OPINION

Into corruption’s labyrinth

The confession by Tasos Mantelis that he took money from Siemens while a member of Costas Simitis’s PASOK government was criticized by many as «cynical.» For years we have been declaring that «all politicians are on the take» and then we sit back, safe in our generalizations and the understanding that we will never have the evidence to prove this. And suddenly we not only have evidence in the form of foreign bank accounts but also a confession. Now we are all shaken, as if no one expected this – neither the former minister’s political friends and rivals nor journalists. Whether the confession to the parliamentary committee was the product of stupidity or desperation, only Mantelis knows. Our society, though, owes him a debt of gratitude. This is the first time in our memory that a politician has acknowledged taking money for himself (and not for his party or some other good cause) and without claiming not to know how it got into his pocket. So, was it the blunt nature of his confession which shocked other politicians or the fear that the veil of advantageous confusion had been torn and soon we will discover that Mantelis is no exception? In the explosive climate created by the austerity measures and the reform program, it is quite likely that we will see a methodical, persistent and effective investigation of the assets of many other politicians. All it takes is a little determination on the part of politicians and judicial officials for us to discover much under the stone that Mantelis lifted. It is a matter of time: Soon the pressure for a purging of the political system will be intolerable. Politicians will be forced to take seriously the effort to rescue some credibility and this will certainly lead to new revelations of bribery. If the politicians do not convince the people that they have changed completely, then events will spin out of control, with unforeseeable consequences. The crisis is the catalyst: Nothing will be as it was. Mantelis will go down in history because his name is tied to the debunking of the myth of inevitable unaccountability in cases of political corruption. For years now, we have seen every scandal being brushed under the carpet, with no revelations, through the collusion of politicians and judicial officials (as well as the press), irrespective of which party was in power. Now we can hope that some thieves will be uncovered and will pay the price, and that others will be too scared to exploit their own position for gain. Beyond the surprise it caused, Mantelis’s confession has shaken us at other levels too: It brings us face to face with the nature of our society and our politics. Costas Simitis’s reaction of shock and anger is indicative. Not only is pressure mounting for the ex-prime minister to explain the actions of his former close aide but he also faces the danger of all his government’s achievements being swept away by the image of corruption. Because Simitis could not uproot corruption from society and from his own closest aides, his reputation has suffered a mortal blow. Until last week, one could argue that the Simitis government’s achievements outweighed its weaknesses and compromises. Now we see that corruption is a poison that never grows weak: Sooner or later it will reach the heart of the body it has infiltrated. And the question is whether the poison is a foreign body or the essence of our political system. As Mantelis argued before the parliamentary committee, the money from Siemens was «sponsorship» to help him get re-elected in the Athens B Constituency. As he addressed former colleagues, Mantelis knew he he did not need to explain that the exorbitant cost of being elected in such a constituency could never be covered by an MP’s salary. The argument is not cynical. What is cynical is the general tolerance that we citizens showed this system for such a long time, pretending that its weaknesses, its distortions, its tangled political-business-media interests were none of our business. The anger with which politicians and journalists today speak of Mantelis raises the danger of this man serving as the «katharma» in the ancient Greek sense – the individual who is guilty of something and is chosen to suffer and to be destroyed so that the rest of society can feel cleansed. Mantelis, though, should serve not as an outcast absolving others of their crimes but as the thread that leads toward the heart of the labyrinth.