A senseless war on institutions

The SYRIZA-led government has moved very quickly to put its stamp on every level of the state, and the recent attacks on central bank governor Yannis Stournaras are the latest front in what is turning into a war on several state institutions. Many of Greece’s deep-rooted problems, however, stem from the weakness of institutions, from their credibility being undermined by the meddling of governments and opposition parties. Declaring war on them rather than strengthening them is not the way to get Greece back on its feet.

Indeed, at a time of great uncertainty, with an inexperienced government at the wheel, only strong and credible institutions can hold things together until a deal is reached with our creditors. Again, if Greece finds itself at an economic impasse, well-functioning institutions are all that will stand between governance and chaos. It is imperative that SYRIZA understand that its most important asset is the maintenance of the country’s institutional framework. SYRIZA’s ministers may point out that Greece’s institutions are weak, that they share much of the blame for the current situation. This is valid, up to a point: If Greece’s Parliament, the judiciary, the news media and independent state authorities had shown greater vigilance and intervened more dynamically, the dysfunction of years may have been stopped before the point of no return was reached in 2009. Instead, with few exceptions, everyone took for granted that the good years would continue. The Bank of Greece was one exception, as were a few lone voices in politics and the news media, who insisted that reform was the only way to prevent collapse.

However, SYRIZA was among the opposition parties which kept pushing for greater spending – and which opposed reforms. So its latest interventions look more like an inability to work with institutions rather than an effort to “improve” them. The SYRIZA and its junior partner, the right-wing Independent Greeks, have invested in a divisive strategy, declaring in effect that whoever is not with them is against them. Senior ministers, such as Nikos Voutsis and Panayiotis Lafazanis, talk of a “fifth column” working for foreign interests. The central bank’s governor has been accused of working against the government after an aide allegedly sent an e-mail describing deposit outflows and other data to a journalist. The bank has denied that Stournaras or his press office sent such information. In any event, the information belongs in the public sphere and should not be considered an embarrassment for the government and its release part of some dark plot.

In other incidents, Lafazanis has attacked the Regulatory Authority for Energy for proposing an electricity price hike, another minister demanded the resignation of the independent broadcast watchdog, and legislation that has since been withdrawn proposed a new age limit on the heads of independent authorities, which would have resulted in most being replaced. Many of these authorities were established under EU rules and are independent – as is the Bank of Greece. With such attacks, SYRIZA undermines institutions that it should strengthen and rely on rather than weaken.

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