A clear vision, but no fireworks

Prime ministers do not spend their time in office writing books; it is no surprise, then, that the three volumes by Costas Simitis put out by Kastaniotis are collections of speeches made during the first four years of his tenure as prime minister (1996-2000). The settings are familiar: Parliament, the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) congresses, the Thessaloniki International Fair, several conferences. Do these volumes, then, have any value beyond their evident documentary evidence? Is it really necessary for anyone to pay 75 euros – for the paperback version – or 110 euros – for the hardback version – to buy these books? I suspect not many will, especially since the nearly 200 guests at the book’s presentation had the opportunity to get the volumes for free. Were these merely stump speeches, they would be eminently forgettable, except for their documentary value. After all, Simitis is hardly an inspiring speaker. One of his nicknames, «the Professor,» was actually meant to be derisive, contrasting him with rabble-rouser Andreas Papandreou. Although he has allowed elements of Papandreou’s rhetorical gimmicks to creep into the more adversarial of his speeches, during a debate in Parliament, for example, or an electoral campaign, Simitis has, for the most part, kept true to his «professorial» style, often repeating the same phrases, and, it seems, taking a perverse delight in doing so. The theme running through the three volumes is a «powerful Greece:» This phrase turns up in all three titles. The titles themselves are self-evident: «For a Powerful Greece in Europe and the World» treats external relations under five sections: foreign policy, Europe, NATO, Greek-Turkish relations and the Balkans; «For a Powerful, Modern and Democratic Greece» contains speeches on democratic institutions, the Constitution, public administration, education, culture, women’s issues, as well as ideological tracts on PASOK and the global role of the Left; «For an Economically Powerful and Socially Just Greece» deals with Simitis’s pet subject, the economy. Some speeches, especially the purely political ones, are a demonstration of the pitfalls contained in the Latin phrase «scripta manent» (writings endure); some of the most optimistic of Simitis’s predictions, or his pre-electoral promises («work on the Thessaloniki metro will begin this year») become, under the unfair prism of hindsight, rather embarrassing. Thankfully, they are more than balanced by others which lay out clearly, if a bit repetitively, Simitis’s vision of what a «powerful Greece» should be like. No theoretical innovation As far as theory goes, Simitis is no Anthony Giddens, the prominent British sociologist and theoretician of the «third way» espoused by Tony Blair; he is not even Nikos Mouzelis, a sociology professor at the London School of Economics to whom Simitis has been close for over four decades and who has supplied Simitis with much of his conceptual baggage. In contrast to the above-mentioned academics, Simitis is not a theoretical innovator; however, his vision of what the world is, and should be, is quite consistent, revealing his academic background. Simitis prefers being repetitive to shifting the conceptual basis of his politics to fit the needs of his different audiences. More than any politician, especially of his generation and before, he has striven to present a unified body of thought; his priority is not to flatter the masses but to educate citizens; in this regard, he is the antithesis of his predecessor, the late Andreas Papandreou. It is this consistency of thought that has helped Simitis, who spent more than 20 years of his political career as an outsider, prevail over his opponents, without and, especially, within the Socialist party. Those of his opponents who thought they could defeat Simitis by taking on Papandreou’s populist mantle failed, sometimes even becoming objects of ridicule, like Miltiadis Evert, Simitis’s conservative opponent during the September 1996 elections. Declared social democrat Simitis has been an anomaly within PASOK. A declared social democrat even before the 1967-74 dictatorship, he chose, despite his beliefs, to join a fledgling PASOK that believed in revolutionary change and a brand of socialism that had more to do with the radical rhetoric and anti-democratic instincts of leaders such as Libya’s Muammar Khadafy, Syria’s Hafez al-Assad and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. Even during PASOK’s most radical phase, during the first three years of its existence, Simitis resolutely clung to his pro-European orientation. Sometimes he had to duck to avoid the limelight: During the period of internal party purges, in 1975, which led many like-minded people outside the party, Simitis preferred to absent himself to Canada, as a visiting professor. On other occasions, he could not avoid exposing himself: In 1979, for example, as the Executive Bureau member responsible for ideological work, he was heavily attacked for producing a poster titled «Yes to the Europe of Peoples, No to the Europe of Monopolies.» It was by a whisker that the social democrat Simitis avoided being thrown out of the party and then he had to lie low for a while. A complete rationalist Simitis’s tenacity in believing that, once in power, PASOK would have to shed its radical rhetoric and embrace moderation and economic orthodoxy, served him well. What perhaps he did not expect was the fact that many of his party comrades would stick to the old rhetoric even as they themselves abandoned any pretense of radical thought. A complete rationalist, Simitis likes to call things by their names, and not use a wrap of left-wing rhetoric. Despite that, he remains a person whose roots are firmly in the Left: during the German Occupation in 1941-44, his father was appointed Governor of Central Greece by a Communist-dominated liberation movement (the National Liberation Front or EAM) and his mother was active for decades in the women’s movement, remaining close to the Communist Party until the end. His parents’ political affiliation meant that persecution by the postwar right-wing governments was always a present danger. Simitis has not forgotten that. But he has also remained true to his bourgeois roots, never trying to play the angry and alienated proletarian that many of his party colleagues still try to evoke, to amusing effect, given the fact that they have been in power for 17 of the last 20 years. Simitis’s consistent moderation, evident throughout his speeches, has been his strength; it served him well when PASOK had to choose a leader to replace founding father Papandreou.