Tag Archives: Elections

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

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Green sun up in the sky

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Greece is waking up to a new government today after a stunning victory by PASOK which swept New Democracy aside after a larger than expected number of Greeks gave their negative verdict on 5.5 years of troubled conservative government.

The magnitude of the victory achieved by PASOK and its leader George Papandreou should not be underestimated. With PASOK winning just under 44 percent of the vote and New Democracy just 33.5, the Socialist achieved the kind of difference between the top two parties that has not been seen since the 1980s.

That was when Andreas Papandreou, George’s father, was in his prime and PASOK’s green sun shone down on most parts of Greece. Now, George Papandreou follows in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps by becoming prime minister of Greece with the green sun high in the sky. The question is if and for how long Papandreou will be able to keep it there.

His clear majority in Parliament, thanks to the 160 seats PASOK won on October 4, gives him more wiggle room than the centre-left party could have dreamed of. But Papandreou faces a huge list of tasks to take on and the odds are stacked against him. But Papandreou might not mind expectations being low, in fact, he will probably prefer it. After his election defeat in September 2007, Papandreou was at his lowest ebb. Media barons and some members of his party were pressuring him to resign. Numerous pundits predicted the end of his political career.

However, Papandreou braved the flak – often personal and disparaging – and fought off a leadership challenge from Evangelos Venizelos. It was interesting to see that Venizelos, who famously threw his hat into the ring before the results of the election two years ago had been confirmed, was one of the first to publicly congratulate Papandreou on his “personal” victory on October 4. They say a week is a long time in politics, two years is an eternity.

This is something that the outgoing prime minister Costas Karamanlis will testify to. Although New Democracy’s popularity had begun to wane in September 2007, nobody could have imagined that the conservatives would suffer such a crushing defeat just 25 months later.

Karamanlis chose the only option available to him by resigning and starting the process to elect a new party leader. It was regarded as a brave move by most commentators and the swiftness of his decision and the honesty of his statement, in which he admitted that his power base was the relationship of trust that he had built up with some citizens but this had now disintegrated, certainly mean that he can leave office with some dignity intact. But in many ways it was too little too late from Karamanlis, who like a child that fails to do his homework on the first two occasions, asks for a third chance to get the job done.

His campaign was never convincing and New Democracy is clearly a party in disarray – as soon as the security of power started to seep from its ranks, infighting and personal agendas took over. For this, Karamanlis must take a big share of the blame. It is one of the reasons that history will probably not judge him very favourably. He inherited a country on a high, full of a sense of achievement after entry into the eurozone, consistent economic growth, a growing infrastructure and the host of a unique Olympic Games but in more than five years took it nowhere in particular.

Papandreou’s task in contrast is much more difficult. He takes over a country mired in chronic problems and with no obvious ideas of how to solve them. He and PASOK will have to find some answers quickly – if they have learned anything from the failure of Karamanlis and New Democracy it’s that you have to seize the opportunity while its there. The conservatives failed to do so and have dragged Greece to the precipice. If PASOK follows suit, it will plunge the country into a black hole where the neither the green sun, nor any other light, shines.

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

What’s in the box?

KaramanlisPapandreou_Gump

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

“Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get,” according to Forrest Gump. That doesn’t seem to be the case if you’re a voter in Greece, where you pretty much know what you’re going to get: an empty box.

There have been few election campaigns in this country’s history infused with such pessimism as the current one. Surveys repeatedly show not only exasperation with the New Democracy government but a significant lack of faith that PASOK will do a better job.

In its opinion poll for Kathimerini, for instance, Public Issue found that close to half of voters believe that neither ND nor PASOK will be able to govern the country well. The same survey indicated that seven in 10 voters believe the last five years of conservative rule have been a failure. But despite this soaring rate of disapproval for New Democracy, PASOK still doesn’t have the level of support that would secure it a comfortable majority in Parliament.

Speak about the elections to any young professional – the people that will have to live with the consequences of this and the next government’s decisions – and you’re likely to get the similar frustrated response: New Democracy has lost their trust but PASOK has not done enough to gain it.

