Tag Archives: Malkoutzis

What’s in the box?


Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

“Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get,” according to Forrest Gump. That doesn’t seem to be the case if you’re a voter in Greece, where you pretty much know what you’re going to get: an empty box.

There have been few election campaigns in this country’s history infused with such pessimism as the current one. Surveys repeatedly show not only exasperation with the New Democracy government but a significant lack of faith that PASOK will do a better job.

In its opinion poll for Kathimerini, for instance, Public Issue found that close to half of voters believe that neither ND nor PASOK will be able to govern the country well. The same survey indicated that seven in 10 voters believe the last five years of conservative rule have been a failure. But despite this soaring rate of disapproval for New Democracy, PASOK still doesn’t have the level of support that would secure it a comfortable majority in Parliament.

Speak about the elections to any young professional – the people that will have to live with the consequences of this and the next government’s decisions – and you’re likely to get the similar frustrated response: New Democracy has lost their trust but PASOK has not done enough to gain it.

This has created a state of confusion that neither leader has helped clear up. On the one hand, voters are faced with doe-eyed optimist George Papandreou and, on the other, washed up pessimist Costas Karamanlis – when all they’re looking for is a capable realist.

Karamanlis now stands a shell of his former self before these younger voters. He once represented the friendly face of conservatism, embodying a desire to stamp out corruption, slash red tape and help the little guy, not just big business. But now his government has hit a brick wall, his party is turning in on itself and he’s lost his vision for Greece.

In 1983, when Britain’s Labour Party produced ahead of the national elections a left-wing manifesto that was completely out of touch with reality, one of its own members called it: “The longest suicide note in history.” At the start of this very short election campaign, Karamanlis has failed to come up with a clear set of ideas for getting Greece out of its rut. He’s not so much submitted a suicide note but a blank page; a portent that this government is about to suffer a painful demise.

Athens Plus GumpIn his interview with Sunday’s Kathimerini, Karamanlis had little new to offer except for proposals to create some extra ministries. His speeches have all revolved around one theme: New Democracy will make the tough decisions, whereas PASOK will take the easy road. But few are convinced by this argument, because since being elected in March 2004, Karamanlis has consistently avoided the tough calls. The number of people willing to trust him to get it right the third time around appears to be dwindling by the day.

That’s not to say that his criticism of PASOK is not valid. Papandreou has not presented a real alternative vision for Greece. Instead he’s been content to pick a few policies, such as pay rises for public servants and cash bonuses for the poor, that he knows will sound good in the current climate but won’t shackle him for the long term.

It’s all part of a wider policy by the Socialists to commit to as little as possible while they wait for New Democracy to lose these elections. But this is a path ridden with pitfalls. If PASOK wins on October 4, it will have some very real and very big problems, not least the economic ones, to deal with. Not coming up with some kind of overall strategy or explaining where it will get the money from is not only irresponsible but immediately creates a relationship with the electorate that is based on dishonesty – or at least a lack of transparency.

This inability to establish credibility with professionals in their 20s, 30s and even 40s is one of Papandreou’s biggest failures. While many of these voters seem to want to believe in him, they’re hearing little to convince them. Instead of being told about pay rises for civil servants, they’d like to know what Papandreou will do to ensure these bureaucrats are doing enough to earn their money in the first place. Instead of handouts for the poor, they would like to know what he will do to create more jobs.

Also, his tendency to revert to the kind of rhetoric more suited to his father, Andreas Papandreou, does nothing for his image as a progressive European or even – global – politician. His recent claim that a PASOK government would seek to buy back into the recently privatized Olympic Airlines – which successive governments have tried to get off their hands for the last two decades – was ridiculous posturing that will not fool the savvier voters. In fact, it will just make them fear more for the future.

Come October 4 though, many of them will vote for PASOK: not because they’ll have been dazzled by some Papandreou brilliance or enthused by an array of groundbreaking policies. No, they’ll vote for the center-left party, as it has succeeded in being the lesser of bad choices and because nestled in the back of their minds there is a small kernel of hope that Papandreou can be the kind of leader that his credentials merit.

There have not been many moments during his five-year presidency of PASOK that suggested Papandreou is up for the task. In fact, his inability to reform and establish absolute control over his own party indicates he’s hardly ready to run the country. Yet, this is where Greek voters find themselves after repeated disappointments: hoping beyond reason that there will be something in the box after all.

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

Back to the future

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

“I want to talk about the future…you were the future, once,” the leader of Britain’s Conservative Party David Cameron told then Prime Minister Tony Blair in their first parliamentary clash four years ago.

