Friday, 28 September 2007

A sophist for prime minister?

Former Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos' leadership challenge to Pasok President George Papandreou seems unstoppable. According to a GPO poll taken a week after the election, an absolute majority of Pasok voters (53 percent) say they will pick him in a November 11 leadership election, compared to just 39 percent for Papandreou. That is believable because close to two million Pasok supporters now declare they will participate in the vote ­ twice the number that elected Papandreou unopposed in 2004. It seems to seal Papandreou's fate that two thirds of Pasok voters think Venizelos can beat Karamanlis, compared to barely a quarter in his corner.

Papandreou's shortcomings as party leader are readily apparent. He is accused of forming a camp within a camp and running Pasok without transparency or the full use of its intellectual resources. That is because Papandreou tried to distance himself from the old guard, which he rightly saw as an electoral liability. Yet he neither purged it nor made peace with it, hoping that, given enough rope, it would hang itself. Too late, last week, he announced that he had been wrong not to "confront head-on the practices, people and ideas which represented negative aspects of our policy." Quite the opposite, in fact. Papandreou brought out of mothballs Costas Laliotis, the widely reviled former public works minister, to run his election campaign. He had been obligingly put in the wardrobe by Papandreou's predecessor, Costas Simitis.

Even so, his strategy might have upstaged the old guard had he himself articulated the clear new identity and vision socialists crave. But he had trouble forming a policy platform (it came last spring, two years late) and bringing his best speakers forward to advertise it. He shot himself in the foot with a loss of nerve, most disappointingly on education reform. At first he agreed with changes to the way in which universities are governed, only to pull the socialist team out of cross-party talks shaping a proposal to the government. He agreed with a constitutional reform to allow non-state universities, then aborted.

It is impossible to believe that Papandreou has not acted against his own convictions. He is by word and deed an overturner of established practice, not a protector of it ­ most notably in his brilliant tenure as foreign minister. Conviction was the only winning strategy Papandreou offered since failing to find his leverage as a party bureaucrat, a bridge-builder with his peers or as an articulate orator. Venizelos, a member of the old guard, is now seen by many as the inevitable evolutionary next step.

Unfortunately that choice puts Pasok between a rock and a hard place, because Venizelos' shortcomings are more worrying than Papandreou's. A constitutional scholar and undeniably quick-witted speaker he may be; but where Papandreou abandoned his convictions, Venizelos seems to have none. His career is dotted with examples of pursuing politically expedient choices to achieve ulterior goals.

It was through one such choice that he won his political colours in 1985. Then prime minister Andreas Papandreou caused a constitutional crisis when he allowed the parliament speaker, Yannis Alevras, to cast the tie-breaking vote for a new president. The speaker is always drawn from the ranks of the ruling party and is entitled to his vote as a parliamentarian; but on this occasion Alevras had assumed another mantle ­ that of acting president ­ because Greece's elder statesman, Constantine Karamanlis, had resigned.

Greece's two leading constitutional experts argued that Alevras' presidential duty took precedence over all else, therefore he could no longer vote as a deputy. But on March 14 Venizelos, then an assistant lecturer at the University of Thessaloniki and protιgι of one of the two, up-ended his mentor's arguments with an opinion printed in Ta Nea. Alevras' dual competence was a constitutional grey area, he said, so one should defer to his popularly elected side.

The partisanship of Venizelos' action was beyond question in the highly polarised atmosphere of the time. The three voting sessions that produced president Christos Sartzetakis were arguably the most acrimonious parliament has seen since the restoration of democracy in 1974. Papandreou insisted on an open ballot, which was unconstitutional, and to ensure party discipline he printed the Sartzetakis ballot papers blue, which ran against parliament's rules. Whenever conservative leader Constantine Mitsotakis complained about the procedure, Papandreou reminded him that he had betrayed his father, George Papandreou, by agreeing to form a government in 1965. At one point a conservative MP ran off with the ballot box.

