Tag Archives: Greece transparency

Touched by greatness

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

“Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Former Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis does not fall into any of the categories described by Malvolio, a character from William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”. Greatness eluded Karamanlis during the five-and-a-half years he spent managing the country but just two months after voters shunted him aside, his seemingly suicidal decision to call elections on October 4 is now beginning to look like it was inspired.

“Twelfth Night” was designed to be performed at the end of the Christmas season and as this year draws to a close, looking back on the events that played out on Greece’s small but always entertaining stage, one can see similarities between Karamanlis and Malvolio. The Shakespearian steward initially displays a puritanical bent, just as Karamanlis vowed to tackle corruption and implored his deputies to be “meek and humble,” but actually spends his free time fantasizing about lounging in a velvet gown — Karamanlis was accused of lacking gumption.

However, there was no velvet draped around Karamanlis’s shoulders last week when he took his seat on the New Democracy backbenches to hear his successor, Antonis Samaras, address conservative MPs for the first time as leader. In fact, the look on Karamanlis’s face was not one of forlornness for missed opportunities but one of contempt for those who undermined him and pity for those who’ve inherited the problems he could never tackle.

Even a cursory glance at the messy situations Samaras and Prime Minister George Papandreou have to deal with suggest Karamanlis was not the fool many took him for. Instead, it seems he’s handed over the reigns of two rickety wagons – Greece and New Democracy – just in time to avoid being the one responsible for riding them off the cliff.

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said that hindsight is useful for historians but is “sadly denied to practicing politicians.” Foresight, however, is not — it’s a quality that only the politicians with true greatness are able to call upon. With each passing day, it seems that Karamanlis, albeit momentarily, was blessed with it.

Samaras is still beaming after beating the odds and taking control of ND but, in reality, he has taken over a party that’s just an empty shell. The way that the conservatives imploded after they were pulverized at the polls proved how split the center-right party is. A loose thread holds together a collection of traditional right-wingers, nationalists, fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, free marketers, Christian democrats, capitalists with friendly faces, populists and confused leftists who’ve wandered into the wrong political pen.

Karamanlis recognized this when he took over the party. Rather than rely on a pompous, impenetrable ideology to rally ND, he simply set out one condition: “We’re going to be more honest than the other guys.” It was a wafer-thin platform on which to position a whole party but, for a while, it worked. It stopped working when it became clear that ND governments were just as weak in the face of corruption as the ones that had gone before and when the absence of real policies was exposed. The luster of power faded, unity was lost and the conservatives began to fall apart.

Samaras has put his faith in ideology, believing that a party which leans more to the right and which espouses conservative values can be cohesive. The fact that almost 40 percent of some 800,000 ND supporters who voted in the leadership election backed his bitter rival Dora Bakoyannis and that there’s a stigma attached to right-wing ideas among the broader electorate means that Samaras faces a huge task in turning ND around.

His challenge, however, pales into insignificance compared to the difficulty of the mission Papandreou must undertake. Here, again, it seems Karamanlis has stepped out of the firing line at the right time. The logic behind his decision to call snap general elections on October 4 had appeared fuzzy — ND was sinking lower in the opinion polls, had just suffered a defeat in the Euroelections and didn’t have a coherent policy to present to the Greek people.

What Karamanlis knew then, and we know now, was that even though it didn’t seem possible, things were about to get worse, much worse. Rather than hang around and have to manage an economic crisis of mind-boggling proportions, Karamanlis decided that beating a disorderly retreat would be the better option.

Looking back on it now, the election debates between Karamanlis and Papandreou were reminiscent of a parent trying to warn his child about the dangers of driving a temperamental car. Karamanlis’s questions to the PASOK leader about how he would find the money to fix the economy and what tough measures he was prepared to take were not just enquiries meant to score points, they were warnings. He was advising the would-be prime minister to start thinking up some solutions quickly.

Karamanlis knew he didn’t have the answers, just as he was aware the country’s deficit was large enough to sail an aircraft carrier through and Greece was running up a debt faster than a gambler with a stolen credit card. Although nobody was willing to publicly admit the extent of the problem at the time, it has since become clear that Papandreou was also, to a great extent, aware of its terrifying scale. He chose to look away and keep his fingers crossed.

The outgoing prime minister knew the public would not countenance any belt-tightening from his failed government. He also knew he would be setting PASOK up for a fall by allowing it back into power just as it was becoming necessary to adopt emergency measures, such as wage cuts and tax rises that go against every socialist sinew in the party. Predictably, the socialist government has displayed a split personality over the last two months, as it promises tough measures in Brussels but then waters them down in Athens, where the old-school apparatchiks still wield influence.

