Without a shadow of doubt

The crisis that has hit PASOK and over which all of Greece has been obsessing for the past 10 days is one of those moments of relative clarity in the endless confusion of our public life when we believe that we can see the twisted beams and rotten supports of what keeps the system standing but also prevents it from getting any better. It is like an ensemble variation on the incident that we experienced so clearly this past autumn, when a hitherto nameless mid-level Finance Ministry official, Rubini Stathea, committed suicide after government figures «outed» her for allegedly holding up the demolition of properties that had been built illegally on Attica’s beaches. Although she tried to defend herself by claiming that all she was doing was following the law to the letter (at a time when, for political reasons, the government needed to look tough by cracking down on illegal construction), Rubini Stathea’s death appears, by all indications, to have been caused by her inability to withstand the slings and arrows of outraged political figures and outrageous news bulletins. Suddenly, in the middle of a forest of tangled interests, confusing roles, conflicting laws and general mismanagement, Stathea found herself caught like a rabbit in our obsessive country’s headlights. And she took her own life, forgetting, or perhaps not caring, that we are as forgetful as we are obsessive. No one remembers her now as we live through this latest national misadventure. Very briefly, PASOK has barred nine current members of Parliament (including a deputy economy minister who was in charge of billions of euros of EU funds) from running for re-election on March 7. Their crime was that the MPs’ names appeared on a piece of legislation presented by Deputy Economy Minister Christos Pachtas that would allow the construction company owning the Porto Carras hotel resort in Halkidiki to build some 500 holiday homes on the property. The problem is that Halkidiki is Pachtas’s constituency and that his superior, Economy Minister Nikos Christodoulakis, did not know Pachtas was trying to get the law passed. Efforts to get it through Parliament, during which New Democracy MPs also had signed on to it, had failed. The plot, however, thickened when a 10th deputy, former Deputy Education Minister Yiannis Anthopoulos, confessed that he had forged the names of three of the other eight MPs who had appeared to sign the legislation, making it law. The interesting thing in the story is how much smoke has been created and so many certainties proclaimed about an incident in which no illegality has been confirmed – apart from Anthopoulos’s sheer stupidity. An otherwise civilized pre-election period has plunged into an ongoing shootout, in which New Democracy accuses PASOK of corruption and PASOK charges the conservatives with complicity and demands that they too clean house. For 10 days, we have heard nothing (and cared less) about the policies that the two major parties intend to carry out if they are elected. The election, at least for now, has become a brawl over the Pachtas Amendment. Although this is a sad situation, in which several political careers have been destroyed and some people will live forever with the burden of guilt without having been convicted of anything in a court of law, it has allowed the public a glimpse of how things work in our political system and how our two main parties comport themselves in a crisis. The way in which the amendment was signed appears scandalous to us mere mortals. A deputy minister got a colleague to round up some other party members (for a grand total of 10) to sign on to an amendment that was tagged onto another law, late at night, a few weeks before Parliament dissolved for the elections. Some of those whose names appeared on the amendment had not even seen it, as one of their colleagues had taken it upon himself to add their signatures personally. Others were told that everything was OK, that the government wanted the amendment passed and that it was all perfectly legal. Why should they question their own government’s intentions? This procedure, unfortunately, has been carried out countless times, as Parliament has become a legislative factory where committees discuss things separately and MPs may sign legislation they know nothing about because they were on another committee. This time, however, the 10 PASOK members involved were caught out, like suckers in a game of musical chairs. When the music stopped and everyone sat down, there they were, standing with an embarrassing piece of legislation in their hands. The music stopped because this is a pre-election period and everyone’s sensitivities to last-minute shenanigans are at their highest pitch. The opposition is ready to cry scandal, the news media sensationalize everything in an endless news loop that needs as much literal and metaphorical cannibalism as possible to survive, and the government is likely to act under the influence of panic, precisely because every hint of scandal will be magnified to the point where it will look like the evidence of a crime has been carved in stone, as if it is some undeniable, universal truth. In a pre-election period, everything has greater political significance than usual. But when the ruling party is in the middle of a leadership change and the new leader is basing his campaign message on the fact that a new wind is blowing through Greek politics, the sudden appearance of backroom dealings between some ruling party members and a construction firm (to erect villas in a forest, no less), then all the alarm bells start ringing. That is when the art of politics has to assert itself at the cost of all else, including justice. So, whereas Pachtas claimed that he had done no wrong and was simply solving a problem to allow a major investment to go ahead in a region with an unemployment problem but which just happens to be his own constituency, and whereas some of the MPs who signed the bill said that they did so in good faith while others, it turned out, had not signed it at all, all of them were punished with the destruction of their political careers. This is because, in order to look tough, George Papandreou, the sole contender for PASOK’s leadership at a congress next weekend, took out the great moral saber and cut off their heads. It was nothing personal, he said, but the party had to show that it would tolerate no shadowy dealings as it made a new beginning. This makes perfect sense politically, but, as we have seen so many times, Greece is full of second acts; some of them serious and others less so. The deputies who feel that they have been unjustly shamed have been constantly on television channels, ensuring that the crisis will not fade away. And although Papandreou’s action appears to have been effective in the eyes of the general public, it is likely to sow seeds of disaffection and suspicion in his own party. Because, whether or not all those involved in the Pachtas affair were guilty of any crime, all have been brutally punished. In their second act, some of them will appear to have been treated unjustly and that will come to burden PASOK’s new leadership. Papandreou, too, is a second act of sorts, coming to lead the party that his father, Andreas, founded in 1973 and dominated until his death in 1996. His decapitation of the 10 is reminiscent of the way in which his famously autocratic (within PASOK) father would dismiss Cabinet ministers on a whim. Although George Papandreou is being treated by PASOK supporters as the dream candidate for every conflicting faction within the turbulent party, he will find that times have changed and such sweeping political actions may look good at one moment but could come back to haunt him. Costas Simitis’s tenure as prime minister and leader of PASOK has been a time in which government and party institutions, though still weaker than anyone would like, have functioned more efficiently than ever before. And so, apart from having given everyone a glimpse into how laws are made, apart from giving the smiling and mild-mannered George Papandreou an opportunity to show his teeth and to drive home the message that he will tolerate no hint of corruption, it should prove a lesson to him and to others as well. There are institutions that should solve problems such as this. If Pachtas and Anthopoulos had not tried to improvise at an inopportune time, and had followed laborious procedures for such a sensitive bit of legislation, no one would have been in this trouble today. If PASOK’s leadership (split awkwardly for the time being between the prime minister and his successor as party chairman) had simply referred the whole case to the party’s disciplinary organs, we might just have had an opportunity in which punishment, so arbitrary, can be tempered by justice.

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