The cleverness of Venizelos was to deliver a constitutional whitewashing of what many described as a parliamentary coup. In the event, Papandreou eked the required 180-seat majority with the Alevras vote, and Venizelos was accepted into Pasok. In 1989 Papandreou put him on the party ballot and he was elected to parliament in 1993.

Venizelos flew in the face of scholarship and reason in 2001, when he supported the construction of an Olympic rowing centre on the battlefield of Marathon. The two-kilometre-long rowing trench became the most controversial Olympic venue because it encroached on the site of one of history's most consequential battles. It was at Marathon that the Athenians and Plataians single-handedly prevented the expansion of the Persian empire into Europe in 490BC.

Venizelos argued that the site of the trench was on a part of the plain that had been open sea in antiquity, and had silted up since. This theory was plucked from an obscure Belgian study disputed by the Archaeological Society. It made nonsense of the only description we have of the battle, by Herodotos; it was contradicted by discoveries of skeletons and a trophy column erected by Athenians which, according to Venizelos' theory, ought to have been planted in several feet of water. Most eloquently of all spoke new geological borings conducted by an American geologist, Richard Dunn, which demonstrated that the coastline at Marathon has not changed since several hundred years before the battle. (The Athens News exclusively published a first-hand account of the geological survey on 6 April 2001, and brought it to Venizelos' attention, to little effect).

Venizelos finally employed his ability to make the weaker argument beat the stronger (as the ancients would put it) to serve his plans for party leadership. In the autumn of 2004, Akis Tsohadzopoulos and Yannos Papantoniou were summoned to a parliamentary committee of inquiry into arms procurements they had made.

The probe was fully justified. Tsohadzopoulos had ordered, without competition, a US-made artillery radar his generals considered useless. Both men were asked why they never bothered to claim a $132 million rebate from a Russian defence contractor which sold Greece anti-aircraft missiles. ("There we failed," Tsohadzopoulos inscrutably told journalists). A berthing facility the Russians were to build as an offset for a $177 million hovercraft sale also went unclaimed. And Papantoniou never explained why, after winning government approval to buy 42 European transport helicopters for 651 million euros in 2002, purchased just 20 the following year for the same price.

A reading of the committee's minutes shows that Venizelos acted as a defence attorney, feeding answers to the ministers when they took the stand and grilling New Democracy appointees and retired generals. He repeatedly challenged the chair on proceedings and disrupted cross-examination.

All this sophistry had a purpose. Venizelos, who volunteered for the committee job, was putting himself forward as the protector of former Pasok ministers whom New Democracy might hold up to scrutiny and George Papandreou might be all too happy to see discredited. It is a tribute to his ingenuity that he began to position himself so early on as a primus inter pares, so that he could be the undisputed challenger for the party leadership when the time came. As he felt Papandreou's grip weaken, he tested the limits. He directly contradicted the party leader on education policy in 2006, and famously told Papandreou not to insult him in a recent shadow cabinet meeting.

As diabolically clever as he is, however, Venizelos has shown that he holds no principle dearer than the pursuit of power. Greeks consider him a less honest and less modern politician than Papandreou in the GPO poll, and it is not necessarily a compliment to the socialist party that they judge him better suited to revive it. But anyone who wants to be party leader wants to be prime minister, and on the basis of character Venizelos is decidedly the less suitable of the two for the job. Of course power may satisfy the hunger of ambition and responsibility may sober it; but equally they may embolden and inflate an ego so demonstrably inflatable. George Papandreou may have failed to convince the Greeks that he is the right man to run the country, but Evangelos Venizelos has already provided plenty of troubling signs about whether he is.

Friday, 21 September 2007

Greece's six great challenges

Of the many challenges Greece faces at the beginning of New Democracy's second term in office, six stand out as critical: high social spending combined with public debt; the urgent need for continued education reform; the lack of a strategic foreign policy; global warming and desertification; and a democratic deficit and meritocracy deficit.

