Friday, 20 January 2006

Constitutional Change

Pasok bemoans New Democracy's neglect of its de jure rights to dismiss state employees,but itself never had the political guts to fire economically significant numbers of people from the civil service or public enterprises

A round of constitutional amendments is not objectionable, and even desirable, but the sudden manner in which they have been announced lends credence to the theory that they are at least partly a means for the prime minister to deflect and deflate intra-governmental and intra-party disagreements. 

When Costas Simitis undertook constitutional amendments they were announced months in advance. Those of Karamanlis have just been announced for early March. The concern, therefore, is that they will be undertaken quickly, and without much debate. If that happens, opportunities could be lost.

An important opportunity is already being lost, and by design. Karamanlis announced 17 amendment proposals (plus three vague directions in which efforts at transparency ought to be aimed). Nowhere in that list is separation of church and state to be found. The government clarified that church-state relations would not be touched through Education Minister Marietta Yannakou, in response to a question from Left Coalition leader Alekos Alavanos year ago. Yet the European Union is founded on the basis of secularity, and sooner or later the vast cultural assumption that Greeks want their governments sworn in by priests will have to be challenged.

There are positive proposals. New Democracy is showing consistency in its efforts to erode lifelong tenure in the public sector by seeking to enshrine this in an amendment. It would be the apex of a series of initiatives that began last year. 
Tenure is an anachronism from the early decades of the twentieth century when incoming governments summarily replaced civil servants appointed by their political foes with their own clients.

The thirty-odd labour agreements that circumscribe management-employee relationships in public companies do make allowances for dismissal on the grounds of incompetence or malice, but for political reasons management has seldom called upon these clauses to dismiss employees. It has preferred, instead, to shift the ornery or incompetent to harmless positions in the company. Meanwhile, political parties have continued to stuff the public sector to the point of suffocating finance ministers with its payroll.

New Democracy made an astounding admission in May last year: By buying its way out of the public tenure system in a pilot project agreed with the union of telecommunications workers at OTE, it implied acceptance of tenure as fact. Pasok, which has done so much to establish that fact, bemoaned New Democracy's neglect of its de jure rights of dismissal, and continues to hold this official stance now; but Pasok itself never had the political guts to fire economically significant numbers of people from the civil service or public enterprises.

New Democracy followed up the OTE deal with a law, published last December, abolishing tenure in future hires by public companies and instituting private sector labour agreements. A recent opinion poll showed support for the reining in of the public sector. On January 18, the government decided to give below-inflation raises in 2006, and cap management salaries at 5,000 euros (see article on page 23). A constitutional amendment now would be designed to give irreversibility to these political and legislative initiatives.

Another clearly positive proposal is to allow competition in higher education from the private sector and from abroad on an equal footing with the public sector - in other words, the establishment of universities that will offer degrees recognised by the state. Article 16 of the constitution currently excludes anyone but the state from the business of higher education. The state, in turn, has for too long held degree recognition exclusively for its own graduates in an effort to restrict public sector jobs as spoils to the 'winners' of the Greek education system. The trouble is that that system has basked in its own untouchability, allowing university standards to drop. It needs the competition on Greek soil that a liberalised education sector would offer.

But most of Karamanlis' proposals are too vague to weigh up at this point. They broadly aim at laudable goals, but reaching those goals can be a complicated matter. For instance, will the establishment of a Constitutional Court serve to strengthen the compliance of laws with the constitution, or will it emasculate Greece's other top courts without offering much in return? Is it more democratic to allow parties to appoint up to thirty MPs who have not been directly elected? In theory this is meant to offer seats to those not wealthy enough to mount their own campaigns, but such seats have not, recently, gone to the poor. Extending the practice arguably strengthens parties and narrows the field for individuals. 
Costas Karamanlis may have bought himself a few days of peace during which to conduct a state visit China, and even potentially deflected the energies of his party and the public from painful economic reforms for the coming months; sooner or later, however, he must refine his constitutional proposals into some shape - and preferably not a boomerang.

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