Friday, 24 October 2008

The truth will set us free

The government of Costas Karamanlis can fairly be said to have reached the lowest point of its fortunes. Not only has it shed two ministers in six weeks whose standing with the prime minister was high; it now faces a parliamentary committee of inquiry - precisely the tool it used to humiliate Pasok just months into its tenure in December of 2004. If life employed symmetrical plots as often as art does, this one would suggest a certain proximity to the final curtain.

The departure of Merchant Marine Minister George Voulgarakis on September 12 was for understandable reasons; his wife acted, inappropriately, as notary public on documents exchanging land between the state and Vatopaidi Monastery, favouring the latter by an estimated 100 million euros.

The departure of Government Spokesman Thodoris Roussopoulos, however, remains a purely political move. He signed no documents relating to the land deal. As he himself said in parliament the day before his resignation, the opposition had mobilised a mood against him on the basis of his close ("spiritual", in his own terminology) connection with Vatopaidi. Guilty of brokering the deal by suspicion he may have been, but two thirds of Greeks agreed that he should go.

The political climate has turned so acrimonious, that Roussopoulos attacked opposition leader George Papandreou in highly personal terms seldom heard even in Greek parliament. "In all these years, the president of Pasok never found his political voice or articulated serious political opposition; laid down a serious [policy] proposal for the country... where there are no policies, there are lies. Whoever cannot walk the difficult road of politics adopts the slippery path of mendacity."

In retrospect, the violence of Roussopoulos' speech and the finality in its summation of his political career seem prescient. The question now is whether his going will do any more than Voulgarakis' did to quell the scandal, given that he had become a lightning rod.

Beyond Roussopoulos, the government seems to be imploding under its own ineptitude both at conducting business transparently and seeming to do so. Anger among ruling party MPs is at an all-time high. Nothing bespeaks New Democracy's fear of itself as much as its prohibition to MPs from attending an October 24 vote on a preliminary criminal investigation proposed by Pasok. Such an investigation would have direct powers of prosecution against past ministers; by virtue of their majority the conservatives could scotch it but, fearing their backbenchers, deemed the usual exhortation to vote along party lines insufficient.

Such investigations were launched in 1989 at the expense of both Pasok (over the Bank of Crete scandal) and New Democracy (over the Aget Herakles cement company privatisation) because in the absence of clear majorities, governments of national unity had been formed that included the smaller parties of the left. Disciplining cross-party parliamentary blocs proved impossible. This time, a parliamentary criminal investigation could only be launched with the aid of two conservative MPs, who would offer their votes openly, so expectations should be kept low.

Crises force change. Just as the global financial crisis is causing people to question the wisdom of speculation, so the Greek crisis in political accountability is causing them to question the law (and constitutional article) that protects those in government.

As this newspaper recently pointed out, laws that protect MPs and ministers from criminal investigation and prosecution set a double standard. That is now being shaken.

"Should ministers be protected? " ran the title of a commentary in the Sunday edition of centre-left flagship To Vima on October 19. "Do we, perhaps, have limited liability ministers?... as to political responsibility, the answer is, unfortunately, in the affirmative, " wrote the author, George Sotirellis, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Athens.

On the other end of the political spectrum, conservative Estia made a similar point. "For every supposed misdemeanour by a minister or deputy minister in Greece, there has to be a general political uproar... That's what our irrational political system has achieved with the law on ministers' liability, " read the front-page editorial on October 21.

The law, voted in by a socialist government, offers ministers a five-year statute of limitations on prosecution for anything they did in office. It is based on article 86 of the constitution that gives parliament exclusive authority to prosecute past ministers or their deputies for criminal acts committed while in office. Any evidence leading to such charges is to be conveyed to parliament, where an absolute majority is needed to elect a criminal investigation.

The Vatopaidi scandal shows that both the political and legal ends of this process are failing to work, even within the generous protection the law offers politicians. New Democracy is railroading its MPs in the most officious manner, while George Sanidas, the Supreme Court prosecutor who launched the Vatopaidi investigation, seems to have lost his stomach for justice. He has spent the past month interpreting the evidence of ministerial signatures on land exchange documents as not amounting to political liability. Two of his investigators resigned from the judicial profession citing the clear legal requirement to send the matter to parliament for prosecution.

When he sent the case files to parliament, Sanidas sought to avoid the appearance of passing up the case. He justified the move as satisfaction of individual MPs' legitimate legal right to see the evidence.

Sanidas is the prosecutor George Zorbas bitterly complained against when his money laundering authority was abolished last summer. Sanidas, Zorbas said, failed to issue a legal request for evidence into North Asset Management to British authorities who were willing to share it, but for a formal request. The evidence would have furthered Zorbas' investigation into questionable government bonds.

The conclusion is inescapable that New Democracy and its judicial allies are continuing to make a pig's ear sandwich out of the transparency and accountability they claim to support. Far from strengthening the political machinery with honourable precedent, they are grinding its gears to breaking point.

One interesting lead has emerged out of the conflict between the parties, however. In his prescient speech, Roussopoulos listed six endowments of state money made to Vatopaidi Monastery by Pasok ministers. Those endowments amount to no less than 4.6 billion euros - all but 150,000 of that sum paid in 1999.

One doubts that any monastery in Europe has received such largesse, and even Vatopaidi's building boom could not possibly make use of more than a fraction of it. The true test of the committee's integrity will be to open up Vatopaidi's bank accounts and investigate the movement of monies donated under both power parties in the last decade. The committee should follow the money trails wherever they may lead, whether to individuals or organisations - particularly those that enjoy special protection from financial probing, such as political parties. Does any MP have the courage to go that far?

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