Friday, 18 May 2007

Why Greece's Closed Political System No Longer Works

In an recent Sunday newspaper article, a former prime minister writes the following:

"In all the major issues of the age, such as education and social security, 'reform' is restricted to a few interventions, under the pressure of interested social groups...Party language specifies as little as possible. The so-called 'crisis of democracy' has to do with party efforts to restrict citizens' political involvement to a field they control."

That incisive assessment comes from Costas Simitis, who ran the socialist party and the government from January 1996 to March 2004. His first four years were productive. He put Greece in the eurozone, established a new foreign policy towards Turkey, laid the foundation for bringing Cyprus into the European Union, privatised four banks and began the privatisation of OTE, Eydap and Hellenic Petroleum.

But his last four years were marked by a stock market slump, reform stagnation and pessimism. After massive street protests in 2001 against a proposed raising of the retirement age in the Yannitsis plan, the government never seemed to recover its head of steam. Simitis was never able to use the credentials of having strengthened the welfare state to reform social security, labour, healthcare and education. Now it is clear that the conservatives are just as intimidated by these social areas.

Preserving the human face of capitalism in the next generation is not a peculiarly Greek problem, but a broader European and North American one. The answers will take enormous amounts of discussion, experimentation and risk. But as Simitis points out, the Greek political scene is depleted of substantive discussion. Both parties have taken an armchair attitude to winning the next election, when they ought to be in the laboratory.

Simitis faults the cohesiveness of Greek society. He seems to suggest that once a certain proportion of society is satisfied with its lot, a sort of chemical balance is achieved that makes change impossible. But vested groups who stand against the interests of the whole are only a part of the problem. The woodenness of Greek politics has several other causes.

1. Communication with the people is no longer through town hall meetings or parliamentary appearances, but television. That efficient but theatrical medium values impressions above substance. The rules of public debate invented by the ancient Greeks - apportioned time rather than a free-for-all, equal treatment for opponents, rebuttals - could be duplicated in the studio, but are not. Journalists' tendency to promote themselves further hampers their role as mediators.

2. The country is not well equipped to carry out research into its social problems, dehydrating governments of facts as well as ideas. We have not built public institutions with intellectual depth, such as the UK Department of the Treasury, which last year conducted an independent cost analysis of inaction on global warming. When Greece needs analysis, it purchases it from the private sector and, usually, from abroad. Our university system and the party thinktanks cannot undertake the factfinding and analysis that might underpin public policy.

3. A thinking electorate must be an informed one. Merely making information available to the public and asking for feedback could spark debate.

4. It is true in every society that professional politicians take a lifetime to reach power. When they do so, they are loath to wed ideas that may sink them. But people who do not profess ideas cannot mould society, and Greece now needs conviction politicians.

5. The leaders of the two parties capable of achieving power are both dynasts, who must preserve the legacies of their ancestors and pave the future for their descendants. Those may be good continuity values for heads of state, but poor executive values. Further hemming them in are lesser political aristocracies, which sometimes cultivate their closeness to the ruling family over generations. The contrast between this and western Europe's two dynamic party outsiders - Tony Blair and Nicolas Sarkozy - could hardly be greater.

6. In the United States, any man or woman may run for office under the banner of Democrat or Republican. The candidate chooses the party, and alters it. In Greece, the party chooses the candidate, meaning that it is not open to alteration. But in this way it closes the field to new talent, and misses an opportunity to allow outsiders to test new ideas on its constituency.

Greece's political system has proven fairly effective under both socialists and conservatives at generating economic growth (though even that achievement will be tested once EU subsidies wither in 2013).

What it has proven inept at is tackling the inherent conservativeness of Greek society, which is made up of closed systems unaccountable to each other. The armed forces, the church, the judiciary, universities, labour unions and the parties themselves are all closed systems. They can survive corruption and misconduct because they are monopolies or duopolies on various kinds of power. But society as a whole eventually suffers from the weakness of its institutions.

It is the mark of leaders that they re-engineer the fabric that elects them. If Karamanlis and Papandreou decide to run low-risk campaigns in the coming elections, we shall be assured that whoever wins, nothing of substance will change.

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