It is inadvisable that Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, with a reduced majority of just two seats, face them with the fanfare that accompanied some of the deeds of his first term. Revising the budgets that enabled Greece to enter the eurozone and putting socialist defence procurements on trial backfired on the conservatives, who are not great spinners even when they are right. Karamanlis, accordingly, may well choose to adopt a low-key approach that raises no flags to the opposition.

1. Social spending combined with public debt: Greece's pay-as-you-go-system requires current workers to pay for current pensioners. Accumulated reserves in pension funds offer some cushioning, but not enough. Whereas a healthy system should have about three workers to each pensioner, the Social Insurance Foundation (IKA), the country's biggest insurer, declared a ratio of 2.08 four years ago, which is barely viable. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reckons that by mid-century the dependency ratio for Greece will plummet to about 1.7, and the employment ministry's social budget published last month thinks it has already reached 1.72, down from 2.46 in 1990.

The government already spends about 25 billion euros a year ¬ the equivalent of ten percent of GDP ¬ to support the system, and that is predicted to rise to 25 percent by mid-century. To this must be added roughly ten billion euros a year spent servicing the country's debt ¬ nearly the equivalent of all taxes collected from individuals and companies. The opportunity cost of maintaining such a heavily indebted economy is underinvestment in education, research, foreign policy, the environment and worker retraining ¬ offensive rather than defensive tools that could carry the nation forward.

We are a long way from fixing the system. An audit of the main 83 pension funds is needed to establish their health (the International Labour Organisation said last week it could not even draft reform recommendations because of a lack of data). Karamanlis has adamantly denied even thinking about raising the retirement age or lowering benefits. The environment ministry has signalled, instead, that it will offer incentives to retire late and crack down on contribution evasion; but it is highly doubtful whether those measures suffice.

Individual retirement accounts are not vulnerable to the problems of pay-as-you-go because people are better stewards of their own money than other people's. Tony Blair instituted an opt-out clause for Britons wishing to divert social security taxes to private schemes, but here there is absolutely fierce political opposition here to the idea of partial privatisation. Refusing embrace it, however, deprives the economy of innovation, and therefore the young of opportunity.

2. Education: New Democracy's great challenge will be to implement its promised revision of article 16 of the constitution to allow non-state universities. At the same time they need to implement their revision of law 1268, which introduced term limits to undergraduates, stayed their influence in the election of rectors and introduced textbook pluralism. And they must strike out on a promised overhaul of secondary education, which moulds the nation.

They also need, by the end of 2008, to have completed the first external assessment of Greece's 23 universities and 16 techincal colleges (see Paideia, our four-page education supplement in the centrefold). The assessors' success largely depends on the goodwill of faculty, so another political uprising on the streets of Athens over article 16 would raise the political cost of cooperation and could scuttle assessment.

Education reform is basic, because upon it depend the country's ability to produce people who think critically, are marketable, and can make an informed decision on how to vote. The new minister, Evripidis Stylianidis, will have to win over 28 deputies to pass a constitutional amendment. He may win some of them from Laos, but he needs to win some from Pasok, too. The socialist leadership battle may take until Christmas, offering an opportunity for stealthy coalition-building over the next months. That seems to be the only way for the government to achieve anything in time for a 2010 goal to harmonise higher education across the European Union.

3. The democratic deficit: Since the major parties are the nurseries of most of the practitioners in our democracy, they must, themselves, be democratic, or they cannot effectively channel public feeling. In fact, parties are closed shops: Parliamentary and local government candidates run under their banner by invitation and are expelled by decree. Party leaderships establish policy, and votes in parliament as a rule break down along party lines. Parties and are also autocratically run: Karamanlis established his authority in 1996 by expelling three deputies who voted their conviction rather than the party line on an opposition bill.

