Friday, 1 December 2006

Left Behind

GEORGE PAPANDREOU did the right thing to support a revision of Article 16 of the constitution in parliament on November 24. 

Not only is it legally untenable for the Greek state to refuse in principle to recognise degrees from universities it does not run. As Papandreou pointed out, that refusal has led to the de facto creation of an industry it is now morally incumbent on the state to assess.

Education may be a trade, but its long-term worth is far greater to a nation than its value in terms of GDP. On that much everyone in parliament is agreed. But Pasok and New Democracy are realistic enough to understand that if the private sector wishes to compete with the state, no-one can stop it - particularly after decades of under-investment in public education. The state has to recognise the industry in order to exercise some degree of quality control over it. Unreasonably, the KKE and Synaspismos (the Left Coalition) refuse that concession.

Andreas Papandreou became hated of the Left (the euphemism which excludes socialists) when he created an electable body in 1974. He stole what the KKE had seen as its firm booking with history after decades of persecution and a bloody civil war.

The excesses of Soviet communism in Eastern Europe further disappointed and divided the high-strung idealists of the Left. Synaspismos, an attempt to unite pro-Moscow and pro-Europe Leftists was abandoned by the hardliners after the collapse of communism in 1991 and remains today an offshoot of the saner - and sadder - members of a movement that is in its entirety on the wrong side of history.

Now George Papandreou has broken with that body, and rightly so. Synaspismos and KKE have this year led the university and secondary school students of this country in what must count as one of the most immoral political campaigns of recent history. They persuaded university students to riot against overdue reforms that would de-politicise campus life by weakening party proxies.

Their consternation is understandable. Parties of the Left hold disproportionate influence in their target areas: students and public sector labour. The attempted reforms of New Democracy both in education and state enterprises threaten KKE and Synaspismos correspondingly. For Synaspismos, however, this threat is existential. Should it fall in the next election below its threadbare three-and-a-quarter percent in the polls - just over the threshold for entering parliament - it would lose its state funding. Extinction would then lie only a few defections away, and KKE and Pasok are all too eager for the pickings.

Nonetheless, there would appear to be limits to what a conscientious electorate can tolerate. Allowing teenagers to vote on whether they will return to school makes a nonsense of true democracy. Stirring secondary school teachers to strike over pay in order to inflate opposition to university reforms is almost to admit defeat on the substance of the matter.

Yet for turning his back on the loony left, Papandreou faces opposition from within his party. His own shadow education minister, Milena Apostolaki, declares herself unsure of whether to vote for the changes to article 16.

Opinion polls suggest that Papandreou's attempts to modernise his party are not what its traditional voters want. A GPO poll taken partly on the day of the parliamentary debate shows Pasok trailing New Democracy by 3.3 percent. An Alco poll published by Ethnos on November 26 found the conservatives leading by two percent.

Even worse, Greeks think New Democracy's leader is its strength, while Pasok's leader is its weakness. Fifty-seven percent thought well of Karamanlis. The same proportion thought ill of Papandreou, according to GPO. A 20-point gap sits between those Greeks who prefer Karamanlis as prime minister and those who would like to see Papandreou in the job. Among the main reasons why, apparently, is that they can't tell the difference between the top parties.
Yet on November 24, if Greeks were listening, the socialist leader had sound reasons for supporting the government amendment to article 16; not least among them that conservative governments engineered the state monopoly on higher education to stop the infiltration of communists. That left KKE and Synaspismos cold. Bits of the Left may still have useful things to say, but the Left as a whole has been left behind. Pasok supporters should look beyond Synaspismos' tired logic of generating votes through friction.

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