Jerry Springer Politics in Greece

by | 19 Oct 2009

A sense of deja vu has dominated the Greek election campaign. The protagonists, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis and leader of the opposition George Papandreou, have been repeating earlier skirmishes between Costas Karamanlis senior (uncle of the prime minister), the rightwing leader of postwar Greece, and George Papandreou senior in the 50s and 60s, and Andreas Papandreou (grandfather and father of the opposition leader) in the 70s and 80s. The Karamanlis and Papandreou families have dominated political life for 60 years, creating two dynasties that have nothing to envy from the classical Atreides or the Kennedy clans.

Yet this remarkable fact was barely mentioned during the campaign. Papandreou junior is universally called “Yiorgakis” or little George, a reference to the – perhaps unjustified – belief that he is not particularly charismatic, competent or qualified for the job. Karamanlis, a more talented public speaker, is universally derided as lazy, tired and indecisive. Democracy, in theory, removed the hereditary principle and separated public from private wealth and power. What makes the relatively stable Greek politics follow a near-monarchic principle that makes a mockery of democracy?

I found clues in the two topics holidaymakers mostly discussed on the August beaches: the timing of the next election (this was a premature election called by Karamanlis immediately after the summer holidays) and the latest corruption “scandal” involving kickbacks by the German colossus Siemens to the coffers of the governing New Democracy and opposition PASOK parties. Elections are important in Greece, and not only for the usual reasons. The state, the wider public sector and the many semi-privatised utilities are still major employers. Party membership is the surest way for getting a job, a burning concern when youth unemployment is at more than 20%. Indeed, in many occupations, you have to be a party member to be promoted. When the opposition wins, the prospect of a coveted public sector job opens for a part of the population that was excluded under the previous government. A case in point was the massive appointment of government followers to short-term “traineeship” or “stage” contracts in the runup to the elections. Political clientellism is for both ruling parties a main way of attracting votes.

The problem with scandals and corruption again brings the two parties together. Every six months a new “scandal” dominates the media and cafe conversations for a period, and then disappears. In the last couple of years, we witnessed a sex and culture scandal involving the attempted suicide of a departmental secretary, the alleged bribery of a minister by shipowners (these two combined the mythical sources of Greek pride), the illegal sale of a Mount Athos monastery-owned land allegedly involving senior ministers, and currently the Siemens kickbacks affair. Similarly, however, the last PASOK government was heavily defeated as a result of its own corruption and abuse of power, and Karamanlis’s promise to “re-found” the state, currently repeated by Papandreou’s pledge to introduce a “new ethics of power”.

None of these “scandals” involves huge amounts of money and confirms what the descendents of Diogenes the cynic have long believed: the state is inefficient, bureaucratic and corrupt, and politicians use their positions for private gain. These scandals have become part of an entertainment system, a kind of official Jerry Springer show: it offers something to talk about to a people who have rapidly moved from a family-based traditional community to a highly commercialised society where money is the main value. They can express moral outrage, while excusing their own smalltime routine tax evasion. It confirms the view that belief in values is passé and private vices are the permanent companion of public visibility. Similarly, the dynastic names have a soothing effect: “Karamanlis” triggers memories of rapid growth and exit from poverty, “Papandreou” of ideological purity and national pride. They seem to offer reassurance at a time of great uncertainty.

More significantly, however, these are symptoms of a wider political pathology. The ideological convergence of the ruling parties around Europe in an attempt to capture the mythical centre ground has turned these parties into right and leftwing representatives of the economic and media elites. Differences in economic policies are supposed to be the great divider. But constraints from Brussels and “expert” ideological agreement mean that, despite rhetorical hyperbole, the two dynastic heirs will deliver fiscal tightening or monetary liquidity in exactly the same way.

In Germany, where the “grand coalition” formalised the convergence, the recent election was uninspiring, even boring, because little separated the main contenders. The public wisely chose a chancellor who fully believes in liberal capitalism against the SPD’s more recent and unconvincing converts. In Greece, the absence of ideological differences means that dynastic provenance, the latest corruption scandal or the prospect of getting a job for the unemployed son or daughter decides elections.

All is not bleak, however. The December uprising changed the cultural and political constellation. Seen as a major defeat for the rightwing government, it contributed to its disarray, the early elections and its expected heavy defeat. The December events followed the greatest recent success of a student movement. In 2007, students and lecturers succeeded in stopping a constitutional amendment that would allow the establishment of private universities despite the agreement of the two ruling parties. The rise of Die Linke in Germany, of the Left Bloc in Portugal and the constant and increasing presence of the Greek left means that beneath the convergence of ideologies and dynasties, political tectonic plates are moving.

Costas Douzinas is Professor of Law and Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, University of London


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