Tag Archives: Theodoros Pangalos

Cometh the hour, cometh the man

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

In times of crisis, you need politicians that are level-headed, make well-judged comments in public and have an ability to empathize with pressurized citizens. Greece has Theodoros Pangalos.

The outspoken deputy prime minister provoked a strong public and media reaction when he claimed last week that he would have trouble paying the emergency property tax. Pangalos explained in a live TV interview that his bill would be particularly large as he had the misfortune of inheriting several properties. The PASOK veteran said he was being forced to sell one of these properties to raise money to pay the tax. When asked what he would do if he couldn’t pull the deal off, Pangalos suggested that Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos might put him in jail.

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Tribal politics

The booing rose and died again as Piggy lifted the white, magic shell.
“Which is better — to be a pack of painted Indians like you are, or to be sensible like Ralph is?”
A great clamor rose among the savages. Piggy shouted again.
“Which is better — to have rules and agree, or to hunt and kill?”
Again the clamor and again — “Zup!”
Ralph shouted against the noise.
“Which is better, law and rescue, or hunting and breaking things up?”
Now Jack was yelling too and Ralph could no longer make himself heard. Jack had backed right against the tribe and they were a solid mass of menace that bristled with spears.

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies,” a tale of stranded English schoolboys who veer between camaraderie and savagery as they try to survive on an uninhabited island, is a story you don’t forget very easily. Nevertheless, we should be thankful to Greece’s politicians for regularly reminding us of its key themes such as clashing impulses, moral quandaries and the desperate pursuit of power.

Even more than usual, the country’s political scene has closely resembled for the last few weeks the unforgiving and unnegotiable terrain of the island where Ralph, Jack, Piggy, Roger, Simon and the others were cast adrift. We are used to the mundane barbs from George, Antonis, Aleka, Giorgos, Alexis and the others being punctuated by the odd dose of vitriol but the political language recently has utterly caustic. Grave accusations such as those of betrayal, lying and inciting violence are now being thrown about in Parliament like backgammon dice in a kafeneio.

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Rating the rating agencies

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

“If we really want to rub their faces in it, then the only way is to increase revenues and for every Greek to pay the taxes they are supposed to. If that happens, then we won’t need Moody’s or anybody else.” In his own inimitable style, Deputy Prime Minister Theodoros Pangalos’s blew open in Parliament on Friday an issue of public debate while displaying all the subtlety of a bulldozer trying to open a safe.

Although he was more forthright than others, the veteran PASOK politician was expressing an opinion that reflected the mood of many voters and MPs. His comments came just a few days after Moody’s, one of the three credit rating agencies that have been observing the Greek economy with the intensity a menacing stalker, downgraded Greece’s debt — already at junk status — by three notches, to B1 from Ba1 and suggested Athens would not be able to repay its debt without some form of restructuring. Moody’s also downgraded six Greek banks in the same week.

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While you were sleeping

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

As Monday night turned from the Night of the Long Knives that some had expected into the Night of the Long Wait that everyone dreaded, and as the reshuffle began to resemble more an open-house barbecue than a precision-timed cull of inefficient ministers, one member of government was likely to have slept through the whole affair much more soundly than any other: Deputy Prime Minister Theodoros Pangalos.

The 72-year-old is one of those rare political beasts that seem untouched by time or the events that unfold around them and who become forces of nature that others have difficulty dealing with. Pangalos had made it very clear to the media in the runup to the reshuffle that he would not be going anywhere. He also informed journalists there was no way he would accept anyone being made his superior, taking over his role of watching over ministers and making sure they were not lollygagging.

It was a typical show of bravado from a politician who has become known for his bold, abrupt and sometimes callous statements. It was also a reflection of the political chicanery that Pangalos has become so adept at in the 50 years since he first stood for office. If there had been any thoughts flitting about in Prime Minister George Papandreou’s mind about prizing Pangalos out of his office, then the implicit threat in his statements – that he would not go quietly – were enough to convince him to play musical chairs with other ministers’ seats. It also meant the government played down one of the most significant aspects of the reshuffle – the appointment of Interior Minister Yiannis Ragousis as the central policy coordinator of a small team of ministers that will meet regularly with Papandreou. Maybe they were hoping that if they didn’t say it too loudly, Pangalos would not notice someone had been given a very similar remit to his.

