From foot-dragging to action

Following a lengthy period of foot-dragging, the government of Costas Karamanlis has finally seized the political initiative. At the same time, the past few days have shown that the political climate is no longer being shaped by the mass media, or by a handful of figures outside the political game who attempt to influence public opinion. In terms of political strategy, the government has clearly worked up an agenda of priorities that it plans to pursue, regardless of the reactions they are likely to provoke. Karamanlis’s tactics are now clear. He started out by challenging certain major vested interests that had been coddled by the previous, Socialist government. This confrontation may have achieved little in practical terms, but it did secure a certain degree of public sympathy. Having established a moral foundation by declaring war on corruption in public life, the government is now trying to push through radical reforms in the economic sector, starting with a voluntary retirement scheme for 6,000 employees of the Hellenic Telecommunications Organization (OTE), changes to the pension system of banks and further privatizations of state-run companies. This clash with the trade unions was head-on and severe. However, as most of these unions are controlled by the opposition party, PASOK, the political consequences of the reform drive will have less of an impact on the New Democracy government than it would have had on PASOK’s Costas Simitis, had he attempted it during his eight years in power. From one point of view the timing of Karamanlis’s all-front challenge is right, as the trade union movement is both worn out and somewhat discredited – as are most collective bodies in this country. Even so, the major risk for the government, and for the political system in general, is the possibility that trade unions will be reinvigorated by the challenge of these reform efforts. The government is trying to secure the support of lower-income groups; hence the recent, class-inspired statements by a certain minister about the «aristocracy of the public-sector firms,» which of course must be quashed, or the revelation that Hellenic Petroleum staff receive 17, pay checks a year, instead of the 14 all other employees receive. Karamanlis has tried to maintain an ideologically neutral stance in all of his initiatives, primarily because he does not want to be saddled with the label of «neo-liberal;» this is why he said the changes «are not being made for the few but for the many.» It is a singular attempt to promote the views of the «popular right» through liberalization of the economy. Citizens will react to this new reform initiative according to their own personal interests. The point is that the government is behaving according to expectations – which itself is noteworthy at a time when both citizens and political parties, particularly PASOK, appear divided and even bewildered. To maintain the current, rigid status quo is to promote an unhealthy state of affairs. But if an attempt to push through changes provokes chaos and social upheaval instead of a resurgence of creative forces, then the problem will have become extremely serious.