Simitis’s unfinished project

Politics loves symbols. Too bad their management was never Costas Simitis’s forte. As a result, his modernizing project won the minds of the voters but not quite their hearts. Reforms were never seen as an intrinsic imperative of Greece’s political and economic system but as a contingent, one-off obligation to meet some external European demands. People put up with reforms but were never too keen about them. That, at least, is how the journalist Phoebus Karzis reads the rise and eventual bankruptcy of the modernizing enterprise. «Between Two Greeces: the Unfinished Reform 1996-2003» (Polis, 2006) is a careful deconstruction of Simitis’s eight-year stint in power from his election as party leader to the last-grasp crowning of George Papandreou as successor. The modernizing project, shaped by a group of reform-minded cadres that got together during the in-party race to replace the ailing Andreas Papandreou in 1996, transformed the country and made the government look good internationally. Under the guidance of Simitis, a deft and consistent personality often dubbed «the bookkeeper» because of his attention to detail, the new PASOK rescued the economy from high inflation and mammoth debt, narrowing the gap with other Europeans. It changed the country’s very landscape with a swath of significant infrastructure projects including a brand-new airport and an ultramodern metro system in Athens. But by 2000 its project had already run out of steam. Connecting the dots Karzis connects the dots to decipher the modernizers’ premature end. Political insecurity, he writes, was one reason. PASOK’s tissue-thin victory at the 2000 parliamentary vote was a rude awakening for the reformist faction at the helm of the party. The Socialist leadership had been too self-absorbed to notice that the people were not following. The shock of near-defeat for a party that bragged about being «the natural party of government» strengthened the hand of reactionary forces inside the ruling camp who wanted to put reforms on the back burner and go for middle-of-the-road managerialism. Faced with strenuous protests by public sector unions, Simitis was forced to shelve plans to overhaul the decaying pay-as-you-go pension system drafted by his labor minister, Tassos Yiannitsis. Karzis sees that particular withdrawal as a turning point for Simitis’s rule for it injected his government with a sense of defeatism that would haunt it until the end. It was not long before the party was jolted by a second torpedo, as the Church attacked plans to scrap religion from state identity cards. The outcome of the lengthy row was not defeat but, surely, not a victory either. The government eventually had its way its way but for Karzis the clamor triggered by PASOK’s stubborn insistence on a secondary issue deflected energy and attention from the more crucial issue of separating State from Church. PASOK won a battle but lost a war. Once again, Simitis had mishandled the symbols. Belated facelifts of the party that culminated in a rather opportunistic leadership switch could not undo the fact that in the eyes of most people, including grassroots supporters of the Panhellenic Socialist Movement, PASOK had a hole in its heart. People were put off by the arrogance and complacency of ruling officials and, most importantly, by what Constantine Mitsotakis famously called «entangled interests,» or the Socialists’ coziness with a group of business interests. Simitis never invited the slightest doubt about his honesty but his attempts to crack down on cronyism and patronage left a lot to be desired. Things did not get any better when the 1999 boom of the Athens stock market (its performance did not go unexploited by PASOK’s spin meisters) came to an abrupt end, ruining hordes of small investors. Worse still, PASOK was hit by allegations that Socialist officials manipulated the market and actually made a fortune by selling stock ahead of the spectacular Athens bourse nosedive. Selling uncomfortable changes requires enticing carrots. The EMU target had been a catalyst for making taxpayers don a fiscal straitjacket. But pulling Greece into the eurozone, Karzis suggests, made the Socialists victims of their own success. Once Greece got there, voters were reluctant to follow. Now Simitis needed to communicate a new sense of purpose to the people. He soon discovered that talk about macroeconomics can barely fire up crowds. The Athens Olympic Games, Simitis thought, could not be the next, binding vision. He was wrong, the writer claims. The old way Looking at the big picture, the book criticizes the modernizers for failing to impose a new hegemonic ideology. PASOK failed to find a new place in the political spectrum, mainly because Simitis insisted on portraying his party in minimalist terms, namely as a pragmatic, pro-reform center-left party. Again, on a symbolic level he appeared comfortable with the traditional perception of the political landscape which the zeitgeist wanted to go beyond. Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroeder were already putting their Big Idea to work. The Third Way or the Neue Mitte (its German counterpart) immediately struck a chord with jaded voters who did not seem to mind the thick fuzz of imprecision. Simitis was unwilling to follow. Ironically, the conservatives would later outclass PASOK with a «middle ground» parlance that allowed them to hijack PASOK’s holy ground, the center. People, too, love symbols. The modernizers also failed on a more pragmatic level. Despite having most of the mainstream media behind him, Simitis failed to stem the feel-bad effect of his economic policies at home. It was a disastrous communication flop, Karzis stresses, made more absurd given that the popular perception that the eurozone-oriented policies devastated the lower-income classes is not borne out by the facts. Facts show that incomes held steady, inflation was contained and wages went up. The book emphasizes that the years between 1996 and 2000, a period of tight fiscal restraint, saw heavy redistribution away from the wealthiest 10 percent of the population. Popular disillusionment invited fire from the opposition. New Democracy naturally sought to capitalize on the alleged downside of Simitis’s reformist policies. Attacks also came from inside the party. The traditional party apparatus, the writer says, showed it would rather see PASOK be kicked in the teeth than support an elite that was alien to its own roots and ambitions. Simitis could have responded by overhauling his party – but he never did more than bare his teeth. In the first term the premier detached himself from the old-fashioned, tax-and-spend populist faction. But outright confrontation with it, says Karzis, was never on the cards. The inevitable fallout was constant skirmishing between the die-hard Socialists (usually nationalists put off by Simitis’s rapprochement with perennial rival Turkey) and a pro-euro modernizing leadership that refused to identify with, let alone engage the old guard. Simitis’s popularity, always higher than that of his party, inevitably tumbled. Soul-searching The 2004 elections spelled the end of the modernizing project. Defeat and Papandreou’s awkward posturing – a cause as well as a result of negative opinion polls – have thrown PASOK in a prolonged period of soul-searching. For their part, conservative officials have been all too keen to blame current ills on Simitis, casting his image and legacy in an unflattering light. Labor protests, corruption scandals and maladministration have trimmed but not eclipsed New Democracy’s lead in polls while Costas Karamanlis’s own popularity remains at remarkably high levels. Even the weekend local elections, traditionally seen as a chance for a protest vote, saw the ruling party holding its ground. Popularity, it seems, is not the safest test of greatness.

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