This has created a state of confusion that neither leader has helped clear up. On the one hand, voters are faced with doe-eyed optimist George Papandreou and, on the other, washed up pessimist Costas Karamanlis – when all they’re looking for is a capable realist.

Karamanlis now stands a shell of his former self before these younger voters. He once represented the friendly face of conservatism, embodying a desire to stamp out corruption, slash red tape and help the little guy, not just big business. But now his government has hit a brick wall, his party is turning in on itself and he’s lost his vision for Greece.

In 1983, when Britain’s Labour Party produced ahead of the national elections a left-wing manifesto that was completely out of touch with reality, one of its own members called it: “The longest suicide note in history.” At the start of this very short election campaign, Karamanlis has failed to come up with a clear set of ideas for getting Greece out of its rut. He’s not so much submitted a suicide note but a blank page; a portent that this government is about to suffer a painful demise.

Athens Plus GumpIn his interview with Sunday’s Kathimerini, Karamanlis had little new to offer except for proposals to create some extra ministries. His speeches have all revolved around one theme: New Democracy will make the tough decisions, whereas PASOK will take the easy road. But few are convinced by this argument, because since being elected in March 2004, Karamanlis has consistently avoided the tough calls. The number of people willing to trust him to get it right the third time around appears to be dwindling by the day.

That’s not to say that his criticism of PASOK is not valid. Papandreou has not presented a real alternative vision for Greece. Instead he’s been content to pick a few policies, such as pay rises for public servants and cash bonuses for the poor, that he knows will sound good in the current climate but won’t shackle him for the long term.

It’s all part of a wider policy by the Socialists to commit to as little as possible while they wait for New Democracy to lose these elections. But this is a path ridden with pitfalls. If PASOK wins on October 4, it will have some very real and very big problems, not least the economic ones, to deal with. Not coming up with some kind of overall strategy or explaining where it will get the money from is not only irresponsible but immediately creates a relationship with the electorate that is based on dishonesty – or at least a lack of transparency.

This inability to establish credibility with professionals in their 20s, 30s and even 40s is one of Papandreou’s biggest failures. While many of these voters seem to want to believe in him, they’re hearing little to convince them. Instead of being told about pay rises for civil servants, they’d like to know what Papandreou will do to ensure these bureaucrats are doing enough to earn their money in the first place. Instead of handouts for the poor, they would like to know what he will do to create more jobs.

Also, his tendency to revert to the kind of rhetoric more suited to his father, Andreas Papandreou, does nothing for his image as a progressive European or even – global – politician. His recent claim that a PASOK government would seek to buy back into the recently privatized Olympic Airlines – which successive governments have tried to get off their hands for the last two decades – was ridiculous posturing that will not fool the savvier voters. In fact, it will just make them fear more for the future.

Come October 4 though, many of them will vote for PASOK: not because they’ll have been dazzled by some Papandreou brilliance or enthused by an array of groundbreaking policies. No, they’ll vote for the center-left party, as it has succeeded in being the lesser of bad choices and because nestled in the back of their minds there is a small kernel of hope that Papandreou can be the kind of leader that his credentials merit.

There have not been many moments during his five-year presidency of PASOK that suggested Papandreou is up for the task. In fact, his inability to reform and establish absolute control over his own party indicates he’s hardly ready to run the country. Yet, this is where Greek voters find themselves after repeated disappointments: hoping beyond reason that there will be something in the box after all.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on September 18, 2009

Back to the future

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

“I want to talk about the future…you were the future, once,” the leader of Britain’s Conservative Party David Cameron told then Prime Minister Tony Blair in their first parliamentary clash four years ago.

The same could have been said of Alexis Tsipras, the leader of Synaspismos, the largest party in the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) ahead of Monday’s televised election debate.

When he was elected in February 2008 at the unusually young age of 33 (the average age of the other four main party leaders was 57), Tsipras represented the future and a break with a past that required politicians’ hairlines to recede before their careers could advance.

He also instilled hope that a dynamic third party could emerge to break the New Democracy-PASOK stronghold and put different issues, or at least alternative takes on existing topics, on the agenda.

