HAS Karamanlis' handling of Employment Minister Savvas Tsitouridis been a success?
In firing Tsitouridis on April 28, the prime minister said it was solely on account of the shadow cast on the latter's honour by having an aide under investigation for stock market misdemeanours. Costas Karamanlis has never admitted that the sale of a high-risk bond to pension funds, which has tenderised the ruling conservatives for two months, had anything to do with it. That, he says, is purely a matter for the judicial authorities to investigate.
Yet three opinion polls taken after the dismissal found that roughly three-quarters of Greeks (and, more significantly, of New Democracy voters) say the bond was at least part of the reason for the dismissal. A similar proportion thinks the firing was long overdue.
Large majorities in two of the polls are unsatisfied with the Tsitouridis dismissal on the grounds that it serves to protect the government rather than pull out the root of corruption.
Most worrying of all, one of the three polls also found that the dismissal actually cost the government a bit of its edge over Pasok - voter intent shifted over the last weekend in April from a 1.7 point lead in favour of New Democracy to a less reassuring 1.1 point difference.
None of this seems to have altered a steady conservative polling advantage on key questions. Sixty percent of Greeks (and half of Pasok voters) continue to think that Pasok will lose again at the next general election. A similar proportion thinks early elections are a bad idea, an indirect vote of confidence in the government. Perhaps most importantly of all in a country where party political fortunes hang on faith in leaders, Karamanlis enjoys a 16 point lead on suitability for the country's top executive job.
This schizophrenic view of things is typical of polls. Respondents want to threaten an incumbent they will support. The key figure is suitability for the prime ministership. Costas Simitis held a wide lead over Costas Karamanlis while the latter led the opposition. Only shortly before Simitis' election defeat did this crucial number slip.
This prime minister has thrice before ousted top portfolio men. In October 2005 Deputy Finance Minister Adam Regouzas left after admitting to spending government euros on airtime from a network whose owner was on trial for felonious fraud. Then in January last year Deputy Public Order Minister Christos Markoyannakis left after calling a prosecutor illiterate. The prosecutor was probing alleged police abductions of Pakistani immigrants after the July 7 bombings in London, and botched policework. And Tsitouridis was once before sacked for using his influence to transfer his son from one university to another.
But these sackings have hardly coincided with the biggest scandals. Markoyannakis' boss, George Voulgarakis, for instance, never really suffered for the alleged abductions of Pakistanis; nor did he suffer when it was revealed that an unknown agency used the Vodafone mobile network to conduct the nation's largest ever espionage on the government. Voulgarakis, along with Justice Minister Anastasios Papaligouras, had tried to sweep it under the rug. Voulgarakis was merely punished with the culture portfolio. And no political heads rolled when police uncovered an apparent effort by the head of the Competition Committee, Panayotis Adamopoulos, to earn a 2.5 million euro bribe in return for dropping fines worth ten times that against a dairy company. Even Adamopoulos has not yet been tried.
Karamanlis has tried to draw a middle line between admitting to his government's gravest misdemeanours and ignoring them all. He has fired at the lowest level possible, as late as possible and over the smallest possible scandal. The aim is to admit culpability for scandals it is not worth fighting over and to reap the greatest possible reward for accountability.
But that strategy is now beginning to show. Karamanlis has denied political responsibility on large matters of governmental honesty four times: in the espionage scandal, the alleged Pakistani abductions, the dairy scandal and the recent bond scandal.
A couple of those were probably not homegrown. The US is the likely spy on the government and Britain is the likely instigator of the Pakistani interrogations - both cases of those countries' war on terrorism. But the financial scandals do not have foreign provenance and demonstrate a worrying nepotism. Two middlemen in the dairy bribery had New Democracy connections. So does the broker who sold a risky bond to four pension funds. If the conservatives want to make a clean break from the past, they need to make meritocratic appointments. That may run counter to the Greek idea of democracy, but it makes for a stronger system.