OPINION

A hundred days of marking time

When Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis presented his government’s policy program in Parliament, shortly after the March 7 election, he made a stirring declaration that he did not want a grace period. There was a lot of work to do, he said, and his team would hit the ground running. One hundred days later, it seems that the opposite is true: He is doing all he can to make the honeymoon last as long as possible, perhaps all the way to the next elections. There is an old joke about a villager sitting on the sidewalk, lazily swatting flies. A capitalist from the city walks up and tries to get him to work for him so that, after a lot of hard work, the local yokel will have enough money to be able to sit back and do nothing. «Why should I do all the work when I can already do nothing?» our man responds, sending the city slicker on his way. Similarly, Karamanlis may have seen that the pattern throughout Europe these days is that the economic and social problems have reached such a crisis point that politics are running on fast forward: We are entering a phase where it appears likely that no matter what any government does it will find itself thrown out by the electorate. The slowdown in the economy and the aging populations that threaten to deplete health and pension funds, the lack of productivity and competitiveness, require urgent solutions. But, unless they colonize other countries or discover huge reserves of oil, governments have only one way to try to make their economies more efficient – they must cut costs and raise revenues. This means that citizens will work more for fewer benefits. As they are all voters, they will punish governments for harming their short-term interests, or they will punish them for not doing anything to protect their long-term interests. Voters will either be angry because their current benefits are curtailed, or they will be angry because nothing is being done to ensure that there will be any benefits at all. As these are two competing constituencies, they cannot be kept happy at the same time, so it is most likely that most of Europe is headed for revolving-door governments. And last week’s elections for the European Parliament appear to confirm this. Such elections are usually seen as a referendum on the performance of the government and an opportunity to keep some smaller parties alive by getting them onto the EU gravy train. People, in other words, vote in a way that reflects how they feel without bringing into the equation their concerns or hopes over a change of government. And the elections across the 25-member union were striking for three main reasons. First there was the pitiful turnout, with 54 percent of voters abstaining, which suggests that people feel that the specific issue of who sits in the European Parliament will not affect their lives. Secondly, most governing parties suffered resounding defeat, in a clear message that whatever they are doing is not good enough. And thirdly, parties with very simplistic messages – usually strongly opposed to the whole concept of the European Union – did very well. The only two governments that were not punished by voters were Greece’s conservatives and Spain’s socialists. The latter truly did hit the ground running after the March 14 elections, overturning much of the former conservative government’s policy. But Greece’s conservatives have done the exact opposite, to the extent that several political appointees in the public sector are still holdovers from the Socialist government, 100 days after the elections. So the implication is clear: Voters renewed their backing for the Greek and Spanish governments because they had elected them only three months earlier and had no reason to change their minds. But the other two major trends were just as strong in Greece as they were elsewhere. The 40-percent abstention rate, in a country in which officials keep repeating that voting is mandatory, was unprecedented. And the two small but virulently anti-EU parties, the Communists (KKE) and the extreme right-wing Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS), made great gains, showing that growing numbers of voters are attracted to their simplistic nihilism. It is interesting that although ostensibly at opposite ends of the political spectrum, KKE and LAOS are almost identical in their opposition to the EU, the United States, NATO and globalization and in their populist and nationalist tendencies. (Although both speak in support of the Greek worker, they are divided by KKE’s support for foreigners and LAOS’s unadulterated racism.) KKE saw its share of the vote rise to 9.47 percent from the 8.67 percent it got in the 1999 elections for the European Parliament. LAOS, in its first try, got in with 4.11 percent, nearly beating the eternally dithering Synaspismos Left Coalition. The descendant of the once-proud Europhile wing that split from the Communists (over the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia) saw its share of the vote drop from 5.16 percent to 4.16 percent, showing the price to be paid for being small and pro-EU when you have KKE and LAOS on either side. In Greece, the most significant feature of this election, however, was the huge lead that Karamanlis’s New Democracy gained over George Papandreou’s PASOK. The conservatives climbed from 36 percent in 1999 to 43.04 percent in this election, more than 9 percent ahead of PASOK’s 34.02 percent (slightly up from 32.92 percent in 1999). Even so, some 700,000 people who voted for New Democracy in the national elections, and 900,000 who voted for PASOK, chose not to cast ballots this time. PASOK, like a boxer who has just got up after being knocked down in March, can be excused for being unfocused and uncertain of itself (just as many of its voters can be forgiven for spending a day at the beach rather than going to vote). But New Democracy ought to be concerned too that such a large number of its own supporters found better things to do than to vote. This might be a reflection of the fact that there is little at stake in this election – or it might even be seen as a hint of criticism at the fact that the government has not really done much since March. Karamanlis’s electoral triumph may be intoxicating, like every victory, but it also signals the end of the honeymoon with the electorate. Karamanlis did not want a grace period but he got it, and he got it with a vengeance. The people, very simply, have told him twice that they want him to govern. He and his government made a conscious decision not to do anything that would have a political cost ahead of last Sunday’s elections. This included washing their hands of the Cyprus issue at the most critical moment since the Turkish invasion of 1974. They have also spent more time on an unending audit of debts and deficits than on conducting economic policy (other than promising handouts for all by clamping down on those old favorites – tax evasion and waste). Where the government has tried to show itself active has been in the completion of Olympic projects, which have been coming on well and appear likely to be ready on time. The irony of the government’s feverish activity here, though, is that at times it appears to forget it has been in power for just three months and the fact that major infrastructure projects and stadiums are reaching completion reflects more on the previous government than on them. But at least in this sector we see movement. And this brings us back to PASOK and Papandreou. Where Karamanlis appears to be conserving his energy and his party’s popularity by focusing on doing as little as possible, Papandreou appears to be doing the exact opposite. On the one hand, he holds true to his principles, which resulted in his taking a stand in support of the UN plan for Cyprus’s reunification, against popular sentiment here and on Cyprus, and in his decision to overhaul his party radically; on the other, he seems to be lost as to what needs to be done for PASOK to function as an opposition party. PASOK has an army of officials at the local and national level and they seem to be in total disarray since the party’s defeat in March. Papandreou ought to be thinking of sidelining those senior officials who made a career of being in government and are responsible for many of the vices – real or imagined – for which voters ejected the Socialists. He then needs to create a tightly knit executive body of new and experienced cadres that will regroup and inspire the troops while also harrying the government for what it does or does not do. Papandreou can then afford to go on about the multi-culti, love-one-another, «participatory democracy» stuff that no one pays any attention to. In Greece’s long political culture there is one law, dating from Homeric times: Help your friends and harm your enemies. We may have reached the happy point where today there are no «enemies» in Greece’s politics, but if parties do not work actively to help the electorate then it will be as if both the government and opposition are colluding to harm the interests of those whom both are sworn to serve. A government that does little but mark time in order to protect its popularity, and an opposition that does not embarrass it into moving, will find that though they stand still, time does not – that problems left to fester only become more painful and difficult to solve. But it is the government which, above all, must keep in mind that it was elected not to be popular but to be effective. Even the greatest honeymoon will turn sour if no one gets out of bed at some point to go to work.