The turning point

Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis may have called early elections the way a gambler stakes everything on a last throw of the dice but as the campaign comes to an end, the clash appears to be less of a personal whim and more of a turning point in modern Greece’s history. The campaigning by the two main parties – and by the smaller ones, which gather their importance only from their ability to be spoilers or kingmakers – has been abysmal: No party leader managed to inspire anyone beyond the party faithful, no party proposed anything resembling a solution to the country’s problems. That is why there is such a sense of anti-climax before Sunday’s vote. No one – aside from party hacks – can be excited at the prospect of either New Democracy retaining power or PASOK returning after a break of five-and-a-half years. The senseless ban on opinion polls in the two-week period before the elections has deprived pundits and the public of important information with regard to how many voters are still undecided or may be thinking of abstaining. We will have to analyze the result of the election without being able to follow the rise or fall of the undecided and the disaffected before the poll. The palpable lack of enthusiasm, though, may be indicative of something positive: The style of politics that we have become accustomed to since the restoration of democracy in 1974 has come to the end of the road. The parties are exhausted – and their leaders and platforms are not up to the challenges. It is obvious that the country’s rapidly accumulating debts, the faltering social security system and the lack of competitiveness in global markets calls for radical changes to the way our public administration functions, to our labor laws and to our social security system. Trying to manage the situation without changing it will not make our economy more productive nor improve our quality of life. Radical change is necessary. The state of the economy will not allow any party to continue with the handouts of past years nor the wastefulness of the grossly incompetent public administration. If Greece is to have any hope of escaping the quicksand of debt, the new government will have to show an inventiveness that no previous government has. However belatedly, New Democracy has realized this and Karamanlis has based his campaign on arguing the need for tough measures. PASOK, one the one hand, repeats the failed argument that it will put the country’s finances in order by collecting outstanding taxes and limiting spending but, more positively, it also shows a greater aptitude toward trying new approaches to economic problems and thorny social issues. If New Democracy is re-elected – something which looked increasingly unlikely before the opinion poll blackout – it will have to see this as a mandate for Karamanlis to finally shake off his timidity and initiate the changes that he now declares to be necessary. PASOK, on the other hand, should not see its victory as a vote of confidence in an economic plan that it has still not described in detail. Rather, it will be a vote condemning New Democracy’s failure and a vote in support of any new ideas that the opposition party can bring to the table. Both parties should know that the country’s problems are so pressing that there will be no honeymoon after the election. Even more importantly, the new government (whether with a working majority in Parliament or in a coalition) will have to eschew the usual arrogance of ruling parties, break the habit of selling favors and jobs in return for support and – at long last – tackle the festering problems of education, health, labor, social security and economic productivity. There is no more time for governments to pretend to govern. The nation’s fate is in the balance. That’s what elections are about.