What justified the expulsions was that one of the three, current Public Works Minister George Souflias, had been a challenger for the leadership. By contrast, socialist leader George Papandreou has failed to establish his authority because he did not expel key opponents.

Most European democracies combine party leadership with leadership of the government, but there is an alternative model. In the US, the Democratic and Republican party leaderships are administrative. Policy and ideology are shaped by the candidates. Individuals run for a party at will, and define it.

Our feudalistic, top-down system combines with another major democratic compromise ¬ the elision between the executive and the legislature. A government arises through its control of parliament; but that ironically leads to the abolition of parliamentary democracy, because once established a government is no longer obliged to consult the opposition. The result is that checks and balances are lacking from party leaderships all the way to the president, who merely rubber stamps legislation. Even his constitutional right to return it once for reconsideration is not, by custom, exercised.

The system is designed to ensure workability rather than pluralism, but it makes Greek politics excessively partisan. We are denied even a healthy tradition of backbenchers.

Even within this tight institutional frame, there is wiggle room for bipartisanship that New Democracy has not taken advantage of. Pensions provide the perfect opportunity. Social security legislation constitutionally may not be hidden as a rider on an unrelated bill. A high-profile social security bill is therefore inevitable at some point. A repetition of the 2001 attempt to save social security, sunk by union action, is in nobody's interest, because it will merely pass the problem on to another administration. The conservatives could appoint a champion, and invite Pasok to do the same, who would together draft a common set of the more progressive positions in the two parties and present it as a bill. Deputies from both sides could then be invited to vote according to conscience. If 151 MPs from among the combined 254 don't vote for it, that will be a truly democratic rejection, not a partisan one.

The experiment is important because Greece desperately needs precedents of bipartisanship in order to begin to heal the historic rifts between left and right. 

4. Foreign policy: Greece hasn't had a foreign policy to deal with its most intractable problems since New Democracy came to power. We need strategies to bring the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Turkey to the negotiating table. Both have chosen to let our differences, respectively over the republic's name and over the Aegean continental shelf and airspace, to fester. That is not in Greece's interest in the long term, because it is the Greek position that will become eroded and the challenges that will become more established.

Athens also needs to adopt a clear position in preparation for renewed efforts next year towards a political settlement on Cyprus. Greek-Cypriots will ultimately decide their fate, but they need to negotiate the outcome rather than wait for a risk-free solution on a plate. Karamanlis' fence sitting three and a half years ago allowed Cypriot President Tassos Papadopoulos to cross his arms at the negotiating table, delivering to Turkey its first diplomatic victory on Cyprus in thirty years. 

5. Global warming and desertification: If current warming trends continue, Greece will face a real threat of desertification. The water table is falling rapidly in many parts of Greece and forests are vulnerable to fire because of dehydration and global warming.

We have enough water to grow crops responsibly, but not enough to overproduce. The Common Agricultural Policy, which has encouraged quantity over quality, is at the beginning of its end. New Democracy has said it wants to re-train farmers in sustainable methods, but hasn't pushed the agenda; nor has it re-oriented them into service professions. Instead, Public Works minister George Souflias is well on his way to recreating the Aral Sea disaster by diverting a river for irrigation of cotton farms.

New Democracy is also failing to do all it can to counteract the effects of global warming. A long-term strategy must include the reduction of carbon emissions. On paper Greece is set to meet its EU commitments to generate a fifth of all power from renewable sources by 2010, but that is mostly thanks to decades-old investments in hydro-power. The Public Power Corporation should no longer be suffered to run Europe's dirtiest and fifth-dirtiest power stations, as ranked by the World Wide Fund for Nature.

The environment has proven New Democracy's blind spot. It is highly doubtful whether they will re-train farmers, stop the Acheloos river diversion or re-design the PPC's business plan around renewables.

