Tag Archives: Papandreou

A sum of parts

Ilustration by Manos Symeonakis

“The antidote for 50 enemies is one friend,” Aristotle said and goodness knows how Greece could use that friend right now, as it stares at those disgruntled European faces across the table.

The closest it has come to finding a friend among them is French President Nicolas Sarkozy. The warm embrace he offered Prime Minister George Papandreou in front of the cameras in the Paris drizzle last week was symbolic. He was telling the other Europeans it was time to close ranks around Greece and protect it from itself and, more pressingly, from the destructive nature of international speculators. Sarkozy also reportedly contacted German Chancellor Angela Merkel before the Brussels summit to discuss the possibility of offering Greece concrete assistance.

It’s not the first time that Sarkozy has come through for Greece. At the NATO summit in Bucharest in 2008, he rallied the other major powers to prevent the Former Yugoslavia Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) joining the alliance due to its failure to resolve its name dispute with Greece. The same year, Sarkozy visited Greece, the country from which his maternal grandfather – a Jew from Thessaloniki – emigrated. He became one of only a handful of foreigners to address the Greek Parliament, giving a speech that drew its inspiration from the decades-old slogan of “Greece-France-alliance” but which also contained moving references to his grandfather.

Many Greeks believe their country is worthy of this form of personal relationship with other EU countries. They pine for a union in which their northern neighbors are not obsessed with numbers but show understanding for their often erratic behavior. Greeks would like their European partners to display respect for the country’s history and traditions – we may be crafty devils now but we were once philosophers and poets and our continental cousins should not forget that.

What the last couple of weeks have shown, though, is that in times of crisis, there is little room for personal sentiment. Greece has broken the rules and for all its insignificance on Europe’s economic map, its irresponsibility is threatening to blow the whole show sky high. Ancient gods will not save Greece and the EU now, only some very contemporary fiscal belt-tightening and possibly even financial aid can rescue the situation.

Yet, for all the numbers, indices and percentages that govern Greece’s current relationship with the EU and the European Commission, the country’s headlong plunge into fiscal crisis also poses some profound questions about the Union’s future. While Greeks may deserve to be castigated for their mendacity and incompetence, there is a point at which the EU must decide how to support Greece, unless the very unity and stability of the bloc is not to be put at risk. An unprecedented set of events have brought the EU face-to-face with a dilemma that will define the nature of the Union itself. France’s former Culture Minister and another long-time friend of Greece, Jack Lang, suggested as much last week: “Europeans have a unique opportunity to prove the deeper meaning behind the European Union,” he said. “For our love of Greece, out of our respect for Greek civilization but for Europe itself, we have to act.”

The immediate question for the EU is what form this action should take. For the time being, the eurozone countries have settled for declaring political support for Greece while asking the PASOK government to adopt austerity measures. Both are designed to deter hedge funds and other speculators while bringing the Greek economy within the euro’s deficit and debt boundaries. “This is the worst imaginable punishment for a nation but it is also a consequence of being a member of the European community,” wrote the Suddeutsche Zeitung daily in Germany. “It is only in times of crisis that you see what a system is capable of.”

Also in times of crisis, those who support bold action are usually in a minority: an Emnid poll indicated that 71 percent of Germans oppose giving financial aid to Greece. As the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung put it: “The Greeks are taking to the streets to protest against increasing the retirement age from 61 to 63. Are the Germans now supposed to work until 69 and not 67 so the Greeks can enjoy early retirement?”

Merkel, backed by the Frankfurt-based European Central Bank (ECB) and its president Jean-Claude Trichet has so far rejected a solution that would involve lending money to Greece, arguing that this might stop the government from taking tough measures. The German chancellor instead points to Ireland, which restored market confidence through a program of drastic spending cuts and reductions in public sector wages and pensions. Berlin also argues that a German constitutional court would block any attempt to bail out Greece as this is not permitted under the terms of the Maastricht Treaty that set up the single currency.

They would be valid arguments under normal circumstances but we live in extraordinary times – times in which the dithering of governments, the like of which allowed Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers to collapse in the fall of 2008, comes at a heavy price. The failure of Washington to act then proved disastrous and very costly. Other governments, including many in the EU, learned from this mistake and pumped billions of euros into the financial system to prevent its collapse.

They now face a similar situation but this time it’s a country, not a financial institution, in danger of going under and pulling others with it. As Jean-Claude Juncker, the Luxembourg Prime Minister who heads the eurogroup said this week, if Greece were forced out of the euro, “the effects would be like an earthquake, uncontrollable.” With the other so-called PIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain) economies suffering problems, Juncker, Merkel and the other EU leaders would do well to absorb the implication of a Greek default, rather than just keeping their fingers crossed it won’t happen.

