Friday, 29 May 2009

Abstention frightens all parties

It little matters that Europe's parliament has few powers and is largely absent from evening newscasts between elections. A European Parliament election is still a political point of reckoning for incumbents. Like US congressional elections, which are deliberately intercalary to presidential ones, Europarliament elections can either reinforce a national government or rebuke it.

Judging by the questions being asked, New Democracy was still on the defensive quite late into the game. This is arguably the first election since 2000 in which its scandals eclipse those of Pasok. On May 27, Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis spent half of an exclusive interview with Mega, the country's highest-rated television network, submitting to questions on the Vatopaidi land exchange, ruling party deputy Aristotelis Pavlidis and the early closure of parliament.

Socialist leader Yiorgos Papandreou, on the other hand, has been able to talk about a tired administration as part of an ideologically bankrupt "neoliberal" movement that brought us greed, inequality and the collapse of the financial system.

More to the point, this is ND's first election battle since 2000 with unfavourable polls. Four published in the last week put it between 2.8 and 6 points behind Pasok. This was consistent with several published the week before, which put Pasok ahead by between 2.8 and 5.5 points.

There are two kinds of loss New Democracy is seeking to defend itself from. First, it has to narrow the gap as much as possible below the 3.7 point difference with which it beat Pasok in 2007. ND's ability to recover from what is increasingly shaping up to be Pasok's first victory in nine years (it has lost five national, European and local elections in that time) will largely depend on keeping that margin below, say, three points.

The second kind of loss ND has to guard against is the bleeding of voters to small parties. This is a problem for Pasok as well, because the perception has grown over the past year-and-a-half that neither is capable of honesty. By one counting last week, ND was attracting just 65 percent of its 2007 voters while Pasok fared little better with 73 percent.

Yet it is not the KKE nor the Syriza meta-communists who are the gainers. The latest polls show them struggling to repeat their 2004 Europarliament performance. The real winner so far is the nouveau arrive Ecogreens party, which is polling between 6 and 8.5 percent of the vote. In a national election, such numbers would put it in the running to be the third-largest bloc in a six-party parliament.

Both power parties have turned into major contributors to the Ecogreens as they have lost much of the urban middle class. According to Metron Analysis, New Democracy has lost 5.3 percent of its 2007 voters to the Ecogreens and 7.6 percent to Pasok. Public Issue thinks the loss is about 6 percent for each party. MRB says almost 40 percent of the Ecogreens' power base comes from the two parties, compared to about a quarter from the communist parties and about 17 percent from first-time voters or people who weren't inspired to vote in 2007.

Not surprisingly, the left has spent a good deal of its time trying to strangle the Ecogreens in their crib, while the socialists and conservatives have gunned for each other - a two-tier election if ever there was one. The parties of the left arguably deserve their green nemesis. The Ecogreens' agglutinative power underlines their failure, for so long, to attract new voters after losing their old ideological compass.

What is at stake is being differently defined by the two protagonists. Pasok has pinned itself on the promise of a green economy as the antipode of the developed world's capital-intensive, industrial system. Vague it may be, but it does offer an alternative vision of the future - and one that the entire Western world is moving towards.

New Democracy's message so far has been surprisingly staid. In his interview with Mega, Karamanlis defined the stakes quite simply as responsible government seeing the country through the economic crisis - survival, pure and simple.
But New Democracy can afford to be more aggressive. Development Minister Kostis Hatzidakis has, in the space of five short months, unveiled a green energy blueprint to make Aegean islands self-sufficient, simplified application rules to put solar panels on household roofs and earmarked 136 million euros to subsidise businesses that invest in environmentally conscious waste management. These are deeds in place of Pasok's words.

Its lapses in accountability over the years notwithstanding, New Democracy can also lay claim to bold moves in difficult times. Olympic Airways has finally been privatised. Finance Minister Yannis Papathanasiou has called a much-needed hiring-and-wage freeze in the public sector. A thousand state enterprises are being merged or abolished. New Democracy's education and social security reforms were brave and, had the combined opposition not stymied them, would have gone further.

The ruling party has rightly seen these European Parliament elections as a dress rehearsal for a general election, which will most probably, given its single seat majority, come before 2011. It may as well fight them as such. If it loses to Pasok by a spectacular margin, it will have a measure of the difficulty of returning to power, and it may just salvage a small defeat. Either way, it will have signalled that it still has a good fight in it, which is what democracy is all about.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Italy should respect international law

Greece faces a mounting problem of illegal immigration. Last year official statistics recorded over 146,000 illegal arrivals, a 30 percent rise on the previous year, which had seen an 18 percent rise on the year before. Keeping them off an archipelago of more than a thousand islands that come to within a nautical mile of Asia seems as futile an exercise as shooing finches from a forest.

