Health minister is checking out of politics

It is rare for a minister in his prime to announce he will not run for Parliament in the next elections. Health Minister Alekos Papadopoulos, 53, makes no political accusations, but his announcement will affect the political climate. All the polls show New Democracy drawing steadily ahead. Electoral defeat seems unavoidable. We would draw that conclusion if we extended the present balance of forces in a straight line of conjecture. But in politics, as in life, developments are not usually linear. If we don’t react, if we allow ourselves to be carried along, we’ll be defeated. But there remains the option of a political counterattack. The prime minister is launching increasingly fierce attacks on ND, but I don’t see this benefiting PASOK. Ideological and political opposition to the conservatives is imperative, not just to rally our camp, but to give politics meaning. I keep hearing that the positions of the two major parties have converged, and that it doesn’t matter much to the average Greek whether PASOK or ND governs. I disagree. The political platforms of the two major parties may not be diametrically opposed, but they differ in quality, as they should. You are not one to wave the party flag. Have you been affected by the pre-election climate? You do me an injustice. I think we must aim for political consensus on important issues such as national affairs, health and education. I think it’s good that some mutual prejudices handed down from the past have been overcome. But I am even more certain that PASOK and ND are by nature destined to serve different social interests and this is as it should be. Otherwise, there would be a political gap which would be filled by extreme forces. You are speaking rather academically. Not at all. What I said should be self-evident. I’m in PASOK because I think it’s the party that gives priority to the needs of the working class. Its ideological development and some policies which diverge under the pressure of the needs of government do not alter that. I believe Costas Simitis has had a positive impact on the political life of Greece and still has something to offer it. Your party gives the impression it has become bound up with power and doesn’t want to lose it. But taking turns in power is one of the basic rules of the democratic system. Indeed it is, but you don’t expect a party which is in power to say, «We’ve been in power long enough, it’s time we handed it over to our opponents so that there’s a change.» Despite our problems, we believe we can govern the country better than ND; we have experienced officials and our political outlook and program are more correct. Have you been hearing people say that they are fed up with seeing the same people on the government benches? Of course PASOK’s long stay in power has wearied the public and may push some voters to the other side. But governing the country is far too serious a matter to be judged by non-political criteria or a negative vote. V-PRC’s latest poll compared ruling ministers with ND shadow ministers. You were one of two ministers who was less popular than their opponent. Do you attribute this to opposition to the health reforms? You can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs. The health reform hit vested interests. The strenuous opposition of university doctors was the most blatant but not the only case. With the changes, some people will lose not only their unproductive sinecure but significant amounts of illegal income. But it would be wrong to say that this is the main cause. So why does the public not prefer you? The truth is, I never was a very popular politician. It would be a lie to say it didn’t interest me, but it was never my first priority. «TV democracy» has its own iron rules. You have to negate a part of yourself to play by those rules. In «TV democracy,» the criteria have nothing to do with substance. It glorifies a smart reply that impresses, gets on the news and is discussed by the public. I won’t deny that a smart remark is a good thing, but politics shouldn’t come down to that. I don’t like complaining, but you’ll agree that few people are interested in long-term, difficult things like implementing reform. Few people judge a politician by the quality of his planned objectives, his belief in them and his consistent and systematic implementation of them. Are you saying that you’re not good at PR? It isn’t only that. The problem is intrinsic to the health sector. We chose to have a revolution and not to do some repair work just to make an impression. There are many serious problems in the sector, but, at the same time, thousands of doctors and nurses perform immense tasks and save many lives. You hear nothing about that, but any malfunction, even malicious claims, gets maximum publicity. Any health minister is at the mercy of the real or nonexistent cockroach, of an ambulance being held up in traffic and failing to deliver an emergency case on time. The everyday bombardment of the public with unpleasant images creates a negative stereotype which leads to easy rejection. You sound rather pessimistic. I’m merely describing the situation. Politics must serve the interests of society, and not adapt to the public mood. A politician must shape public awareness through his work, and not be at the mercy of opinion polls. When I implemented local administration reform my popularity fell. But the reform was completed and later approved by the public. Do you expect that political vindication will come later? I want to complete the [health] reform, not just because I’m a stubborn Epirote, but also because I deeply believe it is necessary. I honestly believe my endeavor will be vindicated politically in the years to come. You remind me of the premier when he says that when voters see the government’s work at the end of its term, they will reward PASOK. Since you provoke me, I tell you that I have no need of such reward. Why is that? Because I have decided not to be a candidate in the next Parliamentary elections. Now that’s news! Do you mean you’ll retire from politics? In one sense. I’m 53 and I think politics will never cease to interest me, so I’ll remain a member of PASOK and I’ll continue to fight for my ideas in that capacity. But I feel the need to change my life, to get out of the political spotlight, to do things I love and have missed. In the nearly 10 years that I’ve been in the government, I’ve lived almost one-dimensionally. I’ll withdraw, not – as you said before – because people are fed up with seeing us, but because I myself need to do so. After some time out of commission, I’ll probably suffer from withdrawal symptoms. But at the moment that’s how I feel and that’s what I’ll do. When did you decide this? A few months ago. I’ll stay on as minister because it is my wish and my duty to complete the reform of the health system. Besides, those are the orders of the prime minister who, I must say, has stood by me at difficult times and has shown his confidence in me. You don’t blame him for throwing you into the lions’ den by making you health minister? I prefer to take it as a sign that he considers me capable of difficult tasks. There are frontline ministerial portfolios that guarantee you not only free publicity but also immunity from the media. Why didn’t you wait until the election campaign to announce your decision? The people of Thesprotia have chosen me and it would be very wrong to surprise them. The community in our prefecture is small and the balance is delicate. It takes time to find new PASOK candidates and for them to work in the local community. Some people may accuse you of running away from electoral defeat. If there’s anyone who believes that my participation will decide which party wins the elections, I must send them flowers. It’s flattering, but I wouldn’t agree with it. Some people might link your decision to the fact that Thesprotia has gone from being a two-deputy to a one-deputy seat. So far, you’ve had a safe seat in Parliament, but in the next elections you risk losing it. In a one-seat electorate there is always the risking of losing. But I believe I would win it again. I could also move to the Second Athens electorate, where I live. People can say what they like, but that’s of no concern to me.