OPINION

Fruit and nuts

For those who may not be disturbed by the possibility of political chaos and its unforeseeable consequences, Thursday was a most intriguing and (in many ways) entertaining day. There was something gloriously fitting in the fact that a country that has so many serious problems to deal with, so many challenges to meet and reforms to introduce, came to the brink of chaos because of allegations concerning a relative trifle: illegal gambling. For a few hours there, many believed that President Costis Stephanopoulos might resign, out of sensitivity and anger at being accused by a television journalist of renting a shop in Patras to someone who, aside from running it as a cafe, also used it to house «fruit machines,» as the video slot machines that have been tampered with to turn them into one-armed bandits are called. (Three similar fruit in a row are the winning combination, apparently.) In the end, the system fought to preserve itself and Stephanopoulos stayed in his place, early elections were not called and a political crisis was averted. But in the meantime, the rotten floorboards on which our public figures strut their stuff were evident. And what we saw was chaos below. The wave of sludge began to form a week earlier when Makis Triandafyllopoulos, muckraker-cum-crusader par excellence and known to the nation simply as «Makis,» presented a video on his show «Jungle» on Alpha channel purporting to show a member of the ruling PASOK party, Alexandros Chryssanthakopoulos, playing a one-armed bandit in an unlicensed gambling den in Patras. The fact that Chryssanthakopoulos was also head of an informal parliamentary committee formed to investigate the problem of illegal gambling added spice to the story. But when Makis also filmed and broadcast the MP’s efforts to persuade the journalist to bury the video (in exchange for juicy information regarding others’ involvement in illegal gambling), Prime Minister Costas Simitis was obliged to take action. He booted Chryssanthakopoulos out of PASOK’s parliamentary group. The fact that Chryssanthakopoulos was a regular on Makis’s shows only served to heighten the melodramatic (rather than tragic) irony of his downfall. It also provided ample evidence (if after all these years it were needed), that Triandafyllopoulos would walk over the bodies of even his closest associates if that will help his story. It is unclear whether this proves that our man is a hero of journalism who will not flinch before dispatching with a fatal thrust even those near to him if they dare to invoke the wrath of the people’s avenger. Or is it simply a lack of scruples? Either way, it makes for great television. Those who are not snared in the trap can get the greatest kicks watching Makis’s victims get tangled further and further into the web as the camera homes in on them, like a spider that has numbed them (and the viewers) with its pervasive poison and now prepares to suck the life out of them. For years, with the arrival of private television in 1989, the high and mighty and the humble alike have been in constant danger of a public pillorying, irrespective of whether a court might clear them later. Makis and a few others have made high art out of running uncorroborated claims maligning individuals. Often they are right, often they are wrong. They do not care whether they are right or wrong. What they have done is work as a prosecution unburdened by any demand for proof. Frequently, however, Makis and his ilk have helped the downtrodden find justice in their battles against an unfeeling and uninterested bureaucracy. The muckrakers have, in effect, supplanted the police, the judiciary and the supervisory bodies of the uninterested state machinery in many instances. Such is their power and their seeming impunity that often, carried away by these very same feelings, they appear powerful enough to supplant the political system as well. In other words, the power of unbridled populists on even the smallest television station can lead to an oligarchy of the most unscrupulous individuals leading the untroubled masses. This is a perversion of democracy as an ideal, but not really that far from democracy in practice. Aristotle charged that democracy was not really democracy because what it meant was that people with the most money and power could ensure their election. This, in turn, leads to greater power and money for those who are elected to office. Today, with mass communications, there is a new twist. Those who control or otherwise use the media now have the power to make or break politicians. They themselves don’t have to run for election. What would Aristotle make of that? Costis Stephanopoulos, who pondered the question in 1989 when the issue of allowing private television in Greece was debated in Parliament, argued that publishers should not be allowed to become owners of this powerful medium, as this would grant them even greater powers over the political system. He spoke as the leader of a conservative splinter that was not to survive much longer. He was elected president by the PASOK government in 1995, at the bidding of the now-defunct Political Spring party which then supported Stephanopoulos’s election. The president’s impeccable conduct in carrying out his ceremonial duties made him the most popular political figure in Greece, prompting PASOK to nominate him for a second term in 2000. This time, New Democracy too backed its former member, granting him the great honor of being elected by both major parties in Parliament. So it is a measure of how out of control the sleaze machine in Greece has become that journalist Spyros Karadzaferis revealed on his show on Extra channel on Thursday that Stephanopoulos rented a shop to someone who had illegal slot machines on the premises. Now not only were journalists’ associates in danger of being consumed, but so was the highest officeholder in the land as well. The fact that this was the sixth anniversary of what was known as the «Night of Imia,» the night on which Greece and Turkey nearly went to war over rival flag-waving on two Greek islets in the very eastern Aegean in 1996, was completely lost in the resulting fray. Rumors spread immediately that Stephanopoulos, who is above reproach in his dealings but sensitive (perhaps to a fault), might just resign. This would have forced Parliament to elect a new president. As neither big party has the 180 votes needed for this, it would be most likely that national elections would have to be called. This would throw Greece, totally unprepared, into an election period that would prevent any of the reforms or other difficult decisions that need to be taken. This being Greece, everyone began looking for a conspiracy to explain the sudden confrontation with a political void. But perhaps the incident served simply to show how much we take for granted in our daily politics, and how fragile our institutions can be. If the president walked out, there was no vice president to take his place. The constitutional process would lead to further uncertainty before any kind of solution could emerge, months later. And all this would happen because someone on television made a claim against a particular person who would react with a surfeit of pride. The political parties, which hardly ever agree on anything, fell over themselves to defend Stephanopoulos, relegating the question of whether his property was used for illegal gambling to the trash can of trivia. This defense of the institution of the presidency was touching in its expression of respect for Stephanopoulos the person and the figurehead, but it also betrayed how close Greece came to being derailed from all its high objectives. This unanimous defense, it appears, kept the president from climbing onto his bicycle and retiring to Patras. Stephanopoulos is, above all, a man of principle and he would not have allowed the country to slip into uncertainty because he felt personally slighted. But for a few hours there, everything was possible. And the issue that would have led to the government’s fall would not have been the economy, Cyprus, relations with Turkey, pension reform, the spread of narcotics, the smuggling and exploitation of foreign women, and so many of the major plagues infesting the country. It would have been a sense of discomfort over allegations of illegal gambling, in a country in which people have gambled since antiquity, amid a nation whose members are famous for their gaming ways all over the world. Thursday was a most edifying day, where the seams of the system were exposed, highlighting its weaknesses while also showing its underlying strengths. Greece proved, once again, what a unique laboratory of social and political possibilities it is. And it also showed that when you chicken out of dealing with the real problems of society and deal too much with trivia, such as fruit machines, it is that very trivia that can be turned into a monster that can bring about your fall – no less than if you had tackled monsters. Nations not only get the governments they deserve, they also pay the fitting price. The sober Romans fell on their swords, Oedipus plucked out his eyes for trying to see too much. We slip and slide on fallen fruit.