If all other things were equal, though, Pangalos would have little cause for complaint had he been one of those to lose their jobs on reshuffle night. He was given one task and one task only when appointed last October: to watch over ministers like a hawk, make sure that they were not falling behind with their workload and, if necessary, knock some heads together. Yet, 11 months later, the Cabinet has been overhauled mainly because there was a lack of coordination within government ranks and too many projects were slipping behind schedule.

In other words, it appeared that Pangalos was not up to the task. His chosen method for proving that progress was being monitored was the slacker’s ultimate decoy tool: the excel spreadsheet. Anybody logging on to the deputy prime minister’s website (http://antiproedros.gov.gr) can open the regularly updated tables which indicate how closely ministers are keeping to the timetables they have been assigned for various projects. It’s embarrassing that in a government as technologically savvy as Papandreou’s is supposed to be and for a man as intelligent and authoritative as Pangalos, all he has to show after 11 months, during which some phenomenally challenging reforms were undertaken by those around him, are a collection of measly spreadsheets. It brings to mind the late US comedian George Carlin’s comment about God being unable to do anything about, among other things, war, disease, destruction, hunger, poverty, torture and corruption. “Something is definitely wrong, this is not good work,” he said. “Results like these do not belong on the resume of a supreme being. This is the kind of thing you’d expect from an office temp with a bad attitude.”

Nevertheless, these shortcomings have to be weighed against what Papandreou gains by including the 72-year-old in his government. Pangalos, who, like all true Socialists was once a member of the Communist Party, has earned his leftist spurs. He had his Greek nationality stripped from him for opposing the military junta and has stood for election since 1981 in the working class district of Elefsina, west of Athens. This has won him the respect of his party’s left wing and old-timers. At a time when Papandreou and his team have to take thoroughly unsocialist decisions, such as cutting wages and adjusting pension requirements, it’s useful to have a revered leftist voice within the party telling people how painful but necessary these choices are for PASOK.

Also, having a man of Pangalos’s intelligence and experience in its ranks helps give the government added gravitas. Pangalos studied and later researched and taught at the Sorbonne University. He’s also held three ministerial posts. He’s the type of politician who commands people’s attention when he speaks, not just because he has no qualms about being controversial but also because he often has something thought-provoking to say, as opposed to the politician-speak-for-dummies that many of his colleagues opt for.

It became clear this week that the reasons that convinced Papandreou to include Pangalos in his Cabinet are the same ones that prevented him from removing him. His qualities imbue him with more power than his deficiencies detract from him. Pangalos has carved out a niche similar to the fiefdom created by Gordon Brown when he was the British chancellor. You can imagine Papandreou saying about Pangalos some of the things former Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote about Brown, who he described as “someone of extraordinary ability and capacity,” in his newly published autobiography, “A Journey.”

Blair’s self-declared “difficult” relationship with Brown and the anguish he suffered over whether to sack him or not will be familiar to Papandreou and gives us a good indication of why politicians like Pangalos are such survivors. “When it’s said that I should have sacked him, or demoted him, this takes no account of the fact that had I done so, the party and the government would have been severely and immediately destabilized,” writes Blair. “I came to the conclusion that having him inside and constrained was better than outside and let loose or, worse, becoming the figurehead of a far more damaging force well to the left,” he adds.

The reality for Papandreou is that he cannot afford to leave Pangalos outside the city walls, free to take potshots at his government’s crumbling defenses. It’s for this reason that in this week’s reshuffle he included in his new Cabinet several MPs – such as Dimitris Kouselas, Michalis Timosidis, Yiannis Koutsoukos and Manolis Othonas – who had been critical of the government’s choices over the previous 11 months. It’s one of the strange quirks of politics that those with the bluntest opinions and loudest voices are the ones who have the least to worry about, while those with the task of working with them face plenty of sleepless nights.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on September 10, 2010.

No more Mr Nice Guy

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

In times of crisis, when the issues that our leaders have to deal with become infinitely more complex, our expectations of them become very simple. As the pressure is ratcheted up, we like our decision-makers to fall into one of two broad categories: either Mr Nice Guy or Mr Tough Guy. Greece embarked on its current treacherous journey with a prime minister that appeared more nice than tough, but George Papandreou increasingly looks like he’s steeled for the struggle.

If this metamorphosis is successful, apart from leading Greece out of the economic wilderness, Papandreou will also cause a reordering in the minds of most Greeks, whose default position during testing times is to pine for a tough guy, a man who will stand up for the country and put the others in their place, someone who will be unswerving in his attempt to reach a specific goal.

