The corrupt and the beautiful

Back in 2004, «entangled interests» was a term that was very much in use in political debate. The conservative administration of Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis was to a large extent elected on the basis of its promise to fight the system of entangled political and business interests purportedly nourished by its Socialist predecessors under the reformist leader Costas Simitis. The term has become tantamount to a more general curse, but in practice included those who attempted to secure state construction or supply contracts of all kinds by means that were less than above board, whether through the time-honored practice of palm-greasing or support (or otherwise) in the media. The ruling New Democracy party persuaded ordinary Greeks that it aspired to change the rules of the game, to make it clear in every way who has the upper hand in the country’s power system. In other words, the conservative party made Greeks feel that the prime minister they voted for – and his ministers – was the boss, not the media or a few businessmen. That has partly been the case. Entangled interests, a phenomenon that is by no means exclusive to Greece, was initially dealt with in moralistic terms. However, the government’s failure to pass a law on major shareholders demonstrated that the problem could not be solved via legislation alone. Members of the present government initially avoided much contact with circles generally seen to be representatives of the phenomenon. Gradually, however, some of them took courage and could be seen eating out with some of the major movers and shakers, justifying their actions as part of their mandate of having to talk to everyone. Back in his office, the prime minister was taking notes and keeping a discreet distance, according to his associates. The temptations to get involved with these circles – even without receiving any tangible benefits – are great. So what we began to see were ministers getting «entangled» and then washing their hands as if they had got them dirty. That brings us to the point we are at today, as the people are demanding some answers. Few people will question the fact that the conservative prime minister has kept his distance from the graft-ridden system and has been true to the dignity of his office. At the same time, the provocative sight of some ministers getting very rich and living it up in Paris has been drastically reduced. In contrast to the past, whenever there have been indications of guilt in this direction, the judiciary has stepped in and the institutions have done their job. On the other hand, there is one unanswered question: How is it that those whom yesterday’s opposition had accused of irregularities are now getting major contracts for public works and state supplies? Voters are justified in wondering what is going on. There are three possible explanations open to them: The first is that there have never been any entangled interests and the fight against the phenomenon has been verbal fireworks without any foundation. A second is that those interests have proved stronger than the powerful, elected government and that it has simply lost the battle. A final explanation is that the main players in the game were transformed from pirates to major but healthy participants in the business world and have abandoned the methods they had used in their previous dishonest lives. This third argument is actually convincing, as a small economy like that of Greece could not possibly function without leaders in each sector. Just as in the United States the Rockefellers started out as «pirates» and gradually grew into a powerful establishment, so too in Greece we have learned to live with the realities of business. Of course these are just speculation, for ordinary Greek citizens are informed of what is going on and can judge for themselves. Now and again, however, they may wonder whether politics has in fact regained its lost honor.