NEWS

New dynamics in the political arena

Successive blows to the government in early September marked the end of the period of grace and dispelled the atmosphere of detente, and often of consensus, that had been cultivated in the previous six months for the sake of the Olympic Games. The crash of an army helicopter was Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis’s hard landing into the difficult side of governing. The shock did not alter his strategy, but it must have made him rethink and clarify within himself any doubts and dilemmas about his direction. When the story of favorable university transfers for the offspring of government members broke, many observers saw the sacking of Savvas Tsitouridis as a momentary defense tactic. It may have been so, but it had the effect of a message that the premier meant what he said about «modesty and humility.» And the message was not only received by public opinion, but also by New Democracy officials throughout the state structure. Nobody can predict whether, to what extent and for how long such practical warnings will act as a deterrent. It is apparent that many ND executives believe it is their turn to reap personal benefits and are looking for an opportunity to dip their fingers into the honeypot. Barrier needed The roots of the problem lie not in the party but in the flexible ethics that dominate Greek society. That is why it is vital to erect a barrier. The prime minister is duty bound to create a climate of virtue by setting an example and, of course, by establishing effective institutional controls. But this will prove ineffective if matters where PASOK is suspected of corruption are simply shelved. Karamanlis’s initiative of calling for the establishment of a committee to investigate the purchase of two weapons systems owed little to didactic motives. Arising both from the two prosecutors’ reports that had been sent to Parliament, and from an election platform commitment, its main reason is more directly political. The premier wants both to shift the political center of gravity to ground that favors him and to hold PASOK political hostage. Take the lead This is no isolated move. Influenced by the recent general attack on him, Karamanlis has realized that he has no alternative but to take the lead. He concluded that it was the only way to retain control of the situation and set the political agenda. There is a growing perception at Maximos Mansion that getting caught up in routine administrative detail, making compromises with established interests and maneuvering to avoid the political cost is a certain recipe for getting bogged down. Instead, it is thought that if the government dares to open up a new front to initiate changes, it will create political events and mobilize social forces, thus feeding on the political momentum it secured with its two recent electoral victories. It has already announced a draft bill concerning mass media ownership that will show whether Karamanlis can close the loopholes which currently allow state contractors and employers to be media barons in defiance of the Constitution. In one respect, this bill will demonstrate the extent of his determination and of his radicalism. If he wins this battle, he will have established the context in which the policies and power of the past 15 years are judged. PASOK officials who see the investigation committee as a return to what they call «dirty 1989» have missed a signal difference. At that time, the media barons who were later to write such large chapters in the bible of entanglement took an active part in the machinations that brought former Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou to trial. They are the same power centers who fought tooth and claw for subsequent PASOK leader Costas Simitis and did not scruple to hit Karamanlis below the belt when he was opposition leader. Although the comparison with «dirty 1989» is made for propaganda purposes, activating the mechanism for prosecuting political opponents is a two-edged sword. It polarizes the climate, rekindles partisan passions and cuts bridges of communication between the two poles of the political system. It would be a fatal error if the government recommended the formation of the committee as a sign that it was prepared to push matters to extremes. Opening options The committee is a procedure which opens up all options. If undeniable evidence of guilt emerges, it will not even be in PASOK’s interest to identify with and cover up the former ministers involved. If it does not, ND will be able to give the widespread impression that something fishy had been going on and that it is extremely difficult to find proof of bribery in the case of weapons procurements. At this stage, PASOK leader George Papandreou cannot leave former ministers Akis Tsochadzopoulos and Yiannos Papantoniou without cover, though he is making obvious attempts to keep his distance. One of his colleagues notes that «it was not by chance that George sidelined Akis and Yiannos before the story broke.» The PASOK leader is trying to beak away from the Simitis era, but it is not easy, not only because he himself was a leading minister, but because the party has a continuity which can only be partially rejected. Indicative of Papandreou’s intentions is his statement that «the truth must shine out» and that «we stand second to no one when it comes to transparency,» PASOK will submit its own proposal for the formation of a committee, requesting that the investigation includes the period in which Spilios Spiliotopoulos was ND’s defense minister, given that during those six months some actions were taken that the prosecutors deem blameworthy. ND’s refusal so far to accept an extension of the investigation is politically weak and that will soon become apparent. There is every indication that PASOK will eventually participate in the procedure, supporting its officials and highlighting the weak points of its rivals. But if evidence implicating its two former ministers does emerge, it will not try to cover up, even though the decisions for the procurements in question were made collectively by the Government Council on Foreign Policy and Defense (KYSEA). Thus the responsibility would go all the way back to then-Prime Minister Simitis. The great majority of party officials believe that the party is too important be burdened with the sins of its ministers. Political hostage Besides, what worries officials at the PASOK’s Harilaou Trikoupi headquarters is the prospect of being held hostage politically in the long term. That is why it is exerting pressure for the committee to complete its work promptly so that it has finished by the time of the presidential election. Papandreou is worried that the process may drag on and that the premier will seize the opportunity to call an early election, proposing a partisan candidate that PASOK could not accept in a polarized climate. According to sources, and to a rational interpretation of events, it is not in Karamanlis’s interests to call an election. His political attack does not seem to be linked to such an aim. Papandreou does not want to be blamed for a third electoral defeat. But his opponents from within his party would prefer to push matters in that direction because a further defeat in March would enable them to challenge his leadership. The outcome of the battle for political leadership, though inevitably influenced by clashes between the parties, will be mainly decided by the ability of the government to produce results and carry out radical changes among what are generally held to be unhealthy circumstances. Only in this way can it persuade interested observers that it means what is says and is trustworthy. It is on this front that Karamanlis’s ambition of changing the political map will be tested.