The vision thing

The talk yesterday was all about the winners and losers of the so-called debate between political party leaders on Thursday night. The consensus was that the three small leftist parties were winners, having made the best of an unprecedented opportunity to share airtime equally with the big two. Then, depending on how partisan one was, PASOK’s George Papandreou lost to a lesser or greater extent, while New Democracy’s Costas Karamanlis won some points, or, at worst, did not lose any. The result is a sense of the growing inevitability of PASOK’s defeat in next Sunday’s elections, because a soft-spoken and often hesitant Papandreou appeared unable to present his party’s message in an inspiring way. Karamanlis, on the other hand, appeared expansive and confident, although he too did not really have any message other than «PASOK has given all it had to give. The country needs a political change.» The debate (a series of five parallel news conferences really) was seen as a beauty contest, or a soccer match – or, at best, a speaking competition. What few noted is that every one of us lost from Thursday night’s misuse of more than two and a half hours which more than 40 percent of the population watched. We learned very little about the issues that will shape the future of this country and how those who will govern propose to deal with them. Papandreou defended his party’s achievements while promising a «new era» in all of the five categories in which party leaders each faced two questions: social policy, foreign affairs, the economy, public administration and education. Karamanlis saw only the bad in what PASOK has done (though toward the end, he did say he did not want «to flatten everything,» in the sense of not acknowledging some good) while promising jobs, investments and development. In fact, all the party leaders appeared to be just a step away from solving all the country’s problems by creating jobs, attracting investments and stoking development. The Communist Party’s Aleka Papariga, enjoying the benefit of absolute faith in her party’s religion, called for a doubling of minimum incomes to 1,100 euros per month, while also calling for workers not to have to make social security payments (at a time when there are 1.8 employees for every pensioner). Asked how Greece could afford all this, she said simply: «The economy can take it, very well. It’s the profits that can’t bear it… We are opposed to the plutocracy.» In other words, the rich will pay for everything and companies should not have profits. Dimitris Tsovolas, of the Democratic Social Movement (DIKKI), which polls show getting about 1 percent, was even more magnanimous, calling for a minimum income of 1,250 euros per month within four years. Everybody spoke about more investments and greater development, as if these can come about without any painful changes. Greece has had the highest growth rate in the European Union in recent years without this solving all its problems. Last year, the GDP growth rate was 4.7 percent, of which, the government says, about 1 percent was the result of the inflow of EU funds. In terms of investments, the picture is very bleak. The Bank of Greece said earlier this month that in the first 11 months of 2003, direct foreign investment in Greece was negative. In 2002, such investments came to 53.4 million euros (by far the lowest in the EU). Active foreign investment in Greece is worth about 10 percent of GDP (in Ireland it is 60 percent). Not one of the party leaders in Thursday’s debate provided specific measures that could be taken to improve this situation, other than Papandreou’s and Karamanlis’s promises of a better education system and declarations that they will not tolerate the corruption that is endemic in the public administration. One might blame the time limits – as party leaders had only 90 seconds in which to answer a question – but these were limits set by the parties themselves. So the leaders must have intended to avoid the challenge of having to expand on their positions, in which case they are solely to blame for the fact that viewers got no substance. The whole thing was so stilted as to look like a game show that might have been called «Who Wants to be Prime Minister,» as one wit put it. The problem is not that anyone missed the insults and gore that are part of a traditional political campaign, and which would have been unavoidable if the party leaders had been thrown at each other in a free for all. The problem is that at a time when the current prime minister, Costas Simitis, is stepping down and a new one will take his place, we need to know how the next leader evaluates the country’s problems and how he plans to deal with it. At a time when the divisions between Left and Right are not valid (but still dictate the language of the debate), when all the old international certainties have disappeared and Greece has to chart a course in a much more dangerous world, the «vision thing» is of the utmost importance. We are going through a change of skipper on the ship of state and those who are competing to replace him have not convinced us that they can see, let alone that they have a vision of where we should be going. And our new leader must not only be seen to have the power of sight, but must also be able to inspire. Because Greece will have to make difficult choices very soon if it wants to avoid dependance on the kindness of strangers. And difficult choices – such as reform of the labor and social security systems – can be made only when the crew is persuaded that they will be worth it. Thursday’s debate was lauded as a great step for democracy in that it gave the three smaller parties a chance to present their policies on equal terms with the big ones. But because neither the Communist Party (which gets about 5 percent of the vote) nor Synaspismos Left Coalition and DIKKI (both of which are struggling to clear the 3 percent threshold for entry to Parliament) are going to lead the country on March 8, their focus on Thursday was to win over as many voters as possible. They did not need to say anything that might be unpopular. This would, of course, stifle any wish by the two main parties to say anything that would cost them votes, as they are the ones with everything to lose in the discussion. So, can we speak about democracy gaining when citizens cannot get a clear picture of whom they’ll be voting for in the elections? But even while avoiding such pitfalls Papandreou and Karamanlis could have tried to inspire their faithful and win over the undecided by showing that they had ideas that would help Greece to be a winner in the coming years. They could have spoken about the creative integration of immigrants, who now comprise about 10 percent of the population, in ways that will save social security funds and spur productivity. They did not mention migrants once. They could have warned farmers that EU subsidies cannot be counted on for many more years, while explaining how quality and organically grown products could help turn Greece into an internationally known brand (though Papandreou did touch on this). They could have said something unexpected and inspired, such as that they will try to set up a framework for the education system and business to work together to exploit the opportunities of globalization. Greeks, of course, cannot compete with Indians in providing offshore services to US companies, something which has become a major issue in America, but surely someone has some ideas as to how technology can be harnessed to market the skills (technical, artistic and linguistic) that Greeks have shown in every corner of the world. Greece has a surfeit of highly specialized doctors, surely they can be used by foreign hospitals needing diagnoses via the Internet. What about Greek academics who live abroad and who could contribute to programs being coordinated in Greece, or vice versa? What about simplifying procedures for foreign citizens living in Greece, providing incentives that will bring them into such projects that can be carried out here and the results exported? (Which citizen of northern and central European countries would not like to live in Greece, if the conditions were right?) Such systems would not only attract investments and create jobs in the specific project, but would form a nucleus for other activities and services (and tax revenues). Creating highly specialized sectors in, for example, business, universities and hospitals will make Greece known for specific achievements and so set off a chain of development. Greece can exploit its geographical position, its people’s talents and the expertise of Greeks abroad. Now that the taboo on non-state universities is crumbling, perhaps an English-language university can help attract academic talent and students. But someone has to think about these things, to imagine the details, to tell Greeks that this is how investments and development and jobs will come. Those who want to lead Greece into the new century might be thinking about these things, but on Thursday they did not share their vision with us. They have a week in which to take risks that might inspire us.