Papandreou must not compromise if reforms to be brought in


CORFU LETTER:The Greek leader seems to be acquiring the ruthlessness he needs to tackle his opponents, writes RICHARD PINE

IN JUNE 2008, shortly after the referendum in which Irish voters rejected the Lisbon Treaty, I went into the post office in Corfu to send a parcel to Ireland. As I handed it across the counter, I said to the clerk, “EU rate, please.” She asked me “Where is it going?” “Ireland,” I said. She shook her head. “Ireland is no longer in the EU.” That was the perception of a Greek post office clerk: Ireland had turned its back on Europe.

Today, talk in Greece is tending to focus on whether Greece should remain in the EU, and, more essentially, whether it should leave the euro zone and restore the drachma. The argument is: yes, this would be economic suicide, but could it be any worse than the situation that Greece is already in?

Greeks are puzzled by the way not only the financial scene in Ireland, but the fabric of politics itself, has been unravelling in recent months. Not only have the two countries got the bailout in common (if for different reasons), but the sense of political instability is shared. The idea that a political party such as Fianna Fáil, traditionally at the centre of the modern state, and almost synonymous with that state, could so rapidly lose its way, strikes many chords with Greeks, who are bewildered by the fact that Pasok, the government party and architect of Greece’s prosperity since the 1970s, is becoming the victim of its own success.

Apart from the current strikes – mostly a reaction against the deregulation of protected professions – most of the unrest lies within Pasok itself. Old-timers in the party are resistant to the determination of George Papandreou to change the system of protectionism, clientelism and cronyism on which his father, prime minister before him, built up popular support for Pasok as a socialist party. So much so that there are rumblings about a snap election: not to test the waters nationally, but to silence internal dissidents.

It is often said in Ireland that the real danger is not the other party, but your constituency running mate. Papandreou has a similar problem.

He also has a potential solution: due to a quirk of the Greek constitution, when a general election is called within 18 months of the last one, the parties use a “list system” of nominees: in essence, voters choose a party, rather than individual candidates, and the MPs are nominated from the party’s lists. Papandreou has until April 3rd to hold an election on this basis. If he did so, he could then eliminate dissidents from the parliamentary party. An internal purge would enable him to implement what many in his party see as un-Greek measures.

In a previous column I said Papandreou lacks the killer instinct that would enable him to cut off his opponents’ legs at the shoulders. Today he seems to be acquiring such ruthlessness. He has said very openly he is so determined to succeed with his reforms that he is prepared to forfeit not only his standing and political future, but also that of Pasok. If he were to call an election, he need have no fear of defeat: the continual fragmentation of political parties means the main opposition, New Democracy, is in no position to mount a credible challenge.

Whether there would be a significant turnout is debatable. Apathy stems from the fact most voters have little faith in either main party to solve the country’s woes, and, especially among those who are proud and anxious to be Greek, they are resentful of the surrender of sovereignty which accompanied the bailout. The apparent collapse of the case for prosecuting politicians involved in the Siemens bribery scandal has called into question whether Greece has a rule of law, and especially whether politicians are immune to it.

In the run-up to the regional elections last November, voters were vociferous because they sensed a coming reduction in local people-power. A general election at this stage, especially if recognised as a manipulation by Papandreou of his own MPs, would cut little ice, because citizens see power as something very distant from where they sit.

There is widespread, if grudging, recognition of the fact that, with the possibility of stretching the pay-back period of the bailout, Papandreou, and his finance minister George Papaconstantinou, have got the measure of a Europe which otherwise would be shaking the Hellenic hound by the scruff of its neck much more viciously. Papandreou’s ability to come to terms with an otherwise anti-Greek Angela Merkel puts down a marker as to whether or not Greece sees its future in Europe – at least on the terms dictated by the centrist states.

But there’s the rub: Papandreou wants to create a modern Greece that will be western-looking and European. The dissidents he would like to be rid of are of the old school which insists there is a Greek, rather than a European, solution to a Greek problem.

Papandreou has little choice but to be brutal if his reforms, amounting to a reconfiguration of Greek society, are to be successfully implemented. But election or no election in Greece this spring, eyes will be concentrating on the change of power in Ireland, not least in regard to the issues of transparency and clientelism.