No change or all change? Greece’s elections and the Olympic Games

Trying to untangle a Greek election from the country’s wider public life makes you appreciate the power of the Gordian knot fable. King Gordius’ impossibly intricate dilemma was resolved by Alexander the Great after the latter heard an oracle say that whoever solved the knotty problem would rule all of Asia. He proceeded to hack both (first the knot, then all of Asia) in two. The Olympic Games have always been a singular opportunity to push national development onto the fast track. But for now they are modern Greece’s Gordian knot (or its Rubik’s Cube), and the collective, artful avoidance of the issue in the candidates’ televised «debate» last week provided an unlikely indication that this is one issue that can’t be dodged, finessed, or wished away. And like its famous predecessor, this latest knot presents dilemmas, but no Alexandrian solutions are possible. Readying for the Games is a question of management, problem solving and coping, not of «solutions,» radical or otherwise. Unspoken tasks An election campaign in the Games’ final stretch was preordained – ever since Prime Minister Costas Simitis went to the polls early in 2000 in order to capitalize on Greece’s entry into the eurozone. Inconvenient as it might be now, things could be worse: On the normal rotation, elections would have fallen just after the Games. Imagine the Athens Olympics in the middle of a Greek electoral campaign; mud-slinging as Olympic sport. Unusually, Greece is guaranteed a new prime minister come what may, whether it be PASOK’s George Papandreou or Costas Karamanlis, whose New Democracy party has led in the polls. Whichever party is in the driver’s seat come Monday, the new government will be preoccupied for the next seven months, to the near-total exclusion of everything else, by an issue not of its choosing. This is the reality until the Games and the Paralympics are over at the end of September, covering a good chunk of its term in office (even more if early elections are called). The rest of the year will be spent sweeping up and recalling other issues screaming for attention (social security reform, EU expansion and Constitution, improving a dismal foreign investment climate). Any new initiatives during the remaining three years will be hemmed in by a budget crimped by spillover Olympic costs, drawing uncomfortable attention from the European Union. Lavish promises, like PASOK’s to double farmers’ pensions, can probably be filed away as wishful thinking. One hopes, at least, that the new government will be able to capitalize on a positive post-Games legacy while avoiding the bloodletting that often follows big events. Directly or indirectly, the Olympics will largely shape the next government and determine its leeway. All hands now With their hands collectively tied beforehand, it’s no surprise that this has been a rather uninspiring and even cautious campaign (despite the Simitis resignation surprise). On the one hand, both big parties promise big changes, and do their best to distinguish themselves from the other guys; yet for the biggest (or at least most imminent) matter of all, the Olympics, they not only promise no change, but they bend over backward to reassure that planning will continue seamlessly. Something doesn’t quite add up. If ND wins, we will be looking at a new prime minister (Karamanlis) and a new Olympics spokesperson (Fani Palli-Petralia) in lieu of the familiar face of Evangelos Venizelos, and probably a new Games general secretary in place of Costas Kartalis. The party’s promises that it will not touch the Olympics planning network may be the first electoral casualty; half the current government must be working on them in some form. As nobody has dared propose a grand coalition government between the two big parties, at least publicly, will any ND government – fresh in power for the first time in a decade, having spent years blasting the preparations and itching to put its own stamp on public policy, as any new government would – turn around and retain reams of old PASOK figures on temporary contracts expiring at the end of August? It seems unlikely. There are risks and benefits to the Games on either side. A PASOK victory would give greater continuity to preparations (although in light of all the delays and his new status, Papandreou would also be tempted to make changes). An ND victory would shake things up more but reduce the tendency for one-upmanship, as many of the key figures – Karamanlis, Palli-Petralia, Athens Mayor Dora Bakoyannis and, of course, Athens 2004 chief Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki – all hail from the same party. Even so, political parties, like families, are hardly immune to tensions. Tempted to tinker Even with the best of intentions not to rock the Olympics boat, a new ND government will face a transition at a sensitive time. Unfamiliar portfolios must be mastered, sub-ministers and functionaries briefed thoroughly, and countless other tasks carried out just to get started. It can’t be done in a day, yet there’s not a day to lose. And policy priorities may be reassessed. Recent issues involving the marathon route and swimming pool complex might be reviewed and, theoretically, contracts renegotiated (the ink on the swimming pool roof contract will be less than a week old on Monday). PASOK, few will remember, proceeded to renegotiate the original contract for the new airport after it returned to office in 1993. Apparently, some information-sharing between the two main parties has been taking place, at least on vital issues like Olympic security. But a lot will still tempt governmental intervention, and change, even at this late date. Never underestimate a new government’s desire to make its mark quickly, or the power of self-belief by a victorious party. We can only hope that prudence will prevail, as they have promised. An outside boost At any rate, the big elements are being determined outside Greece, which provides some insulation. The International Olympic Committee is closely overseeing the whole operation; the seven-country advisory council, especially the US, is running security, and sports federations are closely involved on that side. The government’s main job – building the venues and other infrastructure – is, in fact, largely completed. It must race to turn them over (and battle contractors playing hardball until then), even as late as July. Much more would change had these elections been held a year ago. Even for the post-Games future, problems could lurk. A shift from PASOK to ND will increase the likelihood of mutual finger-pointing all the way through, especially when (not if) any problems crop up. ND can always say that it was thrust into a position of responsibility late in the day and inherited a mess; PASOK, for its part, would be tempted to say that its years of hard work were blown by ND fumbling. There are reports from Sydney, the previous Olympic hosts so often praised for the successful events they staged, that the Games-time unity and good spirit have deteriorated badly, with many calling it a city in crisis, as hospitals and even public transport are starved of funds and unable to discharge their obligations. This is a harsh lesson that Greeks on both sides of the aisle would do well to study, and avoid. And it sheds new light on the very nature of Olympics «success,» which is surely measured in the long term. The Games have been a godsend to Greece by forcing completion of long-needed infrastructure projects. With the bones of a more functional city in place, it’s up to either side to flesh out the opportunity handed to it. And both should realize they have contributed to the exceptional experience awaiting Greece after these years of trying preparation.

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