The wind of optimism that swept across the barren plains of the Greek political landscape was evident in the opinion polls that followed. A month after Tsipras was voted in, support for SYRIZA had soared from around 5 percent in the September 2007 general election to 17 percent, mostly at the expense of an anemic PASOK.

However, Tsipras and his party handled their newfound popularity with immaturity and support for the leftists now stands at 4 percent – just above the threshold for entering Parliament.

The most obvious reason for the party’s demise is its equivocal stance on last December’s riots. Tsipras failed to draw a distinction between what was legitimate protest and downright thuggery. His attempt to refocus attention on Greece’s disaffected youth and the crumbling education system while Athens was burning exposed his lack of experience. His insistence on, in his own words, “taking the struggle to the schools” betrayed his naivety and irresponsibility.

Since then, his leadership has been beset by difficulties, not least a dramatic falling out with Alekos Alavanos, his predecessor. The pair have drifted apart on their vision for the party, whose poor showing in the June European elections led to a very public row between the two. Voters will never trust a party when the people running it don’t trust each other.

As a result, a coalition that seemed to have found its niche as the voice of conscience on social and economic issues has been replaced by a faction that flits about without any real purpose or clarity.

athensplus_tsiprasInstead of competing with ND and PASOK or even the Communist Party (KKE) on a national level, Tsipras and SYRIZA chose to focus on issues of narrow interest, such as the vehement opposition to the construction of a shopping mall in Votanikos. SYRIZA’s campaign brought plenty of headlines but it effectively turned a national party into nothing more than a residents’ association.

Yet, even at the tail end of this campaign, Tsipras seems to be rediscovering his momentum and may rescue his leadership. With Alavanos deciding to step aside completely, the party now has the chance to settle on the direction it wants to take. Tsipras certainly appeared unburdened in the leaders’ debate on Monday. He gave a relaxed and assured performance that had many commentators declaring him the winner.

The challenge Tsipras must meet now is to clearly position his party on the political landscape. If he needs any encouragement, he should look to the success of Die Linke, the anti-capitalist, pro-social justice party that is set to make a major impact on next week’s general election in Germany. Die Linke has been polling at about 14 percent and its radical approach has given voters a real alternative to the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), a junior partner in the “grand coalition” government.

“The success of Die Linke is a reflection of the programmatic and personnel weakness of the SPD,” Jens Bastian a senior research fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP) told Athens Plus. “The Social Democrats are too closely associated with the grand coalition of Chancellor Merkel. They have not succeeded in providing an independent, left-of-center profile for a social democratic alternative.

“Instead, many voters who would be inclined to vote for SPD, now say that they rather prefer the original, rank-and-file social democratic perspective. SYRIZA can and should position itself as the programmatic alternative to PASOK.”

Apart from being a vessel for disgruntled PASOK supporters, SYRIZA has to also position itself in relation to KKE as well. One of Die Linke’s successes has been attracting ex-communists from eastern Germany. With KKE likely to poll around 8 percent in Greece, SYRIZA should be looking to draw support from the communists.

SYRIZA also has to find an issue on which it will hold a much stronger position than the other parties. Die Linke, for instance, is the only German party strongly opposing the country’s presence in Afghanistan.

However, opposing things cannot be the only thing that defines SYRIZA. It also needs to open up to the possibility of cooperating with PASOK. Tsipras can no longer play the role of the insolent teenager who says “no” to everything.

“Die Linke has strategically placed the SPD in a bind because it is offering collaboration if the mathematics allow for it and the policies provide it,” says Bastian. “So far, it is the SPD that is refusing.

“In Greece, SYRIZA rather gives me the impression that cooperation with PASOK in parliament is out of the question. Why limit your options? Challenge your competitor.”

First though, Tsipras has to challenge himself. The election result on October 4 is likely to be a blow to him and SYRIZA but his appearance in Monday’s debate and its knock-on effect gives cause for the leftists to look forward, not back. It’s now up to Tsipras whether he lurks in the shadows of the past or strides into the future.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on September 25, 2009