6. Labour, administration and meritocracy: Greek society is divided into two separate realities. In the public sector there is appointment for political loyalty, tenure regardless of performance, high benefits, low working hours and inflexibility due to unionisation. The opposite is broadly true of the private sector, which offers better services for less and pays the public sector's bill. To varying extents this is true in every country, but it is true to an egregious extent in Greece, and here the public sector lacks the boon of a marketable training.

As the state loses control of the economy (it has fallen to just below 50 percent by the development ministry's reckoning) this inequality becomes untenable. Societies that reward merit grow stronger because they bring competence up the hierarchy and solve problems sooner rather than later. Having witnessed the failure of the system of overprotection to make them happy, Greeks are ready for more accountability.

If New Democracy shows the mettle to tackle the greatest problems, and an openness to bipartisanship, they will stand a chance for re-election based on their courage. If they do not, their days are numbered, because voters are aware that mere management is no longer enough to keep Greece abreast of competition.

Friday, 14 September 2007

Will politics unseat reform?

WHAT was most surprising in a debate among party leaders a week before the election was not the readiness with which the opposition attacked the government. That has been going on for months. Rather, it was the viciousness of the knife fights among the small parties. For the first time in many years they sense a real opportunity to become coalition partners, either with conservative New Democracy or with socialist Pasok. Accordingly, each of them fought hard to explain why they were the right flavouring for the stew.

Alekos Alavanos of the Left Coalition claims that his party either anticipated or cultivated majority positions on education (no private universities, thank you), the environment (protection, please) and the separation of church and state (sooner rather than later). 

George Karatzaferis of the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) says that as coalition partner he would guarantee the transparency New Democracy cannot deliver alone ("One-party governments are the nursery of corruption"). As a new party, he won 2.19 percent in 2004 and needs 100,000 votes to enter parliament, something that is widely expected to happen on Sunday.

"It is we who changed the rules of the game," he said. "We no longer ask which [party] will come first, but whether they will win a majority of seats."

In its attempt to cut Karatzaferis down, New Democracy has encouraged the entry into the race of Stelios Papathemelis, a former Pasok minister with similar nationalist and religious leanings to Karatzaferis.
There is a hidden danger, however, to the small parties in this looming possibility of a coalition ¬ that they may bleed votes to their intended partners. Many voters may simply not see the point in punishing one of the major parties only to see it swallow their vote in a merger. Recognising this danger, Alavanos has vehemently denied any engagement to George Papandreou, who has correspondingly sung ever louder under his balcony.

The mistress of the game when it comes to self-sufficiency, though, is the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) general secretary, Aleka Papariga. As far as she is concerned, New Democracy and Pasok club each other over the head to establish an artificial ideological difference and fool the electorate into making a false choice. Only when this sham of a democracy ends can socialism truly bring about social change, she says, so coalitions are out of the question.

It goes without saying that she crucifies Alavanos for playing into the system and even accepting the authority of the European Union, an instrument of imperialist capitalism. As the more endangered of the two communist parties in parliament (3.26 percent of the vote to Papariga's 5.9 in the last election), and as the rump of a brief experiment in left ecumenicity, Alavanos insists on leaving the door open to collaboration. But it is a rabbit's courtship of a cat.

The other problem with the coalition scenario is that Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis has now officially rejected working with Karatzaferis in unequivocal terms: "We cannot work with Mr Karatzaferis' party because we do not collaborate with extremes. If a parliament emerges where there is no absolute majority, it's more or less understood that we will go to new elections."

For that to happen, the second-largest party in parliament must also prove unable to form a coalition government with at least 151 seats in the 300-seat legislature. So Karamanlis is gambling that if he comes in a weak first, voters will strengthen him in a second contest as they did the last conservative prime minister in 1989.

Greece's two-party system has successfully occupied the middle ground since 1974. Only on the right and left margins of the spectrum have independents popped up. All of them have been splinters of Pasok (Dikki, Aske, Democratic Rebirth), New Democracy (Democratic Renewal, Political Spring, Free Citizens' Movement, LAOS) or, most entertainingly, the KKE (see article on pages 6-7). All have hitherto failed to challenge the majors, even when they made it into parliament.

