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.”

Forcing people to make a choice is self-evidently necessary in the opening stages of an election campaign. Any talk of collaboration can only take place after the results are in.

The first opinion polls to be published since elections were declared on September 2 uniformly favour Pasok. Kappa Research (Sunday Vima) gives the socialists a 6.7 point lead, Alco (Proto Thema) 6.3 points. Significant numbers are uncommitted (26 percent according to Kappa Research, 19 percent according to Alco), so there are still plenty of votes to fight over.

Yet there is much that is unflattering to both parties, suggesting that an independently sovereign government won't be an easy goal to reach. 56.8 percent of voters don't think Pasok is ready to govern, and 60 percent don't think it has a plan to deal with the recession (Kappa Research). On the other hand, 59.5 percent think Karamanlis declared elections out of weakness, not responsibility, and between 70 and 74 percent of voters think Pasok will win.

The incumbent New Democracy administration has to answer two key questions: Why people should believe that they will reform the economy now, after being in power for five years, and what they will do to curb corruption.

Karamanlis did not answer either terribly convincingly at the Thessaloniki press conference. Asked by right-leaning Vradyni newspaper what he would do differently, he said, “I would push reforms much more intensively. Great changes in education, for example, cannot happen without substantive dialogue. We started it, and in three months all interlocutors departed on various excuses. First the parties, then the unions. A dialogue did take place, but with far fewer people than should have been there. If we were back in 2004 I would not have held a dialogue. I would say whoever wants to can submit a proposal and on we go.” But he did not explain why his government buckled under criticism, and why that would now change.

Karamanlis claims that the crisis can open the way for much that could not be done before. “What did the crisis do? It made the needs more urgent. Instead of a 20-year horizon of adjustment you need to impose policies now. If you don't, your policies later must be much tougher. Because the problem will be greater.”

That may have worked in the privatisation of Olympic earlier this year, but New Democracy obviously wasn't able to push the sense of urgency far enough throughout its economic policy or it would already have fortified itself in this way.

As for corruption, the prime minister largely blamed the culture. “Corruption did not arise in the past 5 years. It is endemic to society. I have nothing to hide. Many cases went through the justice system. Others are under investigation. One thought I am currently entertaining is that [our next government could] include talent that is non-political in the strict sense.”

Interestingly enough, Papandreou has similar thoughts in his Eleftherotypia interview. He offers a shrunken cabinet as a partial solution to corruption, and then says, “There are many worthy Greeks outside Pasok and the political parties whom I shall invite to participate responsibly in a national effort.”

In other words, both major parties are being supremely partisan in rejecting a grand coalition, and as un-partisan as possible when it comes to describing how they will govern. They have cottoned on to people's disenchantment with them, but they still hope to generate interest in a good fight.

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