Sound and fury and scandals

We face the choice between scraping away the country’s many entrenched ills, however painful this may be, or finding ways to carry on as usual, turning our back on the future. Strangely enough, what should appear a clear-cut issue is actually a dilemma. Looking at the most obvious manifestation of our ills – the entanglement between political and business interests – it seems that there is still plenty of life in the old political system as it fights to preserve itself. This is dangerous, because Greece needs to show its own citizens and the world that it has turned a new page in terms of its politics, its economy and its society. Even more important, though, is the fact that corruption cannot be allowed to continue poisoning every aspect of our lives. If the politicians will not reform themselves, they will abdicate this duty to other forces – in the past it was the military, this time it may be the mob – to the lasting detriment of our democracy. When Tasos Mantelis, a former transport and communications minister in Costas Simitis’s PASOK government, was forced to confess that he had taken money from Siemens at a time when he was awarding contracts to the electronics giant, we were witnesses to the first crack in the bipartisan armor of political impunity. It would be only a matter of time, we argued, before the public’s pressure for catharsis would lead to further revelations. Over the past week, we have seen cause both for hope and for cynicism. Our political parties are still committed to fighting each other for political points rather than working together to cleanse our politics and establish the foundations for a new era. But there was also hope that some leads would be followed until more politicians were brought to account for their huge, unexplained personal fortunes (as is the case with former PASOK minister Akis Tsochatzopoulos and his palatial home at the foot of the Acropolis). Clouding the issue of catharsis has been the attempt both by PASOK and New Democracy to embroil each other’s most senior officials in the parliamentary inquiries into the Siemens and Vatopedi land swap scandals. Following revelations that ministers and a member of then Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis’s office had facilitated the Vatopedi monks’ profiteering at the state’s expense, PASOK MPs demanded that Karamanlis be summoned to explain himself before the committee. At the same time, New Democracy called for Simitis to be summoned by the committee investigating the Siemens scandal. Immediately afterward, the PASOK MP heading the Siemens inquiry (they are always weighted in favor of the majority party in Parliament) leaked an e-mail message to the press, which appeared to reveal that a New Democracy minister had received money from a Siemens officer. (In a hilarious revelation, it turned out that this was a mistranslation, with «cabinet man» being taken not for a carpenter but a «member of the Cabinet»). No sooner was the joke revealed than another e-mail was leaked, this time purporting to be from an in-law of Samaras (when the latter was a lowly member of the European Parliament), asking Samaras to intervene on his behalf with Siemens’s top official in Greece so that he could get promoted. ND responded by accusing Prime Minister George Papandreou himself of orchestrating the «mudslinging.» To anyone unused to the rituals of Greek politics, the throwing about of party leaders’ and former prime ministers’ names might seem like a dramatic effort to root out corruption. Others fear that this is the usual trick of making great, unsubstantiated charges so as to swamp the kernels of real revelations and ensure that soon the whole story is forgotten. Papandreou is said to be worried about the former prime ministers being summoned, as that could cloud the issues. He may be right there, but he does not appear to be doing enough to convince his ministers that the fight is not only with New Democracy on the issue of corruption; many of his own ministers are fighting with each other to delay reforms to the economy and social security system that Greece has no option but to apply.