Friday, 25 January 2008

The beginning of the end for Karamanlis

THE ANNUAL Theban plague that afflicts Greek politics under New Democracy has come to a head with the attempted suicide of the culture ministry's former general secretary, Christos Zahopoulos. It brings to a summit what has for years been a rising ridge of scandals in the public sector.

After an extended political honeymoon in which Greece frantically prepared for, successfully held and basked in the afterglow of the Olympic Games, the conservative term began in earnest with corruption in extra-governmental power centres. A chain reaction of revelations in January 2005 led to the dismissal and early retirement of a number of judges accused of bribery. The following month it was revealed that Archbishop Christodoulos had attempted to manipulate the election of the new patriarch of Jerusalem in 2001, and that the Holy Synod was allowing corrupt or gullible metropolitans to mishandle church property without oversight.

The judiciary undertook an internal investigation and the church undertook reforms (see our profile of Archbishop Christodoulos on pages 12-13), but New Democracy's next plague struck in public order. In December 2005, twenty-eight (later reduced to seven) Pakistani immigrants claimed that they had been abducted by Greek police working with Britain to track down the July 7 bombers. In February 2006 came the revelation that the government had attempted to cover up the greatest act of political espionage by a foreign power in Greek history.

The removal of Oedipal victims temporarily restored health. Public Order Minister George Voulgarakis and his deputy, Christos Markoyannakis, both paid with their jobs. The last plague, however, was the worst.

In September 2006, the head of the development ministry's Competitiveness Committee, responsible for ensuring a fair and open market, was arrested on charges of soliciting a 2.5 million euro bribe; and in March last year, the finance ministry itself was implicated in two bond issues that were oversold to four pension funds with disproportionate rewards to brokers who had connections to the ruling party. These two scandals revealed New Democracy's claim to honest power brokerage and commitment to transparency as hypocrisy at the highest levels.

The bigger scandal (that of the bonds, worth about 350 million euros) - was a watershed in public tolerance for conservative misdeeds. New Democracy squeezed back into power last autumn with a loss of 3.5 percent of the popular vote relative to 2004, vastly reduced prestige and a full slate of prickly reforms to legislate or enforce. It had just begun to roll out its 2008 budget and tax policy, along with a new plan for the privatisation of ports, when Christos Zahopoulos tried to kill himself.

The scandal has taken the form of a series of explosions. The first was Zahopoulos' plunge from his fifth-floor apartment on December 20. That triggered a media frenzy over his largely unnoticed resignation the previous day. The government says it also prompted the prime minister's press office to hand over to the prosecutor a computer disk delivered by persons unnamed to Yannis Angelou, director of the prime minister's office, three days earlier.

Within days, the media began to divulge the love affair between Zahopoulos and his erstwhile secretary, Evi Tsekou. Mega channel and the Sunday newspaper Proto Thema both said she had approached them with inconclusive evidence that Zahopoulos had attempted to rig a hiring round for 148 employees, among whom she was to have been included. (There was such an outcry of unmeritocratic selection among the 22,000-odd applicants that Culture Minister Mihalis Liapis cancelled the entire process.) Tsekou was put in pretrial custody on December 24 on evidence of having blackmailed Zahopoulos for one of the 148 tenured positions using a video of their sexual encounters.

The second explosion came on January 4, when a lawyer retained by Zahopoulos also attempted suicide after being accused by Tsekou of blackmail. In a letter, he said it was, in fact, Tsekou who contacted him in September to blackmail Zahopoulos.

The third explosion came on January 13, when the Sunday newspaper Proto Thema, which has made criticism of New Democracy its raison d'etre, published blurry stills of a sexual encounter between Zahopoulos and a woman it said was Tsekou. The newspaper said that Tsekou had filmed the material using a camera hidden in her handbag.

A fourth explosion occurred the following day, when one of the co-publishers of Proto Thema, Makis Triantafyllopoulos, revealed on his television show that a senior member of the government had approached him for protection from exposure. The head of the Special Audits Service (YPEE), Spyros Kladas, he said, had sent an MP to request that he not be named in the Tsekou affair.

Kladas' name had already made its way into the newspapers in previous days. The investigating prosecutor had cast a wide net, requesting Zahopoulos' papers and telephone records, and interviewing culture ministry employees. One of these, the former director of the ministry's financial oversight office, whom Zahopoulos had had removed, charged that Zahopoulos used Kladas as a freelance lawyer to render opinions on paper that only the ministry's legal council was empowered to render. The manager, Ersi Filippopoulou, reportedly testified that she was often pressed by Zahopoulos to sign off on contracts she thought illegal under European Union law. Ministry employees have told this newspaper that Zahopoulos wielded extraordinary power over the allocation of EU subsidies and even fought off ministers.

The fifth explosion concerns the media. Triantafyllopoulos accuses his co-publisher, Themos Anastasiadis, of accepting over five million euros to suppress the Zahopoulos affair. Anastasiadis counters that he raised the money to prevent Triantafyllopoulos from selling a controlling stake in the newspaper to government-friendly interests. (Each has a 40 percent stake. A third partner, Anastasis Karamitsos, owns the remaining 20 percent. Anastasiadis believes his two partners were in collusion.)

The scandal contains a politically corrosive mix: sex for tenure; political blackmail reaching the prime minister's office; possible manipulation of public funds; alleged bribery of the media; and a possible government-condoned effort to buy out an opposition newspaper in order to remove its sting.

Both politicians and the media have lost out in public opinion. The damage is not just to individuals, but to institutions. Both major parties dropped ten points relative to last September's election in an opinion poll carried out for the Sunday edition of Eleftheros Typos, while the Left Coalition picked up three points.
New Democracy has perceptibly failed not only to end the corruption of the Pasok era, but also to prevent its spread. Whether or not it attempted to buy out journalists, it has confirmed a perception that the public sector conspires to betray the common man.

Strengthening that perception will be the fact that, for all its claims to crack the moulds of corruption, the Karamanlis administration has never demonstrated a decisive victory in the form of a prison sentence or the auditing of a major company or institution, despite seven major scandals in four years. (The only corruption case to come to a satisfying imprisonment since 2004 was the conviction of former Panteion rectors and administrators, who were sued under the Simitis government.)

The political fallout of the Zahopoulos scandal will be perhaps even greater than that to the country's psyche. It will likely delay further reform under New Democracy, and even begin to unravel the party's ability to win another election. That could, in turn, undermine Karamanlis personally. A tacit dispute over the conservative leadership would mirror the open power struggle within Pasok. If both major parties labour under leaderships of questionable longevity, 2008 is likely to be a politically sickly and indecisive year, bereft of real change - a year in which the smaller parties can consolidate their election gains and entrench the country more firmly in the defensive populism that has confounded forward-thinking people for years.

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