A bipolar world

Prime Minister George Papandreou hit the ground running so fast that it is hard to keep up as he and his entourage rush around in a blur. One moment he is in Athens, the next he is in Turkey, at a meeting of Balkan foreign ministers. Then he pops up in the charred remains of Olympia, promising to turn the scorched earth of Ilia into an oasis of «green development.» The next day he is racing around Attica, from the Olympic installations on the seafront, with Spanish town planner Josep Acebillo in tow, to the Acropolis for a celebration of the 65th anniversary of the capital’s liberation from Nazi occupation. Next he is at the Education Ministry, then Parliament. And so on and so forth. After the leisurely years of his predecessor, Costas Karamanlis, Papandreou is hammering home that this is a new era. In the past few days, his ministers too have been firing away with plans and announcements. Several ministries have changed name and several more have changed function. Just one example: The Merchant Marine Ministry has been merged into the Economy Ministry, while the Public Order Ministry has become the newspeak-sounding Citizens’ Protection Ministry and now incorporates the coast guard as well. The two ministries in charge of maritime affairs – three, if you include the Defense Ministry – are now on Mesogeion Avenue and as far from the sea as you can get in Attica. The coming and going of bureaucrats who find themselves in one ministry building and their boss in another will become an army on eternal march – or will simply do nothing. On a more «abstract» level, Papandreou is trying to change the political system, the way the state functions and the relationship between state and citizen. The most important proposal is for a change to the electoral law that will divide the country into 160-170 single-seat constituencies, where winner takes all, and six larger regions in which candidates are elected from a list in accordance with their party’s percentage in the region. This will cut down on the enormously expensive campaigns that much larger constituencies demand, will allow greater checks on spending and will make for a more representative Parliament. If Papandreou gets New Democracy’s backing and this law is changed, it will be an important reform. Also, issuing public invitations on the Internet for candidates for the post of ministry general secretary, and so on, is a great step forward from the smoky backroom politics of the past. Codifying and simplifying the tangle of laws will, to a great extent, drain the swamp of bureaucratic corruption. All these steps in PASOK’s first days in power are very impressive. But many of them seem more the product of wishful thinking than carefully thought-out policies. And reality has a terrible way of pricking hope’s balloon. On Thursday, a team of inspectors from the European Commission arrived to check out Greece’s finances, pre-empting Finance Minister Giorgos Papaconstantinou’s debut at a Eurogroup meeting on Monday. Without waiting for his arguments in favor of a three-year grace period to bring Greece’s 12 percent deficit below 3 percent, the Commission said that Greece must cut 32.5 billion from its expenses annually to avoid an economic meltdown. This at a time when PASOK has promised more money to all sectors of the population and a stimulus plan for the economy. Even grimmer, however, is the strike by dockworkers at Piraeus port since October 1. They were encouraged by PASOK candidates before the election and by the party’s promise to review the deal giving China’s Cosco control of cargo-handling facilities for 35 years. The shutdown is costing local businesses 3 million euros a day, has angered Chinese officials and is certain to frighten off further investment. The government is now held over a barrel by unionists allied to the ruling party. How it deals with the 1,600 highly paid dockworkers will define where PASOK stands: in government or forever in infantile insurgency? No amount of running around will spare Papandreou this difficult choice.