So, it was no surprise that a couple of weeks ago, Deputy Prime Minister Theodoros Pangalos, speaking to the BBC’s Malcolm Brabant, took a meaty swipe at the caliber of European Union leaders. He reminisced about a time when Europe was led by political heavyweights, such as Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterrand, not technocratic lightweights. “This is another level of leadership which we don’t have today. The quality of leadership today in the Union is very, very poor indeed,” he said.

There is no doubt that Thatcher, Kohl and Mitterrand provided era-defining leadership but they did so in completely different circumstances. They were political giants who roamed lands whose destiny could still be shaped, where national interest could still come first and in which they could rely on the unflinching support of a section of society. None of these conditions exist today: In an increasingly competitive world, there is little room or time to reshape a country; in an expanding European Union, collective interest often prevails; and in the age of “undecideds” or middle-ground voters, politicians have an ever-shrinking base of support to call on.

The sweeping transformation of Europe’s political and economic landscape since the 1980s to one where right and left, capitalism and socialism, have all been damaged, means that although the lessons learned from their time in power will always be relevant, longing for another Thatcher, Kohl or Mitterrand to make the ground shake is like wishing the dinosaurs would roam the earth again. Pangalos, an intelligent, outspoken politician who gives no quarter to the opposition and couldn’t give two hoots about what others think of his views, is a man of this bygone generation. But while Pangalosaurus Rex may miss running with the other political beasts, today’s leaders have to contend with a whole different set of challenges.

That’s not to say Papandreou and his peers cannot learn from what those who went before them got right and what they did wrong. But while Pangalos invokes the spirit of the loud, the proud, the dominant, perhaps the Greek prime minister should instead examine the achievements as well as the failings of a more quiet and unassuming political character: Michael Foot.

Foot, the leader of Britain’s Labour Party from 1980 to 1983, died last week at the age of 96. For someone who led the party to one of its heaviest ever election defeats, Foot was remembered with surprising passion. The fondness that many within, and beyond, the Labour Party have for him is kindled by the rare qualities he brought to politics: high principles, independent thinking and exquisite oratory skills that drew heavily on his love of literature.

It was Foot’s insistence on existing above politics, rather than sinking into its mire, that meant he stuck by ideas he felt to be morally correct rather than politically expedient. He kept to these principles when compiling Labour’s manifesto for the 1983 election, prompting one of his aides to call the program “the longest suicide note in history.” The Conservatives blew Foot’s party out of the water, Thatcher swept to 10 Downing Street and Britain’s, and perhaps the world’s, course shifted in a new direction.

Foot actually produced the most eloquent put-down of Thatcher ever uttered by a rival politician: “She has no imagination and that means no compassion.” Foot had plenty of both and although his manifesto in 1983 proved to be a disaster, looking back on it now, he appears much more imaginative and less of an idealistic dreamer than once thought. In fact, some of his policy proposals – increased public spending to ease an economic recession, greater control over the financial system, energy conservation and corporate regulation — are actually being implemented now by governments in Britain and elsewhere. Interestingly, the manifesto called for the return of exchange controls to “counter currency speculation” – the 1980s equivalent of Credit Default Swaps (CDS), which Papandreou has been touring the world trying to prevent. As he does so, Greece’s premier might want to consider that one of Foot’s greatest failings was that despite his unique grasp of the English language, he was unable to communicate his ideas convincingly.

Another of Foot’s failures was his inability to keep his party united – a problem that is already starting to rear its head at PASOK, as the party’s old, socialist guard attempts to resist Papandreou’s austerity measures. Foot found himself unable to bridge the gap between Labour’s left, which was still committed to the socialist policies that were torn apart when the International Monetary Fund imposed drastic spending cuts on Britain in the late 1970s (sound familiar?), and the more centrist wing, which eventually broke away to form a new party, the SDP. Foot was never able to get in step with the party’s base, tap into society’s sources of power or develop a strategy that would broaden Labour’s appeal. That’s why Foot was essentially a wonderful caretaker rather than a true leader. These are all aspects for Greece’s prime minister to ponder as he tries to balance harmony within his own party with the arduous changes being demanded of the country.

But if Papandreou is to take just one thing from Foot’s legacy, then it should be the words that he spoke in his final speech as Labour’s chief. Quoting from Joseph Conrad’s “Typhoon,” a story of a steamer encountering treacherous conditions in the South China Sea, he told his audience: “The sea never changes and its works, for all the talk of men, are wrapped in mystery… the heaviest seas run with the wind. Facing it – always facing it – that’s the way to get through.” Forget nice guys and tough guys, that’s what leadership is all about.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on March 12, 2010.