Thessaloniki’s bell tolls for Karamanlis

Thessaloniki’s International Fair (TIF) has been the subject of much lamentation in the past few years, as a changing world has made such expensive showcases of goods and equipment redundant. In the era of globalization and the Internet, who needs to set up expensive pavilions and who needs to visit them, when everything is on display online, and purchases are just a click away? The fair kept on going mainly out of the momentum of its long history and because it gave Thessaloniki a brief moment each year in which it became the center of the Greek world. But, in the past two years, TIF has proven to be a catalyst for major political developments. The annual migration of Athens’s political and economic elite each September has taken on the power of a ritual that cannot be evaded, prompting decisions that might not otherwise have been made. We saw this last year when, after a long silence, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis was forced to take a stand on claims that senior members of his government were involved in dubious wheeling and dealing. There was no way he could sidestep the policy speeches and news conferences that are part of the opening of the fair and so he was forced to stop pretending that there was no crisis. He came out in support of his embattled ministers, seeming oblivious to the scandals that preoccupied the public. The magnitude of Karamanlis’s miscalculation became evident shortly afterwards, when Merchant Marine Minister Giorgos Voulgarakis was forced to resign and was followed by Karamanlis’s closest aide, government spokesman and State Minister Theodoros Roussopoulos. This mistake was not only a huge public embarrassment but it also punctured Karamanlis’s aura of infallibility and absolute authority in the party that he had lead out of the political wilderness with its electoral victory in 2004. His blunder provoked angry muttering and insults from ministers and lower ranking party officials who felt that he had lead them to inevitable defeat whenever elections were held. This year, with the international economic crisis exacerbating all the weaknesses of the Greek economic system, which New Democracy has not managed to deal with in its five years in power, Karamanlis knew that this weekend he would have to announce measures to curb deficits and increase productivity, because, by tradition, Friday night’s speech in Thessaloniki sets out the following year’s economic policy. With the EU watching to see how Greece will bring its public deficit under 3 percent next year (from the current 5-6 percent), the speech would have to contain painful measures. As the opposition PASOK party had already declared that it would block the re-election of President Karolos Papoulias next Spring – a stalemate that would force early elections – Karamanlis knew that it would be political suicide to enforce unpopular measures in the few months before elections. Just as the Constitution demands that a candidate for president must get at least 180 votes in the 300-member Parliament or elections will be called, so TIF presented an obstacle that had to be overcome by the prime minister. He had two options: Announce tough measures or call elections. Announcing that he would ask the president to dissolve Parliament and call early elections, Karamanlis spoke of the need for painful structural reforms. But he did not specify what those reforms would be. PASOK leader George Papandreou, responding to the call for a snap election, was just as vague. This evasiveness – this fear of the political cost – is what prevented the necessary measures from being taken over so many years. If the parties that hope to govern Greece after October 4 do not have the policies or are too scared of announcing them, then they will do nothing to instill confidence in the public and these elections will be just another step in Greece’s long decline.