All this is now someone else’s problem, not Karamanlis’s. He can now sink into the comfortable obscurity of Parliament’s backbenches, from where, like Malvolio at the end of “Twelfth Night,” he might be tempted to turn to his critics and tormentors and cry out: “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you.” It would be his greatest moment.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on December 24, 2009.

Heads up!

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Perhaps the only surprise when a statuette of a cathedral struck Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on the side of the face on Sunday was that the man who launched it into the crisp Milan air had a history of mental problems and was not one of the millions of perfectly sane Italians who detest their premier.

Few democratic leaders have bred such strong contempt in a large section of their population as Berlusconi has in Italy. A banner at a protest against the Iraq War in Rome in 2003 was indicative of the hatred that has burned for the media-mogul-turned-politician throughout this decade: “Iraq, we’ll have Saddam if you take Berlusconi,” it read.

The physical attack on the 73-year-old prime minister resulted in a few scars that a bit more plastic surgery can fix but it also symbolized the dead-end to which this incessant rage against him has led. Despite opportunities to provide a credible alternative to his governments, the country’s center-left has failed to find the answers to Italy’s problems, many of which are similar to those of Greece, such as the need for widespread structural reforms. Despite the poor state of the economy, his embroilment with more women of questionable repute than Hugh Hefner and accusations of numerous corruption scandals, Berlusconi’s popularity rating remains just above 50 percent and many experts are predicting that sympathy after Sunday’s attack will help it to rise.

Although Italy is no stranger to violence being inflicted on its politicians, it has worked hard to eradicate this element from the country’s political life – the last assassination of a senior politician was in 1978. Berlusconi’s opponents are now caught between a rock and a hard alabaster souvenir as they have to continue chipping away at his surgically enhanced facade without letting their efforts be driven just by hate.

“This clearly shows the degradation of the political clash in Italy,” said Ezio Mauro, editor-in-chief of Rome’s La Repubblica, of Sunday’s attack on Berlusconi. The daily newspaper has been one of the few media outlets critical of the prime minister’s tenure in office. And herein lies the problem for Berlusconi’s opponents: His iron grip on the media hardly allows them the chance to get a word in.

The premier owns the largest Italian publishing house, Mondadori, and three private Mediaset TV channels. He also exercises influence over state TV Rai as most of the broadcaster’s executives are political appointees – the 73-year-old has actually said that it is “unacceptable” for Rai to criticize the government. All this has resulted in the independent watchdog Freedom House ranking Italy 73rd for press freedom along with Tonga (Greece is ranked 63rd) out of 195 countries worldwide.

Although Berlusconi’s colorful antics sometimes make him appear like the villain in an Austin Powers movie (Dr Feelgood perhaps), his supremacy is very real in Italy and absolutely relevant beyond the country’s borders.

A mere glance around the world confirms that the dividing lines between the media and politics are becoming increasingly blurred. While Berlusconi was getting whacked in the face, center-right candidate Sebastian Pinera was winning the first round of Chile’s presidential election. Pinera is a successful businessman who owns Chile’s fourth most popular TV channel, Chilevision, which serves up a visual diet of mostly gossip shows, soap operas and news. In Britain, the Conservative Party has come under attack for an alleged secret agreement it has struck with The Sun newspaper, the UK’s most-read daily. In return for the paper’s support in the runup to next year’s general election, the Conservatives have allegedly agreed to reduce state funding for the BBC and slash regulation of private broadcasters.

In Greece, the bonds between the media and the people who run the country are there for all to see – literally – as they have often resulted in the awarding of public works contracts. Now, Prime Minister George Papandreou says he wants the two sides to stand further apart and for there to be more transparency in their dealings.

During his time in opposition as PASOK leader, he often resisted pressure from the media until opinion polls began to swing in his favor and those that had wanted to hand the reins of the party over to someone else wasted no time in jumping on the Papandreou bandwagon. But showing the same fortitude in government will be a different story, especially when events take a turn for the worse and the last thing he’ll need is extra pressure from newspapers and TV channels.

As such, it was interesting to note that the issue of media influence was not among the topics discussed at a groundbreaking meeting on corruption and transparency between parliamentary party leaders on Tuesday. Perhaps it was just an oversight – for Greece’s sake, we should hope so because, as Berlusconi has shown in Italy, when the media and the political system fuse into one, it results in something more painful for the country than just a bloody nose.

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