Greece's 1,200-kilometre land border fares little better. It faces the collapsed communist regimes of Albania, former Yugoslavia and Bulgaria, origin of some 600,000 legal immigrants now residing in Greece. Most came across on foot illegally and submitted to legalisation procedures held in 1998, 2001 and 2005.

The migrants arriving now are the dispossessed of Africa and Asia. Some hail from the war-torn regions of Afghanistan and Iraq; others are simply poor. They deliberately carry no identifying documents so that, should Greece have the budget to repatriate them, it would not know where.

Current Greek practice is to house, feed and medically attend to the new arrivals in a dozen receiving centres scattered nationwide for three days. After that, they are released with a piece of paper ordering them to remove themselves from Greek territory within a month. Should they be caught in Greece after that, however, there is little the police can do. The country's prisons are already straining, and there is a three-month incarceration limit for illegal migrants.

Like the other Mediterranean gateways to the European Union, Malta, Italy and Spain, Greece does not have any attractive legal options for dealing with the problem. Absorption can only be limited. (Its unemployment rate is set to rise to eight percent this year and about nine percent next year. Its need for manual labour in construction has diminished dramatically, while its agricultural jobs are seasonal and already spoken for).

The secret hope of Greek authorities is that these people will move on to the larger labour markets of northern Europe - hence their amassing in Patra and Igoumenitsa, Greece's ports facing Italy.

Inevitably, though, many find employment or exploitation in crime. The streets of central Athens between city hall on Athinas Avenue and Gazi on Peiraios Avenue are home to thousands of prostitutes, drug addicts, petty criminals or unemployed migrants.

Some decide to file for political asylum, a process that allows them a stay of anything between six and 24 months during processing. But Greece sees asylum as a back door to economic migration, and has made a practice of turning down the vast majority of applicants. The United Nations, European Union and Amnesty International have written scathing reports about this. In 2007, the last year for which figures are available, Greece offered asylum to 140 people from among 25,113 applicants.

If Greece seems to flaunt the spirit of international law, this may be in part because it has had a very frustrating time trying to implement it with its neighbour, Turkey. With the collapse of communist economies now long replaced by viable job markets to the north, heavily assisted by tens of billions of euros' worth of Greek investments, the vast majority of illegal immigration comes from the shores of Asia Minor.

Greece and Turkey signed a bilateral agreement for the repatriation of illegal immigrants during the diplomatic idyll which started with Istanbul's September 1999 earthquake, where Greek rescue teams were the first to arrive from overseas, and ended with the failure of the Annan Plan to reunify Cyprus in April 2004. In an annual immigration report released earlier this year, the interior ministry says that since April 2002, when the agreement came into force, the ministry has formally sought the repatriation of more than 57,000 migrants it was able to prove as hailing from Turkish shores. The number admitted by Turkey was 2,182.

Greece accuses Turkey of deliberate bureaucratic delays that push repatriation claims past a three-month deadline, and of rejecting hard evidence such as arrested Turkish traffickers (2,211 last year) accompanying migrants, or the possession of Turkish currency and bus tickets.

Greece is receiving European Union assistance to the tune of 13.7 million euros last year with which to bolster its coastguard fleet and hire border patrol guards on its northern border. But the extra muscle does not repel migrants. If Greece is to obey the Geneva Convention, the cornerstone of international humanitarian law, the only thing the coastguard can do is help refugees by plucking them out of the water and taking them to receiving centres. This the coastguard says it assiduously does, although it jealously guards its privacy from the prying eyes of both Greek and international journalists.

Italy, on the other hand, has followed an unconventional path. As part of a security agreement signed with Libya last year, its coast guard turns refugee ships around on the high seas and sends them back.

This practice brought a severe reprimand from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. A May 18 communique from the UNHCR says, "The High Commission stressed [to the Italian government] that its new policy comes into conflict with the principle of non-repatriation enshrined in the Geneva Convention of 1951."

Libya does not possess the facilities to process asylum applications for the refugees, the UNHCR said, and said Italy was bound to take into its care children and pregnant women if no one else.

The Italian method comes as a natural successor to a proposal floated by Britain and other EU members in 2004 to concentrate asylum applicants in "safe countries" abutting the EU. The proposal was dropped after the UNHCR said it put countries in danger of breaking international law.

Fighting organised crime which facilitates trafficking, investing in countries that are the source of economic migration and building a common asylum procedure are goals to which the EU has committed itself, and they are at least a part of the recipe for success if they are followed through upon.

