Former PM defends his record

«Policy for a Creative Greece: 1996-2004,» (Polis Publications, in Greek) former prime minister Costas Simitis’s account of his years in power, is rather heavy going, unless you are seriously interested in politics. Not the kind of gossipy accounts of backroom conspiracies and backstabbing that can sometimes excite public imagination but the more mundane stuff of policy formulation and implementation, the kind most likely to be found in academic textbooks. This did not prevent Simitis’s book from becoming the publishing sensation of the year in Greece. Its presentation reignited old controversies and caused new ones, forcing his own party, the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) into one more round of divisive self-introspection. Moreover, the book itself sold heavily, at least for the Greek market’s standards: Less than a month after publication, it had gone through seven editions and 30,000 copies, being outsold only by «Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.» There are plenty of reasons one could invoke for this success: the zeal of a fervent band of Simitis supporters, the much-maligned «modernizers,» who have rushed to buy the book and, perhaps, a spreading sense that the country is already missing the tenacity and seriousness of purpose of this mild, slight professorial man who has found his stature enhanced by comparison to the two princes (whether half-blood or not but certainly scions of political dynasties) who are taking too long to settle comfortably into their roles as leaders of the government and the opposition, respectively. In his 40-year career in politics, Simitis has been through momentous events: founder of a small think tank of center-left intellectuals in the 1960s, an active member of the resistance – including bombmaker – during the dictatorship, co-founder of a mass political party (PASOK) and one of its top leaders since 1974, despite being in nearly constant opposition to the party leader, Andreas Papandreou. He also served as minister of agriculture (1981-85), national economy (1985-87), education (1989-90) and commerce and industry (1993-95). Twice, in 1987 and 1995, he chose to resign rather than toe Andreas Papandreou’s line. After 1994, he emerged as the one clear alternative to Papandreou and was duly elected prime minister in January 1996, when Papandreou became incapacitated by illness. Simitis skims through all these events in less than eight pages of a nearly 630-page book. That is understandable, since he chooses to focus on his own time in power. He still, however, avoids any in-depth reference to the events surrounding his own candidacy and the first few months as prime minister, when he was openly undermined by party stalwarts hostile to his policy of economic reform at home and a foreign policy that eschewed nationalist posturing. Simitis finally became party leader exactly one week after Andreas Papandreou’s death. These events, by themselves, could fill a book bigger than Simitis’s present one. In his book, they take up only eight pages, with the exception of the Imia crisis which is dealt with in the foreign policy chapter. As we said before, Simitis is not interested in storytelling, but in a detailed explanation of his policies. Even in foreign affairs, he hints at disagreements over the course of the EU, for example, with the more Euroskeptic British, Dutch and Swedes rather than spelling them out. Likewise, in domestic policy, he hints that the unions have too much power, which is not surprising given his failure to push through significant social security reforms because of union opposition. But the reader must be careful in order to detect such signs. There is not much self-criticism in the book because Simitis believed he was doing the right thing for Greece. He had faced a lot of criticism when in power and he seems to have decided that most of it was not worth listening to. Any failure in policy he attributes to systemic weaknesses – in society, the political system, his own party – rather than to any failure in policy design. The question is, why did Simitis choose to write such a detailed apology of his tenure so soon after it ended, less than two years ago? It was probably a combination of the systematic denigration of his policies by a successor government that came to power without a coherent plan to govern except a vague declaration to combat the corruption that supposedly flourished during Simitis’s watch. It must have irked Simitis to be described as a facilitator of corruption, for no one has dared say he was personally corrupt. Also, in his successor as prime minister, Costas Karamanlis, he must have detected many of the traits he had disapproved of in Andreas Papandreou: the populism and tactics bereft of any strategic vision. What Simitis thinks of his successor as PASOK leader, George Papandreou, is less easy to discern, except for a vague disappointment for too easily succumbing to the temptation to disown the past, despite the fact that he had been a prominent member of the Simitis government. Michalis Chrysochoidis, a one-time close collaborator of Simitis’s, had apt criticism to make of his former boss: In his desire to meet the goals he had set for Greece, he said, namely closer integration with the EU and, in the second term, the timely preparation for the Athens Olympics, Simitis gave up on his own party. But, after all, he was never truly comfortable with the party and its mechanism. As someone who set his priorities strictly and rationally, Simitis decided that it was not worth catering to the party’s whims. However, he soon found that could be a great impediment to implementing his policies. Simitis’s point man in the social security reform crisis of 2001 was Tassos Yiannitsis, then labor minister, who had been an economic adviser to both Andreas Papandreou and Simitis. For those interested in Simitis’s book, his own «Greece and the Future: Pragmatism and Illusions» (Polis Publications, in Greek) is an excellent companion book.