Poll dancing

Next Sunday we’ll all be going to the polls again. But, just over three months since the national elections that saw a change of government, this time there will be much less at stake. The election concerns the 24 seats that Greeks will hold in the 626-member European Parliament. Because the result will have little bearing on our lives in Greece, this election is usually seen as a national opinion poll on the current government and main opposition party and also a way for smaller parties to gain a bigger voice in Greece by having a seat or two in Brussels. For Greeks the European Parliament is an extension of Greek politics by other means. And yet, the issues that Europe faces today are of the greatest importance to Greece, and the members of the European Parliament that will be elected now will have an opportunity to play an important part in the debate on our continent’s future. These include a European Constitution, Turkey’s eventual membership, relations with the United States, environmental and security issues and, overall, the shape that Europe, our home, will have. Not only are these questions missing from our public debate, but this year there is even less drama than usual in the European Parliament election because we are still too close to the «real» elections. And we have still not got used to the fact that the conservative New Democracy party is in government and PASOK, which had governed for all but three of the past 23 years, is in opposition. In fact, neither has the ruling party quite realized that it is in power, as it still seems to be speaking the language of an opposition party and campaigning against the now-departed PASOK government. The most recent examples of this were the comments by Economy Minister Giorgos Alogoskoufis and Public Works Minister Giorgos Souflias questioning the wisdom of Greece’s hosting the Olympic Games. Less than three months before the opening ceremonies, this sounded a little like the host of a dinner party loudly declaring that he’d rather be out fishing as the guests begin walking through the door. (Aside from being rude this is also stupid, because the party will take place and all that the host will have achieved is to make it almost impossible to please his guests because he has been raining on his own parade. Anyhow, by now we should be used to this political tactic, which involves whining when it is too late so as to appear prescient after a fiasco. If the endeavor is a success, the whining will be lost in the general clamor for credit.) PASOK, also, is in the throes of a major restructuring, or – as critics would have it – a massive implosion. Party leader George Papandreou, in his inimitable way, did pull off a public relations coup, however, by managing to get everyone in the country talking about his selection of candidates for the European Parliament. Members of this Parliament are elected in proportion to the number of votes their party gets nationwide and in accordance with their position on the list. New Democracy, for example, is expected to get up to 11 of its candidates into the European Parliament. PASOK, which is trailing by up to 8 percent in recent polls, is expected to get up to eight or nine of its candidates elected. The rest of the five or six or seven seats will go to the Communist Party, Synaspismos Left Coalition and perhaps Giorgos Karadzaferis’s extreme-right LAOS party. But Papandreou and PASOK have dominated the headlines because all 24 candidates on the list are distinguished by the fact that not one of them was in the previous European Parliament. The candidates are all very worthy and of proven abilities, but the fact that Papandreou did not see fit to keep a single one of the PASOK Euro MPs (plus the fact that he chose a completely unknown, 33-year-old trade unionist to fill the prestigious top slot on the list) smacked of cheap populism. Papandreou may be enamored of the mandate for change that he feels his unopposed election as party leader and his party’s defeat in the elections have given him, but now and then it is worth remembering that some 40 percent of the electorate voted for the unrestructured, undiscombobulated PASOK on March 7. They need to be brought gradually around to Papandreou’s view of things, otherwise he risks destroying a party base that has held through good times and bad since PASOK first came to power in 1981. What Papandreou has done is bring into the battle a colorful new cohort – untested by previous party experience and unsullied by machinations – and set it up as the party’s colorful new standard while the grimy veterans fume in the background. Only time will tell if this was a wise gamble, given the full four years we still have before the next national elections, or whether Papandreou is caught up in his own myth of renewal without the necessary spadework, whether PASOK will turn out to be a new political formation unencumbered by the heavy burdens of past sins or whether it will be an empty vessel, a form without content. On the other side of the battlefield, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis has chosen candidates who confirm just how conservative he and his New Democracy really are. At the top of the list is the septuagenerian Ioannis Varvitsiotis, who took his tearful farewell of Parliament earlier this year in order to make way for younger people (who include his son Miltiades, who was already in the House), and who conforms to the norm that has given the European Parliament a bad name – the old war-horse who is sent to the lucrative and undemanding pastures of Strasbourg as the reward for getting out of the way back home. Karamanlis’s greatest gesture toward renewal constituted the placing of New Democracy’s prodigal son, Antonis Samaras, second on the list of candidates. Samaras, a youthful 53, personifies one of the most regressive moments in recent Greek history – the Macedonia issue of the early ’90s. As foreign minister in the New Democracy government headed by Constantine Mitsotakis, he led the impassioned campaign to keep «the Skopjeans» from expropriating the name Macedonia. A completely legitimate defense of Greece’s historical and geographical legacy was derailed by the extremist positions taken up by some – including Samaras, local officials and church leaders – who forced the Mitsotakis government to dance to their tune because it had a single-seat majority in Parliament. In the end, Samaras brought down the government in the autumn of 1993, forcing New Democracy into the wilderness where it would stay for nearly 11 years – and there is still no end to the quarrel over a permanent name for the «Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.» Now Samaras has disbanded the groupuscule he led and returns to the fold, albeit it in Europe. It will be interesting to see whether this will function as a kind of purgatory or permanent exile. And then we have the unreconstructed and unrepentant Communist Party, which favors Greece’s withdrawal from the European Union as much as it likes to get candidates elected to the European Parliament, where they can grandstand with great shows of dissent that play well among the Greek proletariat. The most momentous aspect of the new European Parliament is that it will include, for the first time, members from the eight former Soviet satellites that joined the EU in May. Unlike them, our Greek Communists did not have the joy of living under a Communist regime for five decades as they were on the losing side of a civil war after World War II. The irony is that our Communist Party, always with the air of a victim, plays a disproportionately influential part in the public debate in Greece precisely because of a guilt complex among the rest of society for the Communists’ travails after their defeat and until the party’s legalization in 1974. Their utopian vision will now coexist with dystopia’s survivors in the European Parliament, but our team is usually so inward looking that we will probably not see much interaction with their colleagues on the post-Communist rebound. In all, the Greeks, like most (if not all) EU members, see Strasbourg as just another playing field for their domestic politics. And the fact that they have got over their traditional reticence of airing their dirty linen abroad indicates, perhaps, just how at home we are in Europe.