Tag Archives: Fotis Kouvelis

Coalition unwound

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis for Cartoon Movement http://www.cartoonmovement.com/p/6035

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis for Cartoon Movement http://www.cartoonmovement.com/p/6035

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras marked one year in the job on Friday by becoming the leader of what was effectively Greece’s fifth government in four years after Democratic Left’s decision to drop out of the coalition left his New Democracy party and PASOK as the two that remained from a previous partnership of three. The dire economic situation, the pressure of its lenders and the historical absence of consensus politics in Greece meant it was always going to be a challenging job. Samaras enters the second year of his premiership on an equally shaky footing.

Democratic Left’s departure had been in the making for some time. The three parties that formed the coalition in June 2012 did so knowing that Greece had been balancing on the precipice but their intention of moving the country to safer ground soon lost its potential to drive this three-wheeled vehicle on. Beyond securing Greece’s place in the euro and rebuilding trust with the skeptical troika, there was no grand, or even less pronounced, vision to spur the coalition’s efforts. As the drachma risk faded and lenders were placated, so the three-party government’s raison d’etre dissolved. It was replaced by friction fuelled by each party’s desire to stake its claim to any positive development and distance itself from anything negative. As the stardust was blown away, the political and ideological splits were revealed.

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ERT: From test card to test case for Greece

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis http://www.cartoonmovement.com/p/6035

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis http://www.cartoonmovement.com/p/6035

Having ploughed on through a number of sticky patches over the last 12 months, it would be more than careless of Greece’s coalition government to sink into the mire due to differences over how to deal with public broadcaster ERT. Yet, a year on from when a second election in June led to the formation of the three-party administration, its future seems less secure than ever.

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’s decision to announce on Tuesday the immediate closure of the state TV and radio service left his coalition partners, Evangelos Venizelos of PASOK and Fotis Kouvelis of Democratic Left, apoplectic and demanding a meeting, which will take place on Monday and could put the administration at risk if a compromise is not found. They had not consented to this move and there had been no debate about it in Parliament. A legislative act was signed only by the ministers from Samaras’s conservative New Democracy party and, after 75 years, the broadcaster went silent.

The problem for Samaras is that the backlash to his decision was rather noisy. ERT employees refused to comply with orders to abandon their posts and continued to broadcast with the help of volunteers who got the broadcaster’s main TV news channel, NET, back on air. Thousands of people gathered outside the service’s headquarters in northeastern Athens and opposition parties condemned the decision. Criticism soon began arriving from journalism federations outside Greece. The European Broadcasting Union (EBU) also labelled the shutdown “a damning first in the history of European Broadcasting.” In a letter to Samaras, 50 director generals of Europe’s public broadcasters said his action was “undemocratic and unprofessional”.

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PASOK’s road of returnism

pasok_aloneMore interested in reaching a “new settlement” with the European Union than ancient Greece, British Prime Minister David Cameron on Thursday defended his belief that the Parthenon Marbles should not be returned to Athens, saying he does not subscribe to the idea of “returnism”. At PASOK headquarters, though, they have no reservations about returnism.

The return of four Socialist deputies who quit the party following a tense parliamentary vote in November to approve a new package of austerity measures and reforms that secured Greece’s latest loan tranche was confirmed on Thursday. The four – Costas Skandalidis, Angela Gerekou, Michalis Kassis and Yiannis Koutsoukos – failed to support the package and lost their place in PASOK’s parliamentary group.

Welcoming them back on Thursday, PASOK leader Evangelos Venizelos said that their time away from the fold was “part of the cost” the party had to pay for Greece getting its December loan installments and apparently reducing drastically the threat of a eurozone exit.

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Straight lines are useful sometimes

If the new Greek government is attempting to bamboozle the country’s lenders into submission with its tactical meandering, who knows, it might have struck on a great idea. If it’s trying to convince the Greek people it’s capable of dealing with the economic crisis, then performing more sudden turns than Fernando Alonso going through the Monaco chicanes is just not going to cut it.

Within a week, the three parties who campaigned on a pre-election platform of renegotiation, renegotiation, renegotiation suddenly decided that the bailout terms are fine as they are for now. Then, they changed their minds again and decided it would be best to bring up the issue of changes to the loan deal in talks with the troika later this month.

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras caused consternation last week when they suggested there would be no Greek bid to renegotiate the bailout, without making it clear whether this meant abandoning efforts or simply putting them off. There is logic to the strategy of putting aside the renegotiation issue in the sense that the coalition government can draw a line under what has happened in the past, express its commitment to meeting fiscal and reform targets and allow a little time for trust with its lenders to be restored and goodwill credits that could be subsequently cashed in to be amassed.

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A poster moment for Greek politics

Ten tons of illegal election campaign posters were taken down in Athens over the past few days. The political scrap-heap is full, for now.

Having been sworn in as Greece’s new prime minister on Wednesday, Antonis Samaras will hope that this will be his moment of redemption. From rising star to rebel and them from outcast to unlikely unifier, Samaras has covered the whole gamut of political roles. Now, he must fulfill the biggest of them all, at the most crucial of times.

With him in charge, New Democracy veered all over the place like a driver nodding off at the steering wheel. He also managed the unique feat of alienating the party’s middle-ground voters while also losing support to the right. It’s safe to say that Samaras will have to up his game as prime minister.

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Hard choices for the hard left

Much has been made recently of the rise of the so-called “hard left” in Greek politics. The most recent poll by Public Issue for Kathimerini newspaper put the combined support for the three leftist parties at 42.5 percent. This is indeed impressive. It’s indicative of the growing resentment at the successive waves of austerity that have left most Greeks foundering, and of the hapless handling of an admittedly complicated situation by the government.

What it does not herald, though (at least for now), is a united front against the EU-IMF loan agreement, or memorandum. The Communist Party (KKE) will not cooperate with any of the other parties and whether it receives 8, 12 or 20 percent of the vote is almost irrelevant. Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) leader Alexis Tsipras has made some less-than-vigorous attempts to bridge the gaps between the three but his efforts appear dead in the water.

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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.