Tag Archives: Greek elections 2009

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.

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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

If

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

The word “if” is only made up of two letters but it’s a big word in politics, perhaps the biggest. It can make careers but can also break them. “If” precedes many promises but also accompanies excuses when pledges are not met. “If” is the word on voters’ minds when they ignore their better judgement to put their faith in some politicians.

“If” is what dumped Costas Karamanlis so unceremoniously on his backside. If he’d woken up to reality sooner, if he’d pushed his ministers harder, if he’d committed to his policies and if he’d been bolder, he would still be leading the nation rather than fathering New Democracy’s crushing defeat.

“If” has been a powerful ally in George Papandreou’s ascent to power: If he really means what he says, if he can fulfill his potential, if he can put his experience to good use and if he can do things differently, then he’s the right man for the job. Based on these “ifs,” more people than expected bought into the idea of an economy that could be revived, of jobs that could be created, of an environment that could be saved and of a country that could be respected.

Knocking the economy into shape, sorting out the education system, setting up a proper immigration policy, making the health service efficient and doing all the other things on Papandreou’s list will require a superhuman effort. For now, at least, there’s optimism that beneath his cape he has some secret powers, which will be revealed in due course.

These powers, though, will be tested most not by formulating policies or overseeing their implementation but by something that cannot be measured in euros or percentage points: The greatest task that Papandreou faces is reviving the nation’s spirit.

He inherits a country that’s in a recession. But its people are in a state of depression. Shorn of any great hope, without a vision for the future, lacking faith in the country’s institutions and having lost their moral compass, Greeks appear to be ambling aimlessly through the 21st century. If Papandreou’s premiership is to be a success, he will have to reverse this mood.

Somewhere beneath the cynicism, the indifference and the weariness is a flame that is waiting to be rekindled. It’s what author Primo Levi identified in Italy more than 20 years ago and bears a remarkable resemblance to Greece today.

“It often happens these days that you hear people say they’re ashamed of being Italian,” he wrote. “In fact, we have good reason to be ashamed: first and foremost, of not being able to produce a political class that represents us and, on the contrary, tolerating for 30 years one that does not. On the other hand, we have virtues of which we are unaware, and we do not realize how rare they are in Europe and the World.”

If Papandreou succeeds in pinpointing the rare virtues that Greeks possess, he must then bring them to the fore. It’s his task to ensure this country values and nurtures the public official who helps citizens, not himself; the businessman who does things by the book, not the one who cooks his books; the developer who plays by the rules, not the one who bends them and the student who wants more, not the one who settles for less.

With such a long line of “ifs” to confront, Papandreou will need some guidance. Maybe he should start by reading Rudyard Kipling’s poem: If prime minister you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you. If you can trust yourself when your colleagues doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too; If you can fill the unforgiving four-year term with 48 months worth of work done, yours is Greece and everything that’s in it.

As the poet said, if.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on October 9, 2009