Saturday, 19 September 2009

The Greek election: Judging the parties on the issues

Half-way through the election campaign sparked on September 2, the socialist opposition appears in opinion polls not only as the probable winner, but in some scenarios even manages enough MPs to form a government. Pasok had a six-point lead even after Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis announced ruling New Democracy's policy platform on September 5. That lead may have broadened after Pasok leader Yiorgos Papandreou announced his party platform on September 12. By some reckonings Papandreou may even win single-party sovereignty in the first round.

Pasok and New Democracy platforms compared

New Democracy and Pasok have both made some sweeping and, in a few cases, radical proposals.

Both are broadly in favour of greater transparency and accountability in the public sector. Both want to bring the public debt under control by striking at tax dodgers and through better economic planning (three-year rather than one-year budgets). Both want to increase economic competitiveness, for instance by making it easier to set up a company. Both want to give secondary school students free laptops.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

The first shots

Pasok and New Democracy are rejecting the idea of a grand coalition if neither of them achieves a large enough majority to rule on October 4.

“Right now we have big political differences with Pasok,” said Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis at a press conference in Thessaloniki on September 6. “It hasn't recognised that there is a deep crisis. Second, it has no plan. Third, it has adopted a very accusatory rhetoric towards the government while sweet-talking voters. We know the crisis. We articulate it. We know what needs to happen to deal with it. We are prepared to take bold decisions to face it. There aren't the objective criteria for a coalition.”

In written responses to Sunday Eleftherotypia, socialist leader Yiorgos Papandreou cited the crisis as well. “We believe people will prefer a strong, independently sovereign government at the present time,” he wrote. Like Karamanlis, he rejected collaboration on the basis of incompatibility. “There is a clash of two views of our society and country. One view is self-serving, assimilating public wealth for private gain... the other is a belief in a Greece based on values.”

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Karamanlis' inaugural election speech

Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis was due to deliver his keynote speech on Saturday September 5 at the Thessaloniki international Fair. It is normally the most important scheduled speech the PM delivers, announcing economic and social policy for the coming year.

This time it is also the inaugural speech of an election campaign for a third term, and comes as the worst international financial crisis in 70 years really begins to bite into the Greek economy.

Given these circumstances, the speech outline distributed by his office is disappointing. Rather than unrolling a platform of new initiatives to stimulate the economy, send green projects into hyper-drive, protect the environment and bring the expensive deficit under control, Karamanlis is largely repeating last week's speeches.

Karamanlis plans to summarise his policy successes and predict a difficult two years ahead. He will repeat the three-pronged recovery strategy announced on September 2, namely reducing public spending, collecting due taxes and making structural changes to the economy. This will leave reporters only the Sunday morning press conference to glean more policy specifics in these critical areas.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

The dubious election

The Greek press is having a field day. “We failed, but vote for us again,” blared the banner headline on opposition-friendly daily Ta Nea. “Voluntary redundancy,” sniggered the similarly slanted Ethnos.

Prime Minister Kostas Karmanalis' declaration of snap elections on September 2 hardly came as a surprise, though. Ever since he reshuffled his cabinet in January, many political commentators have opined that it was his battle formation for an attempt at a third term. This was mainly because he purged the cabinet of anyone with a lingering connection to the Vatopaidi scandal, and ditched then-finance minister Yiorgos Alogoskoufis, who had associated himself (unforgivably, it turns out) with fiscal discipline. The question was whether Karamanlis would hold the general election around Easter, or simultaneously with European Parliament elections in June.

Greece heads for elections

The Greek prime minister has declared a general election, just days after his administration came under severe criticism for its management of a massive forest fire that burned 50,000 acres of forest land and threatened homes in Athens.

Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis' decision announced late on Wednesday did not come as much of a surprise. The government's reputation has been ebbing almost since it was elected to a second four-year term just two years ago. A series of economic scandals last year followed by the economic crisis took their toll, but also weighing heavily against the conservative New Democracy party has been its environmental record.

Forest fires in 2007 destroyed record acreage; both then and again last month, they denuded the smoggy capital of its main sources of oxygen. The socialist opposition had vowed to trigger elections next March, when New Democracy would need bipartisan support to re-elect the president. so Karamanlis decided that despite trailing in the polls, he will move the fight up to a month from now.

The reasons Karmanlis himself gives are sound. The country cannot flail in an electoral frenzy between now and March if economic measures are to be taken that set the foundation for a long-term recovery two years from now. He cited three main areas: Shrinking government (which is responsible for two thirds of Greece's national debt), tightening up tax collection and restructuring the economy in key areas.

Karamanlis did not go into details, saying he will fill in the specifics at the Thessaloniki International Fair on Saturday September 5. The devil is clearly in those details. Shrinking government is something no government has taken on wholesale; tax evasion is what keeps many employers in business; and restructuring the economy must include a painful pruning of the social security system socialist and conservative governments shied away from in 1992, 2001 and 2008.

But the race is clearly on; Papandreou is expected to answer with an electoral policy platform on Thursday September 3, meaning that his appearance at the TIF, like that of Karamanlis, will be an official campaign launch.

To hear the related NPR report, go to

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Massive blast marks new departure in Greek terrorism

A massive bomb exploded outside the Athens stock exchange at 5:35am local time on Wednesday. About half an hour earlier a telephone call was placed to Eleftherotypia newspaper warning that a van filled with explosives would explode.

All that remains of the van, police say, is an axle. The blast blew out the windows of the multi-storey building and caused damage to neighbouring buildings. A cleaning woman was lightly injured by flying glass 500 yards away. Despite internal damage to the stock exchange offices, the exchange announced it would operate.

There has been no claim of responsibility yet, but a local terrorist organisation called Revolutionary Struggle attempted to blow up a Citibank building in similar fashion in January. On that occasion the intended bomb was a car trunk full of petrol and fertiliser.

The Citibank plot was foiled because a night guard saw Revolutionary Struggle parking the car, went out to talk to them and was told to leave the building because he would be killed. He had the presence of mind to call the police, who defused the bomb.

But from that point on it became clear that Greece was making a qualitative leap in terrorism. The old model of targeted shootings against businessmen and foreign diplomats 17 November had stuck to for 27 years (1975-2002) was over. Greece would sooner or later experience a Timothy McVeigh-style Oklahoma City event. Thanks to a tradition, for want of a better word, of seeking grassroots popularity and not claiming unintended victims, Revolutionary Struggle is at least avoiding Oklahoma City-level casualties. But Once you start planting vans full of explosive on the street, an unintended victim is only a question of time.