The depressing thing about this election is that politicians have refused to discuss the issues that will preoccupy them in the next term. Asked how he would rescue social security, Papandreou said that he will not reduce pensions, or raise the retirement age or contributions. In fact, he said, he will raise farmers' pensions. "Money is not the problem. It's the political choices," he said.

Asked about his tax policy, he said he would narrow the gap between direct and indirect taxes. To the optimist, that means a lowering of VAT, hiked in a tax-collecting crisis to 19 percent by New Democracy; to the pessimist, it means raising personal income tax, lowered by New Democracy. Joining the dots, Papandreou could be apt to re-enact some of his father's tax-and-spend policies, which Greece can ill afford to do. Surrounded as it is by tax havens and cheap labour in Bulgaria, Albania and Fyrom, Greece really needs to boost its weak-kneed business development.

Karamanlis has been equally opaque about how he will tackle reform in a second term. He has talked about opening the way to private universities through a constitutional amendment, but hasn't explained how he would achieve a two-thirds majority in parliament. He still wants to reform public administration, but at the rate at which he chipped away at bureaucracy in his first term it would take him longer than another four years to revolutionise the state. Neither he nor anyone else has even talked about slimming the bloated civil service. Like his opponent, he has not explained how he will save social security without touching the retirement age or lowering pensions.

The smaller parties are even more vague. Asked about his economic policy, Karatzaferis talked about "making the pie bigger" and tempering soaring bank profits. Asked about the effect on competitiveness of raising salaries, Papariga talked about capital flight. Asked about his view of the economy, Papathemelis attacked employers for whipping more performance out of their employees.

No one expects politicians to roll out supply and demand charts, but they do have to be credible as well as have their heart in the right place.

The most charitable explanation to the policy vacuum is that New Democracy is banking on its strengths. It has tamed the budget deficit and lowered the national debt; it has brought unemployment to below eight percent; it lowered company and personal tax, made good on a promise to raise pensions and has begun to encourage entrepreneurship (see the last of our economic policy surveys in the centrefold). In terms of reform, it has begun to make higher education accountable and abolished tenure in state companies.

At the same time, Pasok is surely relying on the conservatives' sizeable liabilities: Its attempt to cover up a massive espionage operation, its failure to bring about a revolution in transparency, epitomised by the sale of an overpriced government bond to pension funds. Pasok also considers education reform a Pyrrhic victory.
Ordinarily, one's loss would be the other's gain; but the parties of the left expect to rake in a protest vote against the cynicism of both major parties this year, and the entry of Karatzaferis as a possible fifth party is a wild card. Those two factors are enough to make Karamanlis and Papandreou nervous.

Friday, 7 September 2007

The New Peloponnesian War

This summer Greece entered the global warming age with a baptism of fire. The loss of approximately 3,000 square kilometres of forest and orchard - an area equivalent to 2.3 percent of the country's surface area - is unprecedented. 

The economic effects could be devastating. The farmers of Ileia, Arcadia, Laconia and Messenia were on the cusp of this month's grape harvest, the autumn citrus harvest and December's olive harvest. They have been deprived not only of a year's income, but of the means to make a living for many years to come. The danger, as pointed out by European Parliament, is that they will begin to abandon the land in order to find salaried jobs.

The socialists and conservatives are promising reconstruction aid hand over fist ahead of the September 16 election. Both, reasonably, have pledged to rebuild burnt homes, greenhouses and sheep pens at public expense (although the socialists have been much more explicit about it).

The government has handed out emergency relief money, promised to re-equip homes and offered bereavement money. Remarkably for Greece, it began to hand out the money on August 28, while fires still raged, and did so with a minimum of paperwork. In the first days of September crews moved in to terrace burnt hillsides and prevent soil erosion. Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis promised on August 31 that reforestation will be done artificially where it cannot take place naturally.