The threat of contagion means it’s impossible to support the argument that taxpayers in one EU country should not be footing the bill for the economic failure of another. Taxpayers in Britain and Germany had no choice about whether their money was used to keep banks afloat last year – they simply had to accept this was the wisest long-term option.

If the Maastricht Treaty, signed in 1992, does not allow for a bailout then it should be altered. The financial landscape has been reshaped beyond recognition over the last two decades and the EU’s institutions and mechanisms need to catch up.

Also, Greece is not Ireland and cannot be expected to adopt the same measures when there are clear, chronic structural problems that need to be addressed first. Masking this with tax hikes and public sector salary cuts will fool no speculator worth his fat-cat bonus.

The EU has given Greece a month to prove that it can get its economy back on track but the Union has to use this time to consider its own role as well. The Greek crisis is questioning the very purpose of the EU, whose strength has always been, as Aristotle also said, that “The whole is more than the sum of its parts.” But what Europe must now consider is that when one of those parts collapses, the whole is not worth very much at all.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on February 19, 2010.

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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.

Great expectations

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

A man who knew what power words can have, 18th-century English author Samuel Johnson, said: “As I know more of mankind I expect less of them, and am ready now to call a man a good man, upon easier terms than I was formerly.”

Coming 300 years after Johnson’s birth, the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to US President Barack Obama confirms the potency of words and is evidence of a global society, which, after enduring demoralizing disappointments, is willing to embrace someone whose intentions are good even if he’s done little to back them up.

Similarly, in our corner of the world, Prime Minister George Papandreou is riding a wave of popularity thanks to the energetic manner in which he has approached the task of transforming Greece – but mainly because of the poor performance of the previous government.

The Nobel committee’s surprising announcement last week has provoked real debate around the world. In Europe, the reaction has ranged from mild surprise to concern that this will place an extra burden on Obama’s shoulders. In the United States, it was difficult to find anything but disbelief and derision.

“A Nobel for nothing,” said the Washington Times in its editorial; “A wicked and ignorant award” was Peggy Noonan’s take in The Wall Street Journal; and “A Nobel Prize for Moral Posturing” was the title of an article by Robert Tracinski, the editor of the Intellectual Activist and TIADaily.com.

Worse was to come for Obama when the political satirists and talk show hosts got hold of the news. Obama is already becoming a figure of fun among not just right-wingers but comedians as well, who prey on his inability to live up to the great expectations he created. “That’s pretty amazing, Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize,” said Jay Leno. “Ironically, his biggest accomplishment as president so far: winning the Nobel Peace Prize.”

The award challenges us to ask whether we should respect our politicians for their intentions or just their actions. The ensuing outpouring of frustration raises the question of whether we are justified in turning against the same politicians when their actions fail to match their intentions.

athens11These are questions Greeks should be considering at the moment. As Papandreou prepares to unveil his government’s policy program, voters must think about whether the PASOK leader should be applauded for his lofty ambitions or whether praise should be put on hold until at least of some of these goals are achieved.

There’s a fine balancing act involved here. Clearly, actions are ultimately what counts but they’re not enough on their own. Papandreou must set out bold intentions because it’s the only way he can unite people behind a common goal and it provides the measure by which the electorate can later judge him and his government.

To what extent we buy into these aspirations is what will determine our reaction when they’re not met. But that’s exactly the issue – we know they will not be met, at least not in full. Yet, like so many American columnists in recent days, when we experience reality getting in the way of political dreams, we react like a consumer who gets home and realizes that the plasma TV he bought is actually the screen for a shadow puppet theater.

Criticism of our politicians is a necessary part of our democratic system – its lifeblood, in fact – but accusing them of being false prophets is a bit rich, given that voters – not to mention the media – are now as savvy at political games as the men and women who play them.

If Papandreou’s ambitious agenda turns out to be a big act and the only award he’s in contention for is an Oscar for his acting ability, then he should be criticized. But those who take on this task while claiming their hopes have been shattered will be hypocrites, because we all know that these are expectations, as Johnson wrote, “created not but reason, but by desire” and which require “the common course of things to be changed, and the general rules of action to be broken.” We have come to expect some pandering and play-acting from our politicians. It needn’t be part of our repertoire.

“I know not any thing more pleasant, or more instructive, than to compare experience with expectation, or to register from time to time the difference between idea and reality,” wrote Johnson. “It is by this kind of observation that we grow daily less liable to be disappointed.”

It might be wise to heed his words, even if there is no award for doing so.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on October 16, 2009

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

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