Tag Archives: Karamanlis

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.

The laws of politics

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Hard and fast rules rarely apply in the nebulous art of politics. That didn’t stop acclaimed British historian Robert Conquest from developing his “Three Laws of Politics.” His third rule states that: “The simplest way to explain the behavior of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.”

Given the schizophrenic nature of New Democracy’s reaction to its election defeat, this law clearly applies to political parties as well.

The last couple of weeks have seen the conservatives not so much “flip out” after their heavy loss to PASOK but “flip in” as they seek to blame each other for the rapid decline from government to opposition. First there was the beating at the ballot box, now we have the navel gazing in TV studios.

Conservatives have been parading across our screens claiming they know what went wrong, how it went wrong and what’s needed to put it right. Some say that repeated scandals were to blame, others the lack of coordination, some put the emphasis on last December’s riots, others point to the shrinking economy, some put it down to an absence of ideology, others to an absent leader.

All of these factors played some part in ND’s landslide defeat. The party’s declining opinion poll ratings can be traced back to September 2008, when rather than grab an opportunity at the Thessaloniki International Fair to admonish or banish officials linked to corrupt or unethical activities, Costas Karamanlis defended them.

The dying days of his government will forever be associated with the phrase uttered by ex-Merchant Marine Minister Giorgos Voulgarakis: “Whatever is legal is also ethical.” The Vatopedi Monastery land swap, the dodgy structured bonds and the questionable public sector apprenticeships all eroded the legs supporting the platform from where ND claimed the higher moral ground. Voulgarakis’s comment, and the behavior that accompanied it, sawed straight through the same rickety legs and precipitated the collapse.

There was also a lack of coordination within the government. It was obvious that after the long struggle to get into power, many of the conservatives who were appointed to government jettisoned the party apparatus that had helped them get elected in favor of creating their own fiefdoms. Within government, personal agendas soon replaced a common goal.

By the time that last December’s riots came around, New Democracy gave the impression of a government that did not have the stomach for a fight. Its abject capitulation in the face of both a physical and social challenge was confirmation to the outside world, not just Greeks, that things had begun to unravel.

Some billed the riots as the first popular revolt against the economic crisis. This theory is open to debate but what’s certain is that ND’s inability to harness the strength of the Greek economy, which had seen years of consecutive growth in previous years, created less visible but even more damaging disquiet among the middle and lower classes.

The lack of a coherent economic policy meant that ND spent its 5.5 years in power wavering between cozying up to the private sector and flirting with state intervention. This ambiguity was symptomatic of wider failure to develop an overarching ideology. The complications that can arise from not planting your beliefs in specific political territory are tackled in Conquest’s second law of politics: “Any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing.”

New Democracy could by no means be described as a right-wing party even though that’s where its historical roots lay. Its rise to power was based not on a bold philosophy but on a promise to do things differently than PASOK. This was not enough to hold the party together and as time went by, the dissenting voices within the conservative ranks grew.

ATHENS10That’s why it relied so much on the profile and stubbornly high ratings of its leader Costas Karamanlis. But Karamanlis’s strengths – his broad appeal, his seriousness, his ability to carry a crowd – were soon overtaken by debilitating weaknesses: an inability to convince right-wing voters, a failure to stay on top of his ministers and an indecisiveness that let opportunities for change slip away.

Karamanlis has accepted his part in New Democracy’s downfall but even this has not dispelled the impression that, like most Greeks who have taken over a family business, his motivation was never particularly high to start with and began to dissipate once he realized he was out of his depth.

The four candidates vying for his position – Dora Bakoyannis, Antonis Samaras, Dimitris Avramopoulos and Panayiotis Psomiadis – are attempting to offer something different. But they all join the race handicapped by some inherent weaknesses that make them far from ideal candidates. Bakoyannis is burdened by the ill feeling within some sections of the party that has festered since her father Constantine Mitsotakis was ND president; Samaras too has enemies in ND because of his acrimonious falling out with Mitsotakis; Avramopoulos plays on his popular appeal but struggles to convince that there is any gravitas behind his aviator sunglasses; Psomiadis joined the election contest as an apparent stalking horse candidate but instead is playing the role of crazy horse, chief of the forgotten northern tribe.

The bitter truth for New Democracy is that its salvation does not lie just in electing a new leader. Nor will the reason for the party’s defeat be found in a catalogue of errors and a long list of badly handled situations. Three weeks after their crushing defeat, the conservatives have failed to realize what triggered their capitulation.

Conquest’s first law of politics points to the answer. “Everyone is conservative about what he knows best,” claimed the historian. But New Democracy was conservative without knowing best. In fact, the crux of its problem and the root cause of its demise is that it was not sure of anything at all. As a government, it did not pin down the key problems that troubled Greece nor did it come up with any convincing way of dealing with them.

Today, it’s difficult to identify a sector where substantial progress has been made since 2004: the economy, public service, education, health, foreign policy, the environment, public order and justice all appear to be at a standstill at best.

In power, and now in opposition, ND has consistently failed to realize that governments around the world are elected first and foremost to identify problems and to find solutions to them. It’s perhaps the only hard and fast rule in politics and in more than five years, New Democracy failed to follow it. If it continues to do so, it may as well get a cabal of its enemies to run the party – unless they are too busy running the country properly.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on October 23, 2009

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

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