A debate on illegal construction is imperative. It has been proved, most tragically, that the existence of illegal homes, unlicensed factories, blocked-off streams and so on are not some impersonal, abstract issue. Instead, they can become a matter of life and death.
The causes of the problem cannot be reduced to a single factor. Much of the blame surely lies with previous governments. But the SYRIZA-led administration should be cautious about building its communication strategy on this admission because central government authorities were not alone in committing the crime; regional and local administration officials and those who chose to build illegally were also involved. And these people were not all members of New Democracy. They were also supporters of the old PASOK – most of whom have now migrated to ruling SYRIZA – and other left-wing parties.
So, sure, illegal construction is deplorable. But this was not only carried out by the “evil” others, but by people across the ideological spectrum. In fact, some people waged a “struggle” to stop the demolition of illegal properties. Things are not black and white.
Knocking down thousands of illegal structures and opening up blocked-off paths to the sea will take a lot of time. However, one thing that can change right away is the criteria for selecting responsible officials. We must make sure we appoint the right people to the right jobs, regardless of their partisan affiliation. The quality and ability of officials involved in crisis management is one of Greece’s main structural shortcomings and responsibility for this cuts across party lines. The issue is usually catapulted to center stage following crises and major disasters.
This chronic, cross-party and dangerous practice whereby governments hire their political cronies must come to an end. The public awakening and anger following the deadly wildfires have presented the government and opposition alike – if they choose to do so (and this is a big “if”) – with an opportunity to legislate strict criteria that will allow key agencies such as the civil protection directorate, the police and the fire department to operate along meritocratic lines.
Everyone is responsible for the rampant clientelism – after all ND and PASOK were in power for 40 years. But the current government has been unwilling to learn anything from past mistakes. On the contrary, SYRIZA folk have over the past four years tried to appoint as many of their own boys as they can. The requirements for staff hirings at sensitive posts, where a split-second decision can make the difference between life and death, should be knowledge, experience and efficiency.
I wonder who a soldier on the frontline – in fact, dealing with fires, earthquakes and floods is a war of sorts – would prefer to have covering his back: a friend who shares the same political ideas but has never held a firearm, or a man with whom he might have some differences of opinion but is nevertheless the best shooter.