The day after October 4

The state of the economy leaves little room for either major party to make any great changes after the October 4 elections, so we can expect neither New Democracy nor PASOK to spend as wildly as both have in the past. At the same time, neither party can be expected to introduce tough austerity measures that would cost votes in the next election – which could be very soon if there is no clear winner in the October poll or if the opposition refuses to back the government’s candidate for president in a parliamentary vote next spring. So the next government will probably focus on issues that will not cost money and will not alienate a large number of voters. As PASOK will not be announcing its policy program until this coming Sunday (September 20) and New Democracy – as the government – has already shown what its priorities are, we can only make an educated guess that any changes in the economic sphere will be more in tone than in substance. Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis called the snap election against the advice of most New Democracy cardres, arguing that the global economic crisis demands a fresh mandate for tough measures. He announced a freeze on wages, pensions and subsidies, but he has also tried to contain the political damage by promising to provide low-income groups with a one-off payment. PASOK, on the contrary, promises to increase wages and pensions above inflation, to raise unemployment benefits and to spur development in order to increase revenues. But the (nominally, at least) Socialist party has hedged its bets: While promising to increase spending on education and research, it says it will do so over the next four years. It won’t be forced, therefore, to do anything now that would bring the European Commission’s ire upon Greece’s head. In any case, PASOK can make promises that it knows it cannot keep because – in a time-honored tradition of Greek politics – it can blame the former government for leaving the treasury empty. On foreign policy, the two major parties are close on the issues. Where they will probably differ is on the amount of time their leaders will devote to it. Karamanlis has appeared content to allow Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis to run things on her own, with minimal interest in developing ties in the region – although relations with Russia were given a boost through plans for greater cooperation in the energy sector and Karamanlis initially enjoyed a warm relationship with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. George Papandreou’s finest hour during many years of Cabinet membership was as Greece’s foreign minister. Having lived and studied abroad, with his pedigree as the son and grandson of prime ministers, and currently president of the Socialist International, he is in his element among foreign officials. If PASOK wins, we can expect Greece to push for a much greater presence on the regional and international stage. This might even help ease relations with Turkey and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, though PASOK’s nationalist wing may wish otherwise. Domestically, perhaps the most important issue that PASOK can take on is the need to overhaul Greece’s treatment of its immigrants. New Democracy took many steps but none radical enough to solve the immigrants’ problems. Many immigrants have been here since 1990, many have children who may have been born here and have graduated from Greek schools and still do not enjoy the benefits of long-term residence. Papandreou has shown a keen interest in migrant policy in the past and can be expected to concentrate on a problem that – when solved – is capable of enriching Greece greatly. Another major development would be for the next government to take on the powerful web of business and media interests, which dominate the country’s politics and economy. Karamanlis tried and failed. If Papandreou is elected, this battle will make or break him, too.