A great year, already

So here we are, three days into 2004 and it is already looking like a great year. Since 1997 we had known that this would be the year in which Greece would host the Olympics, demanding a national effort to present the greatest show on earth. But, on May 1, the year will also see Cyprus joining the European Union, along with Malta and eight other countries, all of whom were Soviet satellites during the Cold War. This is also the year in which Turkey, if it wants to start accession talks with the EU, has to help solve the Cyprus issue and come to an agreement with Greece over the delineation of the continental shelf between the Greek islands and the Turkish mainland, or allow the issue to go to the International Court of Justice at The Hague. Also, for those who don’t care about the Olympics and Greece’s image abroad, or about foreign policy, our national squad will be playing at the European Championships in Portugal this summer. And, under German trainer Otto (Express) Rehhagel, it will be keen to wipe out the shame of being the 1994 World Cup’s undisputed punching bag. All this already makes for a significant year, which, like a game of snakes and ladders, is full of promise and peril, and, like the game, will definitely have winners and losers. The difference is that a throw of the dice will not be the sole arbiter of our fates. Our own skill, determination, inspiration and perspiration will decide just where we will be this time next year. If the balance sheet shows success, we will face the new century with new self-confidence. If we fail, we will at least have gained in self-awareness. In any case, in 2004 we will look at ourselves harder than we have at any time in recent memory. Three days into 2004 we already face developments that will play an important part in what our future holds. It became clear beyond doubt yesterday that Prime Minister Costas Simitis will be handing over the leadership of the PASOK party to his trusted aide, Foreign Minister George Papandreou, who could become the country’s next prime minister as well if the center-left party manages to retain power in the elections, probably slated for March 14 or 21. This is just before the lighting of the Olympic Flame on March 25, which will serve also as a kind of baptism of the new government, connecting it irrevocably to the final countdown for the Athens Games. Politics would earn Greece gold if it were an Olympic sport, because, aside from inventing democracy, the Greeks have never stopped improvising. Over the past century we had everything, including foreign occupation and resistance, civil war, monarchy, coups and countercoups, military governments and democracy – each with several variations. The triumph of the Simitis government over the past eight years – starting with his selection as prime minister in January 1996, his election as PASOK leader and his triumph in national elections later that year – has been to make politics mundane and to get the political system to function in a collective manner. Never before had the government’s organs met so intensively to plan and carry out policy. The fact that this did not spread very well to the public administration, that big interests’ tentacles spread even deeper into the public trough and that the government, in the end, chickened out and did not introduce some very belated reforms, should not distract us from this. Under Simitis’s predecessor, the late Andreas Papandreou, and the charismatic leaders of right-wing parties, the Cabinet and other bodies generally met at the leader’s whim in order to rubber-stamp his latest inspiration. Simitis introduced the politics of consensus, but he had the steel in him to force party members to back him when he wanted to follow a tricky course or when his leadership was challenged. Now, without any real reason other than the loss of PASOK’s nerve in the face of opinion polls that show it trailing New Democracy by about 8 percent ahead of the elections, Simitis is preparing to hand over power in the next few weeks. It is difficult to know what is going through Simitis’s mind these days, as he spends the weekend at his family home at Korakahori near Olympia, but he is probably not altogether unhappy. Because aside from making Greek politics shamefully normal, Simitis always gave the impression that he was not mad about holding on to power personally. Even when he bid for the PASOK parliamentary group’s vote in early 1996 when the ailing Andreas Papandreou could no longer function as prime minister, Simitis famously read a newspaper while the wrangling for votes was going on. Simitis had always seemed an odd choice to lead PASOK and he did not win the post of chairman in June 1996 without a fight, and without Papandreou’s son, now Simitis’s successor, throwing his weight behind Simitis in a dramatic speech at the party congress. Now Simitis gets to repay the favor and, even though polls consistently show him as the more suitable candidate (just ahead of Karamanlis) for the post of prime minister, he can take his hat and head home, making as graceful an exit as is possible in Greek politics. PASOK has once again managed to get some zest into the political system, completing the radical step that Simitis took last autumn by changing the party leadership, excepting himself. Now, perhaps as the natural extension of his own radical thought, he too is on his way out. If PASOK manages to swing the election, this will certainly be a classic case of politics for the textbooks. The certainty of a new leader of PASOK, the dominant force in Greek politics for the past 20 years, and of a new prime minister in a couple of months no matter which party wins the elections, is a milestone in itself. But perhaps the most interesting thing is that the Simitis model has established itself. George Papandreou is perhaps the PASOK member who is closest to Simitis in terms of thinking. Irrespective of his pedigree as the son and grandson of prime ministers (which gives him a legitimacy at grassroots level that cannot be bought), he is at once deeply rooted in this most populist of parties and the most outspokenly progressive person in Greek politics with regard to human rights and immigration, to Greece’s close ties both with Europe and the United States as well as with Turkey, the Balkans and the countries of the Middle East. He has gathered an inspired band of advisers who, although not readily digestible by the Greek system, have made a difference in terms of how Greece acts and how it is seen abroad. This creates capital and good will that can only work to the advantage of Greece’s foreign policy, especially with regard to solving the Cyprus problem, improving ties with Turkey and establishing lasting stability in the Balkans. Papandreou, at 51, is a leader who can keep Greece’s close relations with its partners in the European Union while also advancing the politics of consensus and reform introduced by Simitis. But (and in case this looked like a rather shameless plug for PASOK) much of what can be said in favor of George Papandreou can be said also of Costas Karamanlis, the other candidate for prime minister. He is the nephew and namesake of New Democracy’s founder. At 47, he too is from a new generation and is as progressive and outward-looking as Papandreou. Both Karamanlis and Papandreou have spoken out in favor of reform, understanding that the people want it, and not another abdication of this responsibility. Oddly, although both are scions of two of the country’s most established political dynasties (with the Mitsotakis clan’s Dora Bakoyianni, the mayor of Athens, breathing down Karamanlis’s neck), they are among the most progressive politicians in Greece and also seem to have an appetite to solve problems, even if difficult and costly. They have different parties, each with its own ideological baggage, but both have a legitimacy with voters that will allow them to take risks, if they dare to. This is what we will judge them against and this is the guarantee that they will not squander the opportunity, irrespective of who becomes prime minister. But the thing to look for in 2004 is the behavior of the Greek people themselves, beyond what their leaders and their athletes do, as the Greeks will elect a new Parliament while playing host to the world. Athenians will have to put up with ever greater discomfort until the Games arrive. These will offer an opportunity for the Greeks to outdo themselves, to put bad habits aside and improvise in order to secure the benefits of hard work and perseverance in preparing for the Olympics. Amid all the griping that constitutes our daily bread, it is worth remembering how the Greeks – almost all of them – dance. From the humblest backyard to the kitschiest provincial nightclub, when the clarinet begins to twitter and soar, the bouzouki begins to race, when the lyre or violin twists and thrusts, the Greeks rise above the daily grind, hold hands or dance alone, and with each step they touch the earth as their spirit looks up to the sky. And the band will be playing all year long.

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