OPINION

Politics in another dimension

For a nation that has politics twisted into its DNA, the Greeks have appeared strangely absent from this electoral campaign. This is not to say that the confrontation has not been shaped, more than ever, by public opinion or what pollsters perceive to be public opinion. The fact that it is George Papandreou who is leading PASOK in its battle to hold onto power in the face of a resurgent New Democracy was determined by opinion polls. Over the past two years or so, pollsters were certain that PASOK under Prime Minister Costas Simitis was headed for a disastrous loss, with the gap between the two major parties standing firm at about 8 percent last December. Polls found that Papandreou, the foreign minister until last month, was far and away the most popular member of PASOK, so, without further ado, the party accepted Simitis’s resignation as chairman and wholeheartedly endorsed Papandreou’s election. There were no other candidates, not because anyone stopped them from running but because the polls had shown that they would be wiped out. The old smoke-filled rooms in which party policy and leaders were chosen by cynical bargaining have been replaced by new smoke-filled rooms whose denizens endorse the findings of polls and then pass off the change to party members. But to reassure the electorate that politics have not really changed that much, we still have the mass rallies and the fireworks in which party leaders appear like messiahs or superstars while flag-waving supporters give each other the comfortable feeling that they are part of something much bigger than themselves. Supporters have to go out into the streets to confirm (or try to overturn) collectively what they have created in the privacy of their homes, the opinions that pollsters have collected. Also, parties follow polls closely to see their policies’ effect on the public, using the information, in turn, to shape their policies. So, at one level, we may say that members of the public have seldom been so involved in shaping an electoral campaign as this one. But as the choices that voters make tomorrow will determine their future, it is ironic that major issues facing Greece have not featured in the elections. This may be due to a fear of drawing attention to unpopular facts, or to consensus among the major parties. Or both. Either way, major issues are stagnating as if no elections were being held and these issues were of no concern to the people of Greece. One of these is the Cyprus problem, which is on a roller-coaster ride to some sort of solution after dragging on for three decades, or four (depending on whether you are on the Greek or Turkish side). The other is the race to get Athens ready in time for the Olympics in August, speeding ahead in the last five months in our sudden realization that much time was wasted in the seven years since Athens was awarded the honor of hosting the 2004 Games. Other crucial issues, such as the need to reform the social security system in order to make it viable and loosening up the labor market to get more young people into it faster while also increasing productivity, have taken second place to promises of handouts, such as a doubling of pensions and more public sector hirings. It is natural that the protagonists do not want to risk losing votes. And in a close campaign in which neither PASOK nor New Democracy has a clear message capable of attracting voters, it certainly makes sense to play it safe and rely on the tried-and-tested methods of undermining your rivals while promising the earth to voters. There are promises of handouts and promises of action. The former are aimed at making everyone in the country comfortable and the latter at feeding demands for reform – because no one can be happy with the corruption and incompetence that are endemic in public life – while not actually saying anything that will alarm anyone. It is funny that the only straight talk of the campaign came in the last week when Vyron Polydoras, New Democracy’s shadow interior minister, declared that come Monday, 10,000 senior officials in the public sector will be sacked. «First of all, with ‘Good morning,’ these officials will go,» Polydoras told Skai radio. «There are 10,000 of them, sitting pretty, next to political officials.» Polydoras, in his amicably arrogant way, was stating what he believed to be obvious and what was clearly a topic of conversation in ND, that PASOK party hacks getting fat by «consulting» other PASOK party hacks in the state machinery will be kicked out after the election. What the public heard (and what PASOK did not need to try very hard to play up) was that New Democracy (the Right bogeyman of Socialist lore) was hell-bent on conducting a pogrom in the civil sector so as to appoint its own hacks. New Democracy belatedly discovered the risks of playing a solely defensive game: It takes just one mistake or a steal by the other side for you to go down by a goal. (Panathinaikos showed this once again when it was knocked out by Auxerre’s single goal in an UEFA Cup soccer game in Athens on Thursday.) This is not to imply, of course, that ND will lose tomorrow’s match. It is simply a metaphor for the passive risk that both ND and PASOK face by not taking an active risk and spelling out the reforms both know have to be carried out. They have ignored the deep-felt need for reform and relied on platitudes instead of proposals. They have relied on voters’ self-interest rather than a more deep-seated need to make this a more successful country. To be fair, PASOK has taken great leaps of faith by changing its leader, having him elected by grassroots party members and undetermined «friends,» and then doing something that every poll would have warned against – enlisting prominent members of the ND government of 1990 and of the Leftist party that helped indict PASOK founder Andreas Papandreou, and putting them on a ticket that ensures they will be in the next Parliament. Papandreou, though the son and grandson of prime ministers, broke the mold in the political system to a degree not seen since ND and the Communists joined forces in 1989 to gang up on his father. After having made all these inspired decisions, Papandreou had managed to confuse everyone to such an extent that he and PASOK soon reverted to the comfortable tactic of bashing the Right and making promises left and right. Our parties define themselves by demonizing their enemies, and gain strength from their rivals’ weakness. They do not go out to score goals and thereby risk a gap in their defenses, but thereby also forgo the opportunity of building up a lead. Karamanlis expressed this appropriately in his «ripe fruit» philosophy a few years ago – ND would need do nothing, he argued, because PASOK would fall of its own. Now that PASOK has shown that it will not go gently into the good night, Karamanlis can only hope that the final whistle will blow at 7 p.m. tomorrow before his party loses the lead it held for years. The way that the Cyprus issue and the Olympic preparations have been kept out of the election campaign, on the other hand, illustrates a new maturity in an election which has been truly civilized (though wishy-washy). This last week’s Polydoras incident and PASOK’s accusations of ND skullduggery regarding a «defamatory» pamphlet distributed at churches – depicting Papandreou as an atheist, liberal, friend of the Turks who is also soft on drugs – caused a stir but did not manage to mar the civility of the campaign to any great extent. (Gone are the days when we had a simpler choice between liars, thieves, traitors and agents of dark forces.) Now, as Cyprus President Tassos Papadopoulos and Turkish-Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash fail to make any progress in their negotiations, it is becoming clear that Greece will have to step in along with Turkey on March 22 and try to solve what Cyprus’s leaders could not. This will be a massive responsibility for whichever government in Athens is just taking its first steps. So the fact that the issue was left out of the campaign suggests both consensus and a true understanding of the high stakes which do not allow for cheap politicking. The race to get ready for the Olympics, too, is also far more important than any political gains to be made from finger-pointing for the waste of time and resources that have brought us to the current panic. It appears to be widely understood, for once, that it is more important to push ahead with a solution than to flail about looking for someone to blame. This in itself is one of the improvements that the Olympics may bequeath to Greece. But overall, the lack of discussion of serious issues that should concern the electorate and will have to be tackled in the next four years, betrayed the fear of the major parties lest they lose any votes. And it also kept alive a patronizing relationship between parties and the electorate that has always undermined the progress of politics in Greece. Maybe the next elections will be more «participatory» and newly mature parties will ask mature citizens to share their opinion on the policies that will follow their vote.