The same could have been said of Alexis Tsipras, the leader of Synaspismos, the largest party in the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) ahead of Monday’s televised election debate.

When he was elected in February 2008 at the unusually young age of 33 (the average age of the other four main party leaders was 57), Tsipras represented the future and a break with a past that required politicians’ hairlines to recede before their careers could advance.

He also instilled hope that a dynamic third party could emerge to break the New Democracy-PASOK stronghold and put different issues, or at least alternative takes on existing topics, on the agenda.

The wind of optimism that swept across the barren plains of the Greek political landscape was evident in the opinion polls that followed. A month after Tsipras was voted in, support for SYRIZA had soared from around 5 percent in the September 2007 general election to 17 percent, mostly at the expense of an anemic PASOK.

However, Tsipras and his party handled their newfound popularity with immaturity and support for the leftists now stands at 4 percent – just above the threshold for entering Parliament.

The most obvious reason for the party’s demise is its equivocal stance on last December’s riots. Tsipras failed to draw a distinction between what was legitimate protest and downright thuggery. His attempt to refocus attention on Greece’s disaffected youth and the crumbling education system while Athens was burning exposed his lack of experience. His insistence on, in his own words, “taking the struggle to the schools” betrayed his naivety and irresponsibility.

Since then, his leadership has been beset by difficulties, not least a dramatic falling out with Alekos Alavanos, his predecessor. The pair have drifted apart on their vision for the party, whose poor showing in the June European elections led to a very public row between the two. Voters will never trust a party when the people running it don’t trust each other.

As a result, a coalition that seemed to have found its niche as the voice of conscience on social and economic issues has been replaced by a faction that flits about without any real purpose or clarity.

athensplus_tsiprasInstead of competing with ND and PASOK or even the Communist Party (KKE) on a national level, Tsipras and SYRIZA chose to focus on issues of narrow interest, such as the vehement opposition to the construction of a shopping mall in Votanikos. SYRIZA’s campaign brought plenty of headlines but it effectively turned a national party into nothing more than a residents’ association.

Yet, even at the tail end of this campaign, Tsipras seems to be rediscovering his momentum and may rescue his leadership. With Alavanos deciding to step aside completely, the party now has the chance to settle on the direction it wants to take. Tsipras certainly appeared unburdened in the leaders’ debate on Monday. He gave a relaxed and assured performance that had many commentators declaring him the winner.

The challenge Tsipras must meet now is to clearly position his party on the political landscape. If he needs any encouragement, he should look to the success of Die Linke, the anti-capitalist, pro-social justice party that is set to make a major impact on next week’s general election in Germany. Die Linke has been polling at about 14 percent and its radical approach has given voters a real alternative to the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), a junior partner in the “grand coalition” government.

“The success of Die Linke is a reflection of the programmatic and personnel weakness of the SPD,” Jens Bastian a senior research fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP) told Athens Plus. “The Social Democrats are too closely associated with the grand coalition of Chancellor Merkel. They have not succeeded in providing an independent, left-of-center profile for a social democratic alternative.

“Instead, many voters who would be inclined to vote for SPD, now say that they rather prefer the original, rank-and-file social democratic perspective. SYRIZA can and should position itself as the programmatic alternative to PASOK.”

Apart from being a vessel for disgruntled PASOK supporters, SYRIZA has to also position itself in relation to KKE as well. One of Die Linke’s successes has been attracting ex-communists from eastern Germany. With KKE likely to poll around 8 percent in Greece, SYRIZA should be looking to draw support from the communists.

SYRIZA also has to find an issue on which it will hold a much stronger position than the other parties. Die Linke, for instance, is the only German party strongly opposing the country’s presence in Afghanistan.

However, opposing things cannot be the only thing that defines SYRIZA. It also needs to open up to the possibility of cooperating with PASOK. Tsipras can no longer play the role of the insolent teenager who says “no” to everything.

“Die Linke has strategically placed the SPD in a bind because it is offering collaboration if the mathematics allow for it and the policies provide it,” says Bastian. “So far, it is the SPD that is refusing.

“In Greece, SYRIZA rather gives me the impression that cooperation with PASOK in parliament is out of the question. Why limit your options? Challenge your competitor.”

First though, Tsipras has to challenge himself. The election result on October 4 is likely to be a blow to him and SYRIZA but his appearance in Monday’s debate and its knock-on effect gives cause for the leftists to look forward, not back. It’s now up to Tsipras whether he lurks in the shadows of the past or strides into the future.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on September 25, 2009

On the road

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

There’s a line of graffiti on a bridge on the Thessaloniki ring road that reads: “New Democracy, Kazantzidis, Christ.” Are they the words of a slightly unhinged conservative supporter or an inspired triptych to lead Greece into better days?

