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.

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