Greece undone by toxic blend of clientelism and corruption


ANALYSIS:THERE IS an uncanny correlation between the proliferation of political parties in Greece and that of anarchist or terrorist groups. Both phenomenons are due to the current debate about democracy and the nature of the state.

Democracy for Greeks doesn’t mean allowing trusted politicians to run the country: it means the right to get out on the streets, whether peacefully or not. It means debating the credentials of the state as against the interests of the individual and the family.

The unease of Greek citizens is reflected in both phenomenons: those who see the democratic process as a necessary bulwark of society (after all, they invented it), and those who view the existing state as derelict, unworthy of its heritage and want to replace it with a more radical system.

In the build-up to the general election to be held in early May, the two major parties, Pasok and New Democracy, have fragmented, with eight or nine minor parties in the field, each of which (except the Communist Party) has a chance of featuring in what will almost certainly be a coalition government.

Defections from Pasok have led to the creation of Democratic Left and Social Pact, while New Democracy’s defectors have set up Democratic Alliance and Independent Greeks. Laos (the right-wing Popular Orthodox Rally) and Syriza (Radical Left Coalition) and the communists have largely been immune from this fragmentation. To these must be added National Unity League, founded last year by former army officers, and Golden Dawn, a group of self-professed anti-Semitic and xenophobic fascists.

Parallel to this has been the growth of illegal organisations, following the dispersal of 17 November, the terrorist group that dictated the rhythm of Greek political violence from 1975 until the arrest of its leaders in 2002. The successor was Revolutionary Struggle, which emerged in 2003, followed by the Sect of Revolutionaries (a splinter from the former) that assassinated a journalist in 2010.

Others are Urban Guerrilla War, Lambros Fountas Guerrilla Group, Revolutionary National Socialist Front and the Terrorist Guerrilla Group. By far the most active in recent times has been the Conspiracy of the Cells of Fire, which in 2010 sent a spate of letter bombs to foreign embassies and is suspected of the bomb that killed an aide to the law enforcement minister.

Leaving terrorism aside, Greece and Ireland have much in common. Fintan O’Toole’s assessment of the Mahon tribunal report (March 24th) rings horribly true to Greek ears. He portrays “the great silence” of a complacent electorate who allowed themselves to be fooled by politicians into “passive collusion”, while “corruption affected every level” and “undermined the rule of law”. Substitute Greek names for Irish, and you have the situation here: Greeks in general enjoy the same tolerance of bribery and clientelism.

Media commentators here continually refer to similar levels of corruption in public life, and the Greek people’s capacity to condone it.

Most Greeks are hard working, honest and reliable. But the system, like the Irish system depicted by O’Toole, encourages laxity, and the top-heavy bureaucracy is prone to bribery to cut through red tape. Nepotism and dependence on a clientelist state have bred a weakness in the fabric of civil society.

Despite his dilatoriness and over-consultation, former prime minister George Papandreou was genuinely determined to dismantle the system created by his father as prime minister in the 1980s, which encouraged such dependence. He was defeated by that system – and so was Greece.

The realisation that everyone has condoned and even welcomed such activity, makes all uneasy and potentially guilty of connivance.

This unease underlies the voters’ dilemma, as they try to decide what kind of government they will elect to see them through the years of austerity.

Many expect the current Pasok-New Democracy coalition to continue after the election, as neither will command an overall majority and both have signed up to continuing implementation of the bailout terms imposed by the IMF/ECB/EU troika. Whether Evangelos Venizelos, the new leader of Pasok, would become premier (since his party will most probably remain the largest in parliament) is up for grabs. Certainly his no-nonsense aggressive comportment compares favourably with the prevarication of New Democracy’s Antonis Samaras. But many sceptical voters see another Pasok-New Democracy coalition as more of the same, with Brussels and the IMF still having the whip hand. The real government would remain outside Greece.

A coalition’s stability depends on two factors: a willingness for the parties concerned to work together and the ability to implement the troika’s reforms, many of which are regarded as impossible to achieve. A coalition that depended on the minor parties making up the numbers could well lead to a Greek equivalent of the “Gregory Deal” with Charles Haughey in 1982, not least because so many of these parties, right and left, are anti-austerity. It would certainly be unstable and probably short-lived.

Some commentators are pointing out that it was the instability of coalition governments in the mid-1960s that led to the military junta of 1967-74. Could that happen again? Others say we already have it: its commander-in-chief operates out of Berlin.

The leader of Laos, which quit the coalition in February in opposition to increased austerity measures, says “Greece can survive outside the EU, but cannot survive under a German boot”. He may be right.

Richard Pine’s January Letter from Greece was reprinted inadvertently in yesterday’s edition