2006 an important year for government

If 2004 was a year of adjustment and 2005 one of low-impact results, from many points of view 2006 will be critical for the government of Costas Karamanlis. The deadline for productive work before the onset of the local election campaign comes in early summer. After that, political life will be focusing on the fall elections that will have a significant effect on the main correlation of forces. Of course there are another 16-17 months before the end of the government’s four-year term, but a pre-election mood will necessarily prevail. In that sense the next six months will be the last chance for the New Democracy government to bring about changes that are visible to the people before they go to the polls to elect a new government. Only if crucial sectors of the electorate are convinced that the Karamanlis government can do better than it has until now will its ratings cease to decline. There is no other way to reverse the downward trend in the ruling party’s opinion poll percentages. Papandreou’s tightrope act PASOK is certainly having a very hard time getting any mileage out of ND’s predicament. Amid doubts as to his leadership abilities, George Papandreou is torn between radically renewing the party’s platform and its representatives, and maintaining an equilibrium within the party itself. He himself is inclined to do the former, but his almost instinctive unwillingness to take political risks is forcing him to walk a tightrope. His associates are pressing him to move faster but he appears to be taking the possibility of reactions into consideration. Of course, PASOK has deteriorated into a party of officials that tend to throw themselves behind their leader even when they don’t agree with him. However it is a different story when their own personal survival is at stake. Perhaps that is why Papandreou is being forced to play a game with words rather than actions. Instability within the main opposition party, and its inability to exploit the government’s decline even a little, might be the crucial factor in the next elections. Experience, however, has shown that this is not enough on its own to guarantee ND a second term. If popular dissatisfaction goes over certain limits, the criterion of comparison will favor a negative vote. Pakistani affair The truth is that it would normally take some time before things reached that point, but the ND government has displayed a capacity to go downhill much faster than their rivals could have hoped for. Consequently, the game is still open. While just a few day ago the spotlight was on the undoubted achievement of securing 20.1 billion euros from the European Union budget, today the government is having to deal with the alleged abduction of Pakistanis. The problem has been resting on the shoulders of Public Order Minister Giorgos Voulgarakis, but not solely. Obviously Voulgarakis did not act completely on his own in tolerating the Greek secret services’ role in this kind of illegal action; the government, after all, hastened to give him its backing, even though on a personal level certain of Voulgarakis’s colleagues, for obvious reasons, took care to distance themselves. The critical turning point in this affair was undoubtedly the release of the names of the agents who allegedly took part in the operation. The ball is now in the hands of the public prosecutor, who appears determined to get to the bottom of the affair. At least that is what is apparent from its move to take the brief from the security service and carry out its own investigation. On the other hand, there is no doubt the prosecutor will be under considerable pressure. It is not only the government that fears the affair might develop into a full-blown political scandal that could cost it dearly. According to reliable sources, London and Washington have been working on the sidelines to have the affair hushed up as soon as possible. The government is already under fire from opposition parties, and this will escalate at the first sign of interference in the judicial procedure. For Karamanlis the case is an additional burden as it threatens to affect his relationship not only with the Communist Party and Synaspismos Left Coalition but with the center-left public, who view him with favor, and a large percentage of whom voted for him in March 2004 simply to bring down PASOK. Reshuffle These developments add another dimension to what has been rumored as an imminent Cabinet reshuffle. There are two reasons why this might take place within January rather than March. First of all, in view of the difficult six months ahead, there is a need to give the impression of a dynamic new beginning, and, secondly, to correct the dysfunctional way in which the government operates. According to a government official, however, the reshuffle is a «golden opportunity for Karamanlis to find a political way of out of the affair by pushing it off onto Voulgarakis, who has been compromised and will most likely soon find himself in a much more difficult position.» Irrespective of when a reshuffle takes place, the question of whether to give Dora Bakoyannis the Foreign Ministry is a crucial factor in maintaining an equilibrium within ND. If the persistent rumors prove correct, the current mayor of Athens will prevail and receive official approval as an alternative within the government as well. That is particularly important because of the damage sustained by Karamanlis’s own image within his party. Everything points to the likelihood of a limited reshuffle, although several changes are expected at deputy ministerial level to give other parliamentary deputies a chance to prove their mettle in government. The prime minister does not want to make major changes that could have undesirable consequences for the government’s work, but he has to consider the pressure from his parliamentary group. Yet if the polls show a further narrowing of the gap between the two parties, Karamanlis will be sorely tempted to declare an early election while he still has his lead. Certainly the likelihood of a snap election is disturbing Papandreou’s sleep and is another reason for him to tread cautiously within his own party for fear of having to deal with disgruntled figures who might want to make their presence felt. Whatever happens, the correlation of forces as shown in polls next May and June will have a decisive effect on the climate. If ND manages to hang onto even the narrow lead it enjoys today, it stands a good chance of winning a second term. If, however, PASOK comes within breathing distance, it will be an extremely close call. This in itself will affect that category of voters who tend to throw their weight behind winners.

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