A loss of nerve

This year should have been a triumph for Costas Simitis. Instead, six months after wrapping up Greece’s successful presidency of the European Union, he is in danger of losing the leadership of his party and being replaced as prime minister. And, if this does happen, it will not be the result of some fatal error by Simitis, nor because the country has run aground on the rocks of some unforeseen problem, nor as the result of a palace coup. Instead, it will result simply from the ruling party’s leadership losing its nerve ahead of the elections. This presents us with an interesting study of how politics work in Greece, at the end of a most interesting year. 2003 will mostly be known as the handmaiden of 2004, the year that will host national elections and, far more importantly, the Athens Olympics. The elections will shape politics for a few years: Will we give PASOK more time because we have become used to it, or will we allow the conservative New Democracy party an opportunity to show whether it has the guts to tackle the difficult reforms PASOK has pussyfooted about with? The Olympics will determine the way Greece is seen around the world for at least the next generation. From August onward, others will know us not so much for our ancient heritage but for what we managed to do with the Olympics, for good or ill. And yet the end of 2003 has been dominated by the shadowboxing caused by rumors that Simitis may be forced to jump ship ahead of the elections. This is based mostly on the premise that the 7 or 8 percentage-point lead the conservative ND party has enjoyed over PASOK in the opinion polls the past year is far more important than the fact that in the same polls voters consistently chose Simitis as the best candidate for prime minister, slightly ahead of ND’s Costas Karamanlis. The speculation also does not take into account the fact that 17 percent of voters are still undecided, meaning that anything can happen between now and the elections. Another intriguing factor the speculation does not consider is that Simitis is one of the few adults in Greek politics, and possibly the only politician to have a strategy, so perhaps the electoral battle and the PASOK leadership battle should not be considered as being over. And, oddly, one of the premises for all the rumors is the possibility of Simitis being offered one of the leadership positions in the united Europe being created, providing him with the perfect exit strategy. This ignores the fact that none of these jobs has been offered and that it would be a little more vain than usual for the Greeks to think that the man in whom the ruling party seems to have lost confidence should be good enough to take charge of the fate of Europe so as to ease developments in PASOK. But then again, we always tend to think the world is turning around us as we fiddle away at our navels. Whatever devious motives or just plain folly is involved here, one thing is clear: If PASOK thought it could win elections with Simitis at the helm, it would simply have avoided this whole mess. That would assume that PASOK is some kind of thinking entity rather than an assortment of oddly coagulating coalitions making things up as they go along. Which implies either that Simitis is behind the current turmoil or has been forced to play for time until he can take control of the situation, as he has several times during his record-breaking continuous eight-year tenure as prime minister. The statement he made in Parliament on Monday that he will play a leading role in developments could be seen as capitulation to the inevitable, an indication that what was happening was at his initiative, or, possibly, he was just playing for time by not saying clearly whether he will lead PASOK in the next elections. The next few weeks will end the uncertainty. Simitis, while focused on the EU presidency in the first half of the year, took his eye off the ball in Greece. Admittedly, it was a very difficult time for Europe. But, with a minimum of fuss, the Greek prime minister and his government managed to keep the EU intact at a time when the US-led war against Iraq and the divisions this sowed in the EU threatened to erode decades of hard work. But Greece also managed to move forward several very important items on the agenda, such as the start of an immigration policy, a new security and defense policy and agricultural reform. Athens also hosted one of the most important events in EU history, the signing of accession treaties with the 10 new countries, in the EU’s single biggest expansion. A springtime Athens was at its very best as the leaders of a new Europe signed the treaty and, in an instant, pushed the borders of the EU right up to Russia, erasing, in effect, the Yalta agreement that had determined the geography of Europe in the postwar years. It took a lot of hard work and inspiration to achieve what the Greek presidency did and this was duly noted – everywhere but in Greece. Here, because issues of important policy are meaningless if not part of some dramatic grudge match (and things such as a Pan-European immigration policy or agricultural reform are just not sexy enough for our politicians and news media), it made a lot of sense even for members of PASOK to complain that Simitis was spending too much time on Europe while the Greek people suffered a higher cost of living. The price of parsley in street markets became the barometer of public approval. And so Simitis rushed to regain lost ground. But everything appeared to be too late. He reshuffled PASOK’s leadership radically, throwing out General Secretary Costas Laliotis, whose advice Simitis had foolishly followed in turning politics into a head-on confrontation with New Democracy, playing up the opposition as some hard-right bogeyman from the past. The new general secretary, Michalis Chrysochoidis, is much more palatable to voters across the political spectrum, but, disastrously, leading PASOK members immediately began to plead with Laliotis not to turn his back on the party. The government also introduced a package of social spending estimated to cost 2.6 billion euros, offering everything from higher pensions to cheaper cars. It then presented a «Convergence Charter,» promising to bring Greece in line with its EU partners with a 10 percent rise in per capita GDP over the next four years, bringing average real wages and productivity to 90 percent of the EU average by 2008. But all this could not compete with the price of parsley. Seeing that PASOK’s greatest enemy was voter fatigue, Simitis chose to renew his party and government rather than have the voters do it for him. (It would be a logical extension of that process if he too was replaced by someone like Foreign Minister George Papandreou who, like Chrysochoidis, has wide public appeal). Simitis has also thrown tons of money at every social group, using the tried and tested PASOK method of making promises to all. Still this did not seem to persuade people to change their stance in opinion polls, which brings us back to the start of the troubles. The irony is that Simitis’s government has proven time and again that, like Greece’s entry into the eurozone, it can fulfill promises, even if it has to cook the books a little to do so. Now it seems as if people care more about the cooked books than the results. What the hypothetical musical chairs tend to hide is that people are ripe for reforms that will improve their lives. It is very likely that they will vote for the party that promises to carry out reforms that will make our economy, labor force and bureaucracy more competent and also throw out some people and companies feeding at the public trough. It will not matter so much who makes this promise, as long it is made. There is plenty of time before the elections and every possibility is open. But those involved have to realize that the monster that they have to battle to win is the monster of public expectation of something better at last. And if Simitis is to step down, one of the greatest things that will be said to his credit will be that he proved that Greek politics has been weaned off the cult of personality. So it is doubly strange that all the talk today is about people, not policies.