All this is good first aid, but the socialists have better captured the longevity of the commitment needed in the half-destroyed Peloponnese. Among Pasok's provisions are a necessary freezing of farmers' debts for three years, the complete replacement of their flocks and trees and a monthly stipend of not less than 1,000 euros for up to five years until they rebuild their livelihoods from the land. Pasok has also said it would sustain tourism businesses and olive presses, canning and bottling plants by making up revenue shortfalls for up to five years. In contrast, the prime minister has only spoken vaguely about studying the area's regeneration.

Pasok is overzealous in pledging additionally to pay market prices for livestock killed and a set rate per acre for farmland burnt. And its talk of a new bureaucracy along the lines of the Olympic organising committee to oversee every aspect of reconstruction is silly in a country where state bureaucracies take decades to pick up real authority and are never dismantled. But it has shown the right pioneering spirit. Seizing the opportunity to turn the region to organic farming and founding a Peloponnesian version of the American Farm School, which is devoted to sustainable methods, are capital ideas.

Regenerating the area economically and environmentally, however, requires that those two priorities be placed on an equal footing. Traditionally, both major parties have demoted the environment in favour of the economy. That was sustainable while the environment was able to absorb the impact of human activity; but now that man's activity has begun to have measurable and dramatic effects on the economy, the two must be cultivated together.

In his explanation of the current fires, Karamanlis has indicated arson and hinted at conspiracy. The trouble with conspiracy theories is that they assume exclusive human agency and a master plan to boot. Three people are indeed convicted for malicious arson in this year's fires, and more than two dozen await malicious arson charges or trial. But any rational explanation for this summer's conflagration must include climate change.

Heatwaves and drought have left the country vulnerable to fire, foresters and climatologists tell this newspaper (see article on page 3). Neither of those factors is conclusive on its own. Greece suffered an even worse drought in the 1989-90 winter, followed by an unremarkable fire season; and a massive heatwave in 1987 was not accompanied by conflagration as it was on June 26 this year.

But climatic factors work over the longer term, the experts say. It cannot be coincidence that Greece's greatest forest losses have taken place during the only summer on record with three heatwaves, the second worst drought on record and the single highest temperature in central Athens in more than a century (44.8 degrees Celsius).

These factors rendered the west coast of the Peloponnese especially vulnerable. Usually it enjoys heavier rainfall, and that has given rise to its lush vegetation, which this year's drought turned into fuel.
Perhaps the most powerful indication that Greece is in the grip of climate change, rather than the butt of conspiracy, is that neighbouring Italy and Albania are also suffering from high fire seasons.

Government indifference to the environment over decades has further weakened it. The forestry service tells this newspaper that for the past four years it has not received a forest-clearing subsidy it is entitled to (see article on page 4). Nor have central and local government bothered to claim 24 million euros in European money for forest protection.

New Democracy may have proven an inept operator of the state machine in a time of crisis, as these fires demonstrate, but it has also neglected long-term environmental planning. For instance, the Public Power Corporation has been allowed to continue burning lignite without planning any investment in wind, solar and geothermal power, in all of which Greece is exceptionally gifted by nature.

The development ministry has obstructed private interests wanting to invest in renewable energy. It scrapped the liberalised electricity market rules drawn up by the previous government and gave the private sector a smaller market share. Unchecked bureaucracy stifles private investment in renewable energy.
Pasok has fared no better. Consolidating the environment ministry with public works was Andreas Papandreou's idea. None of the three socialist ministers who pioneered that ministry from 1993 to 2004 established a tradition of environmental priorities. One of them is responsible for the failure to create a national land registry.

Politicians have not talked about these environmental underpinnings of this year's conflagration in the Peloponnese, or of how to avoid a repetition. The new Peloponnesian War will not just be about reconstruction. It will be about drawing the right conclusions from 2007, and will be just as crucial to the rest of Greece as the ancient one.