Greece’s politics never cease to disappoint, even as citizens keep hoping for something better than what they know. The recent ordeal of Panayiotis Pikrammenos, the former Council of State president who had to defend himself in Parliament against corruption claims stemming from his brief appointment as caretaker prime minister in 2012, shows that no one who gets involved in politics can be safe from the misfortunes of a sick political system. Most of the country’s major problems derive from this chronic political illness and yet our political system not only fails to improve but instead manages to reproduce the same weaknesses repeatedly. It keeps away people who could contribute to a political renewal, to the country’s revival. The Pikrammenos case shows that even the briefest engagement (just over a month, in his case) with politics can be enough to damage and disappoint anyone who thought that he or she could make a contribution.
The fact that the best and the brightest avoid a career in politics is not limited to Greece. The problem has international dimensions. If we compare the United States with China we are forced to wonder how liberal Western democracy can take such risky decisions with its leadership and whether it will be able to keep recovering. At the same time, the monolithic Communist system does not take direct risks with its leaders but the absence of institutions and procedures which could check a dangerous course could turn out to be a grave threat. In the West, the most ambitious young people pursue careers far from politics, whereas in many other parts of the world politics provides opportunities that may not exist in other spheres. In any case, the way that societies, states and the planet itself are governed is a work in progress. No system can remain unchanged in the face of new challenges.
The Greek exception, however, has remained fixed for many generations. Even as politics is disdained by many, a sufficient number of young (and not so young) people succumb to the charms of public life. This is either because they believe they have something to offer the country or because they hope they will win the fame that comes from being involved in politics. Naturally, some seek a career in politics because they don’t have the skills to succeed in other professions; but even these cases could have a positive result if our political life was governed by frameworks and rules that would constrain politicians’ excesses while also preventing the certain tribulations of anyone who gets involved in politics.
In Greece politics has become trapped in a system where politicians enjoy privileges unheard of in the rest of society (with the exception of some unionists, whose profession, of course, is not far from that of politics), with the result that we suffer from a plague of mistakes and mismanagement, if not always outright corruption. At the same time, society expects the worst of its representatives. Adonis Georgiadis, New Democracy’s deputy chairman, put it very succinctly when he spoke in Parliament last week, defending himself against claims of corruption. “I know very well – I have no illusions – that Greek society today believes that all politicians are on the take. And we may speak of the presumption of innocence, but in reality we all know that for Greek society, politicians labor under a presumption of guilt rather than a presumption of innocence,” he said. Here we have one of the many “social contracts” that distort and damage our society: Politicians enjoy unique protection and privileges whereas citizens have a right to make demands of them while considering them corrupt. Whether this is the result of a tradition of client-patron relations or stems from the very close relationship between citizens and their representatives, the result is that the profession of politics demands a strong stomach and a thick skin. The problem infects all of public life. Few are the mayors, the heads of state companies, the state officials who avoid spending years in court after leaving office, irrespective of whether they were successful or not, honest or corrupt.
Aside from the passion, good judgment and responsibility that politicians everywhere ought to have, in Greece they must also be immune to continual slander. And anyone who has such a capability will, of course, be able to give as much as he or she takes. The blood in the arena keeps idealists away, or quickly transforms those who, as they get involved, come to rely on the aggression and divisiveness that is the bedrock of our politics. Very few “gentlemen” and “ladies” avoid being chewed up and transformed by the system.
That is why people like Panos Kammenos and Pavlos Polakis (the right-wing nationalist leader of the junior partner in the coalition and the extreme left-wing alternate health minister, respectively) can present themselves as arbiters of morality in Parliament, whereas the likes of Pikrammenos and Lucas Papademos (the former central banker and technocrat prime minister who later survived a terrorist attack) are thrown to the dogs. The only joy that the latter two might get is to know that they are appreciated by many citizens who may not speak but can see, who wonder if they will ever see more capable people governing than is the norm. These citizens hope that one day our political system will stop reproducing its weaknesses and start concerning itself with finding solutions for a country that is deep in debt, exhausted and divided.