Papandreou’s first challenge

It is ironic that George Papandreou is trying to reform public life by introducing transparency and the concepts of accountability and merit as leader of the party responsible for most of the ills that he has vowed to remedy. This means two things: He will either succeed where others could not because PASOK will support him, or he will be shot down in flames because PASOK will undermine his efforts through the power of its public sector unions or because he himself will yield to the sweet seduction of the longstanding patron-client relationship between politicians and voters which has held Greece back for so many years. Since it is still early days, we are keen to give the new prime minister and his government the benefit of the doubt. His first moves have been most encouraging – at least on a symbolic level. The «New PASOK» has introduced Greeks to the concept of «open government.» It is hiring senior government officials (the general secretaries and special secretaries who run high-profile departments such as the Finance Ministry’s fraud squad) through invitations to prospective candidates to submit applications via the Internet. It is posting draft legislation on the Web, not only to inform the public but also to elicit responses which, it says, will be taken into account in the shaping of the final text. It plans to put all government and state transactions, including procurements, online, where citizens will be able to see exactly what is taking place and hold politicians and officials accountable. Papandreou has ordered the codification and simplification of Greece’s countless contradictory laws, in a bid to drain the swamp of corruption, and has also proposed a new electoral law that will make politicians more accountable to their voters. It is inevitable that such innovations will cause some confusion at the start, especially as there is no transition period in Greece between elections and the swearing-in of a new government. PASOK has had to introduce many changes and hire the officials who will be responsible for the day-to-day operation of ministries, without the time to do so. The deadline for naming the 88 new general secretaries is Friday, October 30. It will be interesting to see how long it takes them to begin functioning fully in their new environment. This practical difficulty gives rise to a question: If PASOK’s priority was to get the best candidates for the job, irrespective of political affiliations, why did they not consider keeping some general secretaries who already had experience in their jobs? In any case, Papandreou wants to show that he is starting with a clean slate. This is his right – and his risk. His biggest challenge is his own party. All his innovations, which he first introduced within PASOK, were initially met with bemusement. But every move he makes which is to the detriment of the «Old PASOK» cadres who have experience of being in power, is likely to create a groundswell of discontent within the ruling party. Papandreou is right to try to distance himself from those party mechanisms which – in past PASOK governments – became synonymous with political favoritism, a lack of accountability and the general collapse of public administration. But every time that he chooses a new, inexperienced person with little or no history in the party, he is risking future subversion from those who fear losing out. It is the party that will make or break his government. And it is his party which last weekend gave Papandreou his first real shock since the October 4 election: His choice of Socrates Xynidis, a novice MP from northeastern Greece with little presence other than Papandreou’s backing, received only 180 of the 374 votes cast in the party’s National Council for PASOK’s new general secretary. The old hands made their presence felt in no uncertain terms. Now we shall see whether Papandreou will make concessions to them or whether he will confront them. The result of that clash could determine the future of his reforms and his ultimate success or failure.