Very petty politics

There is something sorry in the way that the government appears to be adrift once again, as if stricken by some inexplicable malaise. One would think that, halfway into its four-year term and having squandered the past year, Prime Minister Costas Simitis’s team would be working furiously to meet its target of raising Greeks’ living standards to approach the average of EU citizens. Furthermore, the PASOK party congress last October, followed by a Cabinet reshuffle, meant that not only did Simitis not have anything to fear from the opposition but also should have silenced his critics within PASOK. No one dared challenge his supremacy at the congress which, held so soon after September 11, avoided the petty politicking that followed the collapse of the government’s proposals for social security reform last spring. Ostensibly, the government should be worry-free, with a comfortable majority in Parliament and its party critics silenced. And yet it appears to be its own worst enemy, unable to tackle the difficult challenges that Greece faces in preparing for a future in which it will sink or swim according to its own abilities in a highly competitive and dangerous international environment. Instead of presenting social security reforms to ensure the ailing pension system’s long-term survival, its new set of proposals provide more benefits without raising the retirement age and without explaining where the money will come from. In other words, nothing has been done to reassure the people who are in their prime (in their 30s and 40s) that, after bearing the brunt of paying for the social security system, they will find anything in their funds’ coffers when it is time for them to retire. PASOK, in other words, is buying votes at the expense of future pensions. And they will likely get away with it, as long as the unions and those who are to retire soon are happy. Unfortunately, the reason is hardly complicated: Not even this government is prepared to take the necessary risks to prepare for the future. This is an abdication of responsibility which appears to stem directly from the infantile left-wing platitudes that PASOK has been mouthing since its founding in 1974. The party has been in power for all but three years since 1981, barring the 1989-93 period, when two short-lived coalitions and a seriously hobbled New Democracy government intervened. This means that PASOK bears responsibility for almost all that Greece is today – for good or ill. When Andreas Papandreou was returned to power in 1993, he set out a course of economic austerity aimed at regaining ground lost during the wasteful spending of his first period in power in the 1980s. But just as in foreign policy PASOK would speak like a Third World liberation movement but do nothing to actually leave the Western camp and its benefits, so Papandreou’s government would adopt an austere economic policy while talking about socialism, and making the attendant promises. Now, with Simitis having made it to the promised land of the eurozone, he appears to be like Moses, losing his way before achieving real convergence with Greece’s partners in Europe. He has allowed his government to fall back on the socialist fairy tales that have always been its refuge in elections and other difficult times. But this time the problem is not simply one of words, or of delaying solutions to problems. PASOK appears to be moving toward striking a deal with the tiny leftist parties that will seriously jeopardize stable government in the future. Leaks from the ruling party (stemming, it would seem, from General Secretary Costas Laliotis) suggest that PASOK believes it will lose the elections due by 2004. Because of a new constitutional amendment, it cannot change the electoral law before then. But it can change them for the following elections. So, the next elections will be held under the current system, which favors the party getting the most votes. That means New Democracy has only to beat PASOK to have a comfortable majority. But if the conservatives do not get the 180 seats needed for the 300-member Parliament to elect a new head of state when President Costis Stephanopoulos’s term ends in early 2005, early elections will be held. So PASOK is holding out the carrot to the left that it will change the electoral law to accommodate their perennial demand for simple proportional representation. In turn, that would make it extremely difficult for one party to get a workable parliamentary majority and would give the left-wing parties a greater say in national policy. PASOK’s Laliotis appears ecstatic over a recent poll presented by state television channel NET, whereby an astonishing 59.2 percent of the electorate would like to see coalition governments. Respondents in NET’s poll showed that most PASOK (70.5 percent), Communist (82 percent) and Left Coalition (85 percent) voters were in favor of coalition governments, while only 35.3 percent of New Democracy voters would want such a government. Obviously PASOK voters expect to lose the next elections while New Democracy expects to win. Furthermore, 81.3 percent of self-declared PASOK voters said they favored an electoral law allowing greater proportional representation, while 62.8 percent of New Democracy voters, 86.9 percent of the Communist Party’s supporters and 98.3 percent of the Left Coalition’s support such a change. So, in order for PASOK to collaborate with the two left-wing parties, it needs to take steps to win more seats for their votes. Consider the April 2000 election results. PASOK won 43.79 percent of the vote and 158 seats in Parliament. New Democracy squeaked in just a percentage point behind (42.74 percent) but got only 125 seats. The Communists, with 5.52 percent, got 11 seats and the Left Coalition, with 3.2 percent, got six. Recent experience, however, shows that a coalition government, especially one giving the leftist parties a say, would be an unmitigated disaster. When Andreas Papandreou saw that PASOK would lose the 1989 elections he passed an electoral law making it almost impossible for the winning party to form a workable majority. So New Democracy, which took 47 percent of the vote, was still too weak in Parliament to govern. What Papandreou could not prevent, however, was an unprecedented coalition between New Democracy and the Communists (then part of the coalition), concocted solely to get Papandreou indicted on various scandal charges. But when the government decided to allow bakers to raise the price of bread by something like five drachmas per kilo, we were regaled with the unbelievable sight of the coalition’s junior partner holding street demonstrations in protest at this. If PASOK can freeze up while enjoying an eight-seat majority in Parliament, it will go catatonic if it has to share power. In addition, if a single party does manage to scrape into office on its own, as New Democracy did in 1990 after seducing the single MP of a splinter conservative group and thus achieving a one-seat majority, it will forever be held hostage to special interest groups within that party, just as if it were bowing to the demands of a junior partner. Greece’s disastrous Macedonia misadventure began 10 years ago when Prime Minister Constantine Mitsotakis was unable to keep the lid on ND’s nationalist wing because he would fall from power if he upset them. (In the end they did bring him down in 1993 and Greece was saddled with the still-unsolved Macedonia issue. Here, to his credit, it must be mentioned that he went to the elections with an electoral law he had introduced and which has given Greece stable government since then.) The sad thing is that all this coalition talk implies that people want the left in power. If they did, then 86.53 percent of the electorate would not have voted for PASOK and New Democracy, with their pro-Europe and pro-NATO positions, in the last elections. So what democratic principle would be served in granting the final say to parties that, altogether, got less than 10 percent of the vote and cannot even cooperate with each other?

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