OPINION

Our democratic deficit

Let’s be heretics and say it out loud: There is a problem with our democracy. Not because we don’t have political parties and lively political debate, a free and licentious press and elections which, since the end of the last dictatorship in 1974, have been held with decreasing fanfare and ever greater seriousness. It’s just that we don’t have elections often enough. Because the great circus that is our public life only seems to come alive when election fever hits. These days, we have national elections every four years, unless something untoward happens and early elections are called. Local and regional elections are held every four, with the last ones held in 2002. European-wide elections for the European Parliament are held every five years, with the next ones due next June. Presidential elections in Greece are held every five years, with the next ones due in the spring of 2005 – though this election does not have a direct effect on the electorate since Parliament elects the nation’s president. Parliament’s failure to elect a president by the necessary majority would lead to national elections. So, in all, from 1998 through 2005 we will have had, at least, eight different elections. That is an average of one electoral contest per year. And that is not enough. Because, as we have seen in the week or two since everyone trotted back from their August holidays, suddenly everything seems to be working. The government is talking policy, announcing handouts and inaugurating public works. The opposition is up and about and trading insults with the government and being oppositionary. The government managed to pass legislation in a bid to rescue Olympic Airways, as if the bloated chrysalis of debt and labor unrest could give forth a slim, trim and pretty new Olympic Airlines. And the civil service is sitting pretty. Even the main opposition party, New Democracy, which last week promised to do away with what it describes as 4,000 departments in the state machinery that do nothing, is not suggesting that anyone who staffed these black holes should be sacked. Firing slackers in the civil service (who, it must be said, now appear to be better paid than their unfortunate, toiling brethren in the private sector) would be akin to tampering with our ethnic DNA, and, as we are keenly aware, it is only the Americans who foolishly play God with genetic modifications to everything that crosses their path. With the 2.36 billion euros’ worth of promises that the government made on Tuesday – from slashing the tax on farmers’ fuel by 90 percent to offering cheaper cars to all, higher pensions and civil service wages and larger unemployment benefits – everyone can look forward to a better year. Also, the main public works projects, especially roads, are scheduled for completion at the beginning of 2004, just in time for the elections, which must be held by early May. The next construction deadline will be the Olympics in August, in which case we hope that the projects related to this momentous event will not be forgotten in the aftermath of the elections. In short, the country is functioning as well as it ever does. And we have the elections to thank for this. But the sudden revival of politics and policy just goes to show the pity of our losing three years every time the electorate hands a party a mandate to wield almost absolute power for four whole years. Inevitably, victory by an incumbent results in a year of little being done because the key officials of the ruling party are so relieved at their unbelievable luck that they don’t feel they need to rock the boat by doing anything to contradict their previous behavior. This means that, despite the promises, there will be none of the radical reforms that the country needs to bring its labor and social security policy and its education system up to the standards necessary to compete in an increasingly risky global market. So there will be more pandering to the special interests that keep parties fat, allowing their members to get rich without working – either because special relationships with organized groups, such as labor unions, provide a ready supply of votes to keep them in office, or because of the special symbiosis with business and media magnates which makes both the politicians and the businessmen rich. Opposition parties, too, live off the scraps they scavenge from this net of political and business interests, never shouting too loudly as they do not want to spoil the system that is always dangling just beyond their grasp and which the next elections always promise to land them. Anyhow, national elections lead to about a year of self-congratulation and sloth. Then, because the four-year mandate will be interrupted by at least two or three second-tier elections (for local government, the European Parliament or whatever), as well as an endless number of opinion polls (that bane of modern democracy), the government will shrink from doing anything that would play badly with the public and make it appear that it will lose the next national elections. No one wants to have the smell of a loser about them, because immediately the scavengers within the party begin jockeying for position. We have seen this in PASOK’s last few years: from its skin-of-the-teeth victory in the April 2000 elections through its undignified retreat in the face of opposition to its proposals for social security reform to the two years of polls showing that it is trailing ND by about 8 percent. Immediately, defeatism spread within the party and the knives were out for party leader Simitis. It is only now, with a few months to go before the elections, that Simitis has sprung to life and, responding to voter fatigue after PASOK’s long tenure in power, decided to change PASOK before the voters change government. In doing this, he has jettisoned the party general secretary (Costas Laliotis), who appeared to have invested in PASOK’s upcoming defeat, and replaced him with a close confidant in the reformist camp (Michalis Chrysochoidis). Simitis has also begun to hand out promises and benefits, copying the old populist PASOK that he has spent so much time trying to deconstruct since his rise to party leadership in 1996. If the opposition wins elections, it spends most of its initial period in power changing everyone in positions of influence in the state machinery. Its ministers spend a year or two learning their field of responsibility (if they are dedicated to serving the public at all, otherwise they spend all their tenure trying to be invisible while enjoying the trappings of power, offering no target for the opposition, critics within their own party and the media). By this time, the mechanics of the second-tier elections plus the opinion polls have the effect of freezing the government once more until impending national elections force it do something again. In short, no matter who wins, the result is that three out of every four years are wasted. It is a fallacy that longer terms lead to more stable government which in turn leads to government making unpopular decisions. Longer mandates, instead, create a network of interests whose survival depends on the government’s survival, irrespective of the needs of the rest of the country. The solution is simple: Seeing as we cannot change all our politicians, we must change the system. As the months before the elections are the only months in which the common people have a say, and three-quarters of the government’s mandate is wasted anyway, then we should have elections every year. This will lead to the better functioning of our democracy for a number of reasons. Elections every year would mean that we will be in a perpetual state of election fever, which means that, in order to survive, we will become somewhat immune and will treat elections and all they entail (changes of ruling party, etc) as something routine rather than something with a great impact on our lives. It may change the lives of those bidding for our votes, who might lose their jobs, but it will not change ours because we’ll get to vote again next year. Secondly, governments will have to hit the ground running and carry out the reforms that the country needs without spending forever worrying about the «political cost.» Because if a party falls from power because it made an unpopular decision which, in the end, turned out to be good for the country, it will be voted back into power sooner rather than later if elections are held every year. If elections are held every four, a number of issues could crop up to obscure the fact that the previous government had been right to bite the bullet. Thirdly, the deadly grip of special interests would be broken. Parties would not be able to crowd the civil service with their own hacks every time they came to power, because with annual elections they simply would not have time to sideline the previous government’s supporters and hire their own. They would have to keep the system as it is. With favoritism abolished, civil servants would then be open to evaluation and subject to accountability. This would, in turn, lead to people being promoted on merit rather than party allegiance, resulting, at some point, in a more efficient public administration. As we all know, a disastrous public administration has been the bane of Greece for as long as we can remember, with no hope of a solution in sight. Annual elections offer hope out of this impasse. Also, unions and business interests will have to have good relations with all parties that have a chance of coming to power. This will destroy that special relationship with one side or the other that does so much to distort our democracy. Annual elections, with frequent changes of government will also drive the final nail into the coffin of Left-Right divisions that have plagued modern Greece since its birth. And, perhaps most importantly, elections every year will bring out the best in all of us. As the Olympics preparations have shown, nothing concentrates our national mind like a fixed deadline. We cannot create in times of peace and quiet. We can only be united and active when the ground under our feet is on fire. But that’s when, like bears, we do our best dancing. This proposal may be outrageous, but, hell, we invented democracy, why shouldn’t we do some fine-tuning?