As Europe becomes increasingly besieged by huddled masses, its legal sensitivities may eventually change to reflect an age very different to that in which the Geneva Conventions were written. In the meantime, if it is to avoid the loss of moral standing suffered by the US through the creation of a legal double standard in Guantanamo Bay, Europe must face a humanitarian crisis without losing its respect for international law.

Individual countries have jurisdiction only over their citizens, and that creates an inherent double standard regarding everyone else; international law alone protects the rights we have come to regard as basic within borders as well as between them. If we allow Italy to sink it on the high seas it will be only a question of time before we accept lower humanitarian standards across Europe. And the rolling back of individual rights in favour of central government always affects the quality of democracy. Any American who thought their civil rights were guaranteed by lawmakers at home must have been shocked at the number of voters willing to give them up following the 9/11 attacks.

Friday, 15 May 2009

It's the economy, stupid!

The early estivation of parliament cornered media attention for much of last week, but thanks to a cunningly timed decision on the government's part the spotlight quickly drifted to Europarliamentary elections. This is a time for political correspondents to read party favour or exile into Brussels appointments, so the executive-bashing is quietly retired until after June 7.

Critics have raked the Karamanlis government over hot coals for depriving prosecutors of a final opportunity to bring cases against ministers for the 2004-7 period. The constitution gives parliament alone prosecutorial powers against ministers and deputy ministers, but it sets a statute of limitations. Any crimes committed before the last election have to be prosecuted within two parliamentary sessions of the current term of office.

Parliamentary sessions normally run from the mandatory first Monday in October to mid-June, when a full session of parliament votes to enact the summer skeleton parliament consisting of one third of its members in rotation. That summer parliament doesn't have the full parliament's prosecutorial powers, so Pasok had requested that the current session be extended until September, giving the judiciary an extra three months to bring possible cases in the Vatopaidi land exchange, backhanders from Siemens, government bonds issued in 2006 and the sale of Germanos to OTE.

Those four investigations will still continue, but they may no longer indict the two ranks of minister and deputy minister set aside in the constitution as politically answerable figures.

New Democracy's growing fatigue at these investigations was apparent. Pasok was unlikely to get its extension until September, but the government's move still practically removed four weeks of regular work.

The government may have won a practical victory. It has protected its top cadres from prosecution in outstanding investigations. But the damage to the system goes beyond an early closure of parliament. The underfunded and lumbering wheels of Greek justice would have likely failed to act within statutory limits. The bond investigation, for example, was launched in March 2007. It is the growing demoralisation surrounding the political system that will be the real price we pay. The court of public opinion has already ruled in poll numbers.

What will matter in a more practical sense over the next five months is the economy. Greece is due to submit a renewed Stability and Growth programme to the European Commission in mid-September explaining how it will bring borrowing to below three percent of GDP next year and eliminate borrowing over four years.

Never before has Greece been under such pressure to achieve fiscal discipline, leading to real hope that it just might. Former finance minister Yiorgos Alogoskoufis already brought borrowing down from a revised 7.5 percent of GDP in 2004 to what would have been 3.7 percent last year. Autumn spending to stave off the crisis raised that to five percent, and the commission expects it to go higher this year.

Is Greece listening to outside advice? To some extent, yes. In the first week of February, Papathanasiou said the government would save by hiring below attrition and offer the civil service an inflationary raise. After the commission intimated the insufficiency of this, Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis announced a public hiring freeze, a ten percent cut in discretionary ministry spending and the merging or abolition of 1,000 state enterprises over four months.

Brussels still wasn't satisfied. The following month it suggested a civil service salary freeze, deeper ministry spending cuts, improved tax collection and reform of social security and healthcare. Karamanlis obliged on the salary freeze and Papathanasiou made noises about improving tax collection; but he ultimately resorted to new taxes. People declaring above 60,000 euros in earnings would pay one-off levies of between 1,000 and 5,000 euros.

Not only was this a dent in the government's straight record of tax reduction (his predecessor briefly removed a tax-free threshold on the self-employed, was removed in turn and the measure put on ice for a year); it was an indirect admission that improvement of tax collection is a longterm project that cannot save this year's budget.

Nonetheless, given the poor dynamics of the Greek economy and the populist leftism of Greek politics that have helped keep it an uncompetitive handout culture since the 1980s, the government has shown some willingness to listen to Brussels.

Some good news may be around the corner. Economic sentiment has been falling for two years. An index compiled by the Foundation of Economic and Industrial Research (IOBE) went from 108.4 in 2007 to 47.2 in February. But it rose slightly in March to the low 50s, signalling a possible sign of recovery.

