Friday, 25 July 2008

Transparency denied

Earlier this month, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis and opposition leader George Papandreou clashed on the niceties of whether to convene a cross-party committee to examine the results of a judicial inquiry into political transparency and party funding, or a full-blown parliamentary committee of inquiry. Papandreou wants the latter.

Karamanlis wrote to Papandreou on July 17, "Past experience, particularly the recent committee of inquiry on defence procurements, contradicts your claim that this is the most effective path. As you very well know, that committee was unable to reach the truth, whereas the justice system is now well on the heels of the culprits." The culprits in this case are assumed recipients of bribes from German electronics giant Siemens.

The discussion must have given George Zorbas, the departed head of the government's independent authority against money laundering, a chuckle. Twice, now, Karamanlis has appointed him to extraordinary investigative posts; and twice Karamanlis has been so dismayed at how good the results were that he has removed him.

As general secretary at the defence ministry in 2004, Zorbas was empowered to form case files out of dodgy arms procurements by Pasok governments. New Democracy allowed the resulting committee of inquiry to fall apart along party lines, with each party submitting its own report.

More recently, as head of a new authority to combat the laundering of money from criminal activities, Zorbas says he was actively impeded by his party when he investigated the sale of government bonds to pension funds at inflated prices.
Among other things, Zorbas says, the justice ministry didn't help him obtain judicial requests for information that was forthcoming from overseas investigators (see article on page 5). Nor did an Athens prosecutor volunteer one.

When Zorbas presented the prosecutor with a report that could produce indictments, he met with the response that the report was illegal because it wasn't signed by other members of the authority. When he attempted to present the report in parliament, an early declaration of elections last August dissolved it. Now it is Zorbas' authority itself that is being dissolved in favour of a committee beholden to the finance minister.

Zorbas' career is a case study in what happens to a politically-backed investigator who rises to high office and does his job well. In Greece he is bound to displease his backers.

In the brief history of independent authorities in Greece, some have proven successful; the ombudsman's office has documented hundreds of thousands of complaints against public authorities since it was created in 1997. The following year, after persistent abuse by government contractors, stricter controls were adopted to assure quality of work.

Other institutions have not been as successful. ASEP has not brought about a meritocratic revolution in public sector hirings; the radio and television council has been as toothless in checking the editorial and financial ethics of broadcast reporters as ESIEA has been in the press.

Laws and constitutional amendments have also stiffened party funding rules and the burden of financial reporting on parties and MPs since 2001. Yet neither MPs nor parties are subject to judicial investigation and prosecution; nor are ministers accountable for past misdeeds after a five year statute of limitations.

Clearly the rules and institutions are not designed for full disclosure, and need to be amended. But neither will their amendment entirely solve the problem of corruption in Greece if investigators are punished for doing their job. Nor is displeasure at the polls enough to keep elected officials honest. What is needed in addition is daily popular pressure to implement the law. That is what Transparency International hopes to pursue in a new grassroots campaign this autumn, revealed today in the Athens News (see interview on page 6). If the initiative works, it can help fuel the popular sense of empowerment Greeks so badly lack.

New Democracy came, in 2004, into a state already corrupted beyond recognition by Pasok. It has made attempts to clean it up, but it has also demonstrated that it hasn't the political guts and skill to come through on that promise. It compromised on its first major inquiry into arms procurements; it coopted the judiciary in fudging the bond scandal and the Zahopoulos scandal; its competitiveness committee has failed to break a single cartel; it has now distinguished itself with a massive step backwards in the abolition of an independent authority.

As New Democracy's political capital plummets and Pasok's fails to rise from the ashes, we might gain some satisfaction from the fact that Greeks are uncompromising enough to hold both to account.

The less comforting thought is that this country now has no electable party or self-declared prime minister in waiting. If the two power parties were to cooperate in a government of national unity, it would be for the sole purpose of keeping leftist Syriza, set to be the third force in parliament, from entering a coalition. Would such an alliance conduce to greater honesty in public affairs? And how long could it stave off the need for a powerful new political force?

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