Earlier this year, I landed in London a few hours before former Prime Minister Tony Blair was due to face the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War. It was the first opportunity the British people had to see Blair answering questions about his deeply unpopular decision to send British troops to Iraq since he stepped down from office some three years earlier. It had all the makings of a watershed moment for British democracy: a prime minister who was perceived as mendacious being brought to account by a team of experts. The reality, though, proved much less fulfilling.
Time did not stop for Londoners, apart perhaps for the few dozen protesters outside the hearing, brandishing their “Bliar” placards, and the families of British soldiers killed in Iraq who attended the sessions. In fact, most people went about their normal business. This sense of normality on what was in many ways a historic day suggested Britons had long ago accepted Blair went into Iraq for the wrong reasons and they had since moved on with their lives. For the rest, the hope of any politician — let alone one as skilled in the art of communication as Blair — being forced into a corner by an inquiry panel had long since passed.
As Andrew Rawnsley, a political commentator for the Observer weekly, wrote at the time: “There was never a chance that the former prime minister was going to break down in a blubbering confession to atrocious errors before handing himself over to the protesters outside who had mocked up a jail for him.” The British public, just like savvy voters in many other countries, had come to accept that inquiries may embarrass and inconvenience politicians and public officials but they rarely hold them to account for their acts. However independent the hearings may be – and in Greece they are not at all, since they are carried out by sitting MPs – they exist because a prime minister or a parliament has decided that they should. Those who work with or within the political system have many faults but biting off the hand that feeds them is rarely one of them.
That’s why it was such a surprise last week that the parliamentary committee investigating the Siemens cash-for-contracts scandal should actually produce an admission of guilt from a politician. Former Transport Minister Tasos Mantelis’s admission that he accepted bribes from Siemens Hellas prompted calls for former PASOK Prime Minister Costas Simitis, who appointed and worked with Mantelis, to appear before the same parliamentary committee to answer questions about what he knew of the shady deals being done by members of his government.
This bandwagon is being driven by New Democracy, which under its new leader, Antonis Samaras, senses an opportunity to publicly haul Simitis over the coals and to establish in the public’s mind that PASOK is a deeply corrupt party. It’s a perception that could serve him well at the next general election, whenever that may be. But PASOK is not going to sit idly by and let its former leader be the one to carry the blame for years of corruption, so it has begun pushing for ex-conservative Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis to face the committee of MPs investigating the real-estate swap between the state and the Vatopedi Monastery after testimony suggested that some of his closest aides had helped set up the allegedly corrupt deal.
Simitis’s response has been a flat rejection, claiming that his appearance before the panel without evidence linking him to any wrongdoing would simply reward and fuel baseless speculation. From Karamanlis’s side there has simply been what we’ve come to expect from the former ND leader, given the pattern of his five years in office: no response at all. They both risk embarrassment if they do appear before the committees. Simitis’s premiership, perhaps the most productive of Greece’s recent history, could be reduced to nothing more than a tawdry tale of under-the-table deals and broken promises. Karamanlis, for whom the public indignation is still fresh, is in jeopardy of confirming the suspicion that he was dwarfed by the size of his task and let Greece’s hopes burn while he fiddled.
They are both aware that there is nothing more the political system could do with now than two high-profile sacrificial lambs. It would give the public an opportunity to channel their anger and the current breed of politicians of all hues to claim they are the new broom sweeping away the dirt of the past. As British historian Tristram Hunt – who himself has gone into politics as a Labour MP – put it: “Ever since the scribes of the Renaissance branded the Middle Ages as the ‘Dark Ages,’ propagandists have deployed history to codify the future. You rubbish the past as a lost opportunity of waste, indecision and stupidity. And you celebrate the present as a blessed release from such hopelessness.”
As two of the many architects of Greece’s divisive and shambolic political system, Simitis and Karamanlis know full well what awaits them. Like the builders of a rickety summer house who have been invited for a weekend stay – they know that the knob will come off in their hand as soon as they open the door and that the whole structure will collapse on them within hours.
They clearly have a strong argument for not wanting to put themselves through this ordeal but the reasons for coming forward are even more powerful. Their refusal to attend the committee hearings would mean that Greece’s institutions are a sham and the political system is at a dead-end with little hope of finding a way out. The momentum for change has to come from somewhere and with the current government struggling to cope, it seems incapable of providing this forward movement. It’s an ideal opportunity for these two men – who led Greece for 13 years in total – to be in the vanguard of those dragging the country to more fertile pastures, rather than skulking at the back. It’s a chance for them to admit the mistakes of the past so they should not repeated in the future. It’s even a moment for them to stand up and defend themselves if necessary but it’s certainly not the time to dismiss Greece’s democracy and its institutions as tired and toothless.
Rawnsley wrote of Blair’s appearance at the Chilcot Inquiry: “This was certainly not Judgment Day. Tony Blair once said that he expected to have to answer to his Maker. Assuming they ever meet, perhaps he is right.” Simitis and Karamanlis are not likely to meet their Maker soon but they will encounter a lot of people who voted for them, which may prove a much scarier prospect, given the anger that’s fermenting among disillusioned Greeks. If they ever expect to be able to look these people in the eye rather than have to turn their backs to hails of abuse, then they must appear at the committee hearings. Unlike Blair, they do not have to protect powerful international allies or colleagues still serving in government. Simitis and Karamanlis are not bound by the constraints of a system that has now catapulted them to its fringes. They should, therefore, speak up and let the people judge.
This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and appeared in Athens Plus on June 5.