The foundation will announce next month that while Papathanasiou's estimate of 1.1 percent growth this year may be optimistic, the commission's 0.2 percent estimate is probably pessimistic and the result is likely to be close to the ministry's worst case scenario of 0.5 percent on the back of consumer spending. This against an expected 1.9 percent shrinkage in the eurozone is a small coup.

Nonetheless, as Greece's central banker, Yiorgos Provopoulos, said in his annual report, bringing down the debt is a sine qua non for the Greek economy. Whatever windfalls Papathanasiou may receive, he will be judged by the discipline and accuracy of what he presents in September.

Friday, 1 May 2009

The need for checks and balances

The government faces its severest test of parliamentary solidarity on May 4. Should all its 151 MPs fail to vote per the recommendation of New Democracy's report on Aristotelis Pavlidis, the government could fall.

The report has found that the evidence brought before a parliamentary committee of inquiry does not amount to an indictment of Pavlidis on the basis of soliciting a bribe from a shipowner in order to award him a subsidised route. But the three left-wing opposition parties say Pavlidis is still morally responsible for blackmail.

By parliamentary tradition, parties have asked their members to vote either the party line or "according to conscience". On matters of ethics, they are not supposed to do the former. At least one high profile MP, Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis, has said she will do the latter.

New Democracy's dilemma is how to accommodate the obvious need for a vote according to conscience in what is a secret ballot, and therefore entirely discretionary on the part of MPs, without falling.

The chances of a real political crisis seem small, however. The opposition cannot, without two ruling party defections, muster 151 votes necessary to send Pavlidis to court. With Pasok 4.6 percent ahead in the latest polls it seems unlikely that any New Democracy deputy would subject himself to elections in the name of party cleanliness.

Most likely, the ruling party will close ranks, keep Pavlidis on parliamentary benches, stay in power and bear the brunt of socialist finger-pointing later.

It can help justify this with a figure from the latest poll by Greek Public Opinion (GPO) taken on April 27. The poll asked voters to rank the country's problems; 77.7 percent named the economic crisis; just 14.7 percent prioritised the cleaning up of public life (even among Pasok voters the proportion was 20.2 percent).

Those figures suggest that people want the incumbent government, for all its faults, to deal with the problem of keeping the economy afloat and voters in jobs, rather than to crusade for transparency.

The finding was much commented-upon by journalists and politicians alike; but the dichotomy it poses is a false one. For one thing, corruption comes at a great direct cost to the economy - by one reckoning almost two billion euros' worth (see our Perspective on page 19). For another, corruption is almost certainly a force against change because the receivers of illicit money are invested in the status quo. Lack of economic reform is costing the economy even more than direct losses to what is euphemistically termed waste.

According to the GPO poll, more than sixty percent of voters distrust Karamanlis and Papandreou equally. A similar proportion wants to see smaller parties strengthened in the next election. GPO's voter intent in a general election would strengthen the communists, Syriza and Laos and bring in the Ecogreens.

Greeks are aware that their economy is in dire straits and their governments largely dishonest. Three quarters of voters told GPO they don't think the truth will be known about the Pavlopoulos case, and more than 80 percent say the Siemens bribery investigation will also lead to nothing. This all hinges on politics. More than two thirds of voters say they don't think either party wants to out the truth.

But in a democracy people must, sooner or later, trust someone to fix things. Have the Greeks reached a point of where they would rather have an outside agent, the European Commission or International Monetary Fund, take the helm for a while? No pollster seems to be asking that question.

For now, the Greeks are providing their own solution. Most are in favour of a coalition government next time around. Perhaps shared power will lead to hands being kept out of the till, the reasoning goes, because one partner will monitor the other.

But that is not good enough. Politicians need to be checked by an independent judiciary whose top jobs are not prime ministerial appointments. Supreme Court Prosecutor Yiorgos Sanidas has gone to ludicrous lengths to keep the Vatopaidi land exchange scandal out of parliamentary discussion, overruling two teams of investigators appointed by him.

Finally, people are beginning to notice the entropic cycle we are in and calling for needed change.

Bakoyannis and others have called for the law limiting ministers' liability to five years after they leave office to be repealed. Socialist leader George Papandreou, speaking at the London School of Economics' Hellenic Observatory suggested parliamentary hearings for new judiciary appointments, in the US style.

Many others have called for an opening of the public and private sector economies by means of e-procurement, a properly functioning Competition Committee and a more transparent path to the leadership of power parties, upon which so much depends.

The need for these things may be self-evident, but something else is required few people mention; a culture of public interest in which a critical mass of people willingly acts in the common interest. Without it, no system of checks and balances can save the human race from its lesser self for long.