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.

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