election day remains doubtful. In game show parlance, the Ecologist Greens are the appealing mystery prize that many people will avoid, fearing it will turn out to be a cheap toaster rather than a holiday for two in Barbados.

Although they still lack slickness, the Ecogreens have admirably tried to state their case during this campaign, often having to avoid being dragged down blind alleys where journalists wait to ambush them with questions about foreign policy and other issues that are clearly not their priority.

To get into Parliament, they’ll have to virtually triple their support from the 2007 general election. It would be a historic achievement that could lead to them being a coalition partner for either of the two big parties.

It would perhaps be the biggest prize available to a Greek electorate that has to wrestle with some testing choices on Sunday. There is little you can say to someone faced with such dilemmas other than what you’d say to anyone about to take part in a game show: Good luck.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on October 1, 2009