Maybe they’re meant to galvanize Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis ahead of his crucial speech at the Thessloniki International Fair on Saturday. If he remembers what New Democracy was meant to stand for when it came to power in 2004, combines it with the stoicism of Greek singer Stelios Kazantzidis, who sang of pain and hardship, and then seeks some divine intervention, Karamanlis may have a chance of halting his government’s seemingly inevitable slide into obscurity.

For the premier to see this slogan, he would have to drive to Thessaloniki. Instead, he will fly here. It’s a shame, as a drive from Athens to Thessaloniki would have given the prime minister a chance to reflect on where his government has gone wrong in the 5.5 years it has been in power. If he’s to have any chance of staging a remarkable comeback at the next general election, then acknowledging his failings, and those of the people around him, is the minimum necessary.

A drive through Attica, for instance, would be an ideal opportunity to think about how issues such as immigration and waste management have been ignored and are now blighting Greece’s capital. Equally, the inability to protect the city’s dwindling greenery, allowing on its watch thousands of hectares of forest to be destroyed more than once is a blot on the conservatives’ record.

The apparent determination of Public Works Minister Giorgos Siouflias to concrete over much of Attica has strengthened people’s suspicions that the conservatives see the environment something to overcome rather than to protect. Souflias’s announcement this week of a project to build some 80 kilometers of new roads in Attica, just a week after 20,000 hectares of land in the Athens basin were burned to a cinder was crass and gave the impression of a government that’s unresponsive to events.

Heading north out of Attica and into Viotia, Karamanlis will able to ponder further evidence of Greece’s shocking environmental record. Despite countless court decisions, official investigations and prods from the European Union, the Asopos River remains contaminated with poisonous chemicals that seem to be leading to more cases of cancer in the area. Like previous governments, New Democracy has only paid lip service to the idea of cleaning up the river and punishing those that have polluted it.

AthensPlus_Karamanlis_ThessalonikiInstead, it has focused its efforts on a grand and costly scheme to divert the Acheloos River from western Greece to the farming plains of Thessaly, which Karamanlis would pass next on his journey north. It’s a project that only has the support of the farmers in central Greece, a part of the world that Souflias, the minister driving this scheme, hails from.

This government’s inability to reform in any way the country’s agricultural sector and instead, like PASOK did for so many years, to give in to one demand after another simply to buy time and votes is another heavy burden New Democracy must carry into the next elections. It’s something that Karamanlis would be able to think about while passing through the Vale of Tempe, where just this Monday livestock farmers closed the national road to make their demands known and, with alarming speed, have them met by an administration has shied away from necessary confrontation.

This stretch of road is also where in April 2003, 21 schoolchildren were killed in a coach crash. As he passes the small monument erected by the side of the road in their memory, the prime minister could reflect on the fact that were they alive, these children would now be headed for university. But the passing of watered-down education reforms and the lack of conviction to stand by any of the changes the conservatives had envisaged for secondary and tertiary education means that universities are still places of frustration and wasted talent as much as they are of teaching and learning.

And so, Karamanlis would arrive in Thessaloniki, where locals, like in many parts of Greece, will complain that the government has overlooked them when it comes to developing infrastructure and creating jobs. A glimpse of the construction of the northern city’s metro system after years of delays and false starts might raise Karamanlis’s spirits but his constituency is here, he will be aware that this alone will not transform Thessaloniki.

As he passes the picturesque headquarters of the local prefecture, the prime minister might reflect on the fact that his party’s most prominent representative in the northern city, the quick witted, media hungry but devoid of substance Prefect Panayiotis Psomiadis, is the type of politician that New Democracy and Greece could do without. Karamanlis’s inability to attract more capable people into his government may be something that he will soon regret.

To reach Thessaloniki, Karamanlis would have traveled on an ever expanding network of national roads. He could perhaps reflect with some pride on the grand public works projects taking place the length of the country. Maybe this is evidence of the progressive Greece, the country that is resistant to economic downturns, impervious to naysayers and blessed with professionals that can get the job done. But then maybe he will reflect again and wonder whether, with the clock ticking on his government’s time in office, a series of construction projects overseen by Souflias is the legacy that New Democracy wants to leave behind.

Unless, the prime minister can come up with some new and convincing ideas very quickly, he will only have kilometer after kilometer of smooth asphalt to look upon as one of his government’s few achievements in more than half a decade of running this country.

Maybe he would be better off flying to Thessaloniki after all.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on September 4, 2009.