Tag Archives: Samaras

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