Tilting debate onto a populist track

George Papandreou, the prematurely anointed leader of PASOK, is still finding his way as well as his words. Under pressure from public opinion and Socialist campaign managers who have been calling for more concrete action, Papandreou has during the past few days embarked on fragmentary pledges in a clear, albeit sensationalist, attempt to cause a stir. This was manifest during a visit to the working-class port of Lavrion on Tuesday, when Papandreou proposed that school graduates under the age of 25 and university graduates under 29 be employed at full wages without paying social security contributions. The proposal – a half-measure without an in-depth assessment of the various parameters and the possible economic and social repercussions – was a highly populist move that latches onto family insecurities over youth unemployment. However, such a measure is nowhere near offering a genuine solution to a complex issue that touches upon the country’s productive and structural shortcomings. Apart from being highly populist, Papandreou’s promise, and others to come (which are unabashedly advertised by the equally populist media), influence the pre-election dialogue, distorting the agenda and misplacing political energy. Instead of focusing on specific and comprehensive solutions that incorporate cohesive and well-coordinated policies, the discourse has been taken over by slogans and campaign fireworks. Furthermore, Papandreou’s stance inevitably provokes the conservative opposition. Papandreou forces, or rather incites, New Democracy leader Costas Karamanlis to take a similar line, to enter the populism zone – something that he has cautiously avoided so far, knowing that the day after the elections will be a tough one. It will certainly demand much more than what is involved in the now-dominant electioneering tactics. That said, Papandreou must avoid tilting the pre-election campaign onto a populist track. He must not get caught up in the logic of cost-free pledges and demagogic language. Doing so will cultivate impossible expectations and shape an environment of excessive demands at a time which calls for prudence, hard work and radical reforms.

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