Friday, 19 September 2008

Voters are ready for accountability

Greece has suffered from such an unusual level of scandal in high office that it has demoralised voters and imperilled the two-party system in force since the restoration of democracy in 1975. Opinion polls throughout this year have shown falling levels of support for the ruling New Democracy conservatives, without this being - until recently - a gain for the opposition socialist Pasok party.

Two polls in recent days do show the socialists gaining an edge over the conservatives for the first time since 2004 (A 1.8 percent lead in an Alco poll aired on September 18, and a 2.2 percent lead in a Metron Analysis poll published on September 15). But both major parties remain weak.

Neither would today win over 41.5 percent of the popular vote to gain control of parliament and form a government; instead, large polling majorities support a coalition between one of the two power parties and a smaller party.

The Metron Analysis poll found that 35 percent of voters trust neither power party to deal with corruption, although a slight majority prefer socialist leader George Papandreou (32 percent as opposed to 28 percent for ND) - a devastating blow to an administration that swept to power four years ago on a platform of transparency and accountability.

In a poll released on September 15, 35 percent of voters said they trusted neither power party to deal with corruption, although a slight majority prefer socialist leader George Papandreou to the conservatives under Karamanlis (32 percent as opposed to 28 percent for ND) - which is devastating to a New Democracy administration that swept to power four years ago on a platform of transparency and accountability.

This disillusionment has mostly been brought about by New Democracy's three big financial scandals: A possible bribe solicitation by the head of the Competitiveness Committee in 2006; a highly questionable bond sale to four pension funds still being investigated; and possible collusion between a former general secretary of the culture ministry and the head of the Special Audits Service to allocate public contracts using political criteria.

A fourth major financial scandal has now come in the form of a dubious land swap between the Vatopaidi monastery of Mount Athos and the state, at the expense of the latter.

Opacity and unaccountability are undoubtedly the Achilles' heel of the government, and there are at least four ways in which they accountability need to be improved by future governments.

1. The wheels of justice move very slowly indeed, so there is no immediate comeuppance. But once a scandal goes cold in the media and in parliament, there is less pressure on prosecutors to convict. Added to this is the near-impossibility of convicting someone of bribery or fraud, because you need whistleblowers to reveal documents and then follow international money trails, which are usually not conclusive.

The investigation into the 2007 bond affair is a case in point. A single prosecutor aided by an office secretary is sifting through hundreds of documents in English and Greek, and deposing dozens of witnesses and suspects. This amounts to a sabotaging of justice through underfunding.

A similar fate befell George Zorbas, the former prosecutor chosen to lead the country's first authority against money laundering - an institution mandated by the European Central Bank. He revealed last July that he worked with a tight staff and such a lack of funds that the office had to chip in for copy paper.
Clearly, the justice system needs to be computerised (documents are still ferried on trolleys at the lawcourts) and better staffed.

2. There are two legal standards, one for common mortals and one for members of parliament and cabinet ministers. To put an MP in the dock, a prosecutor has to initialise an investigation into possible criminal wrongdoing; a member of parliament's asylum committee can then suggest lifting that MP's immunity from prosecution. If the committee approves this, then the suggestion goes to the floor, and requires only a simple majority.

The problem with this system is that MPs usually display cross-party collegiality when it comes to exposing each other, and that the decision to life immunity is not a legal one but a political one, left to the whim of the party leader who controls the floor of the house. Stripping of asylum did occur once in New Democracy's term (it happened to Piraeus MP Petros Mantouvalos), but it is rare.

To convict a minister is even harder. You have to do it either during the term of government in whey they are serving, or within the first two sessions of parliament in the term immediately following. Parliamentary sessions run from the first Monday of October to June. So to try a minister for crime in New Democracy's first term the process would have to be well underway by next June.

This allows a very small statute of limitations for wrongdoing by ministers and sets them apart from the common man in a blatantly undemocratic way. The law on ministers' limited liability should quite simply be scrapped.

3. There is too much power concentrated in the party political system. Competences are not decentralised, with the result that there are no checks and balances. The presidents and vice-presidents of the Supreme Court and the Council of State are appointed by the cabinet according to the constitution. This may have been a good idea back in 1975, when stability was at a premium, but in none of the three constitutional revisions since then has this been overturned. The provision deprives the judiciary of independence and often makes prosecutors flexible to political whims.

Clear examples of political influence over the public prosecutor occurred during the tenure of former prime minister Costas Simitis. When the Sunday newspaper To Vima published a series of editorials calling on the government to resign over the sclerosis in social reform in July 2001, Simitis did not respond directly, but the prosecutor's office accused Christos Lambrakis, publisher of To Vima as well as of this newspaper, of being in contravention of a law which forbade media owners from being government suppliers. The editorials stopped and the charges went away.

Something similar happened with respect to Dimitra Liani, last wife of Simitis' predecessor, Andreas Papandreou, and a sworn enemy of Simitis and the reformists. When she threatened to print extemporaneous diatribes against Simitis allegedly made behind closed doors by the late prime minister, a prosecutor promptly appeared at her sumptuous villa in Kastri to probe her title to the property. The diatribes never appeared.

4. There is an obvious lack of accountability on the part of the parties towards the public when it comes to their finances. Parliament's audit committee may not audit party finances on its own initiative; it may only request information, and its reports and minutes are not made public but produced for party consumption.

Again, this sets the parties above the country's businesses, which may be audited at any time, and creates an inexplicable double standard.

5. Quite apart from their lack of independence, a further reason for the lack of accountability in institutions is that they often have no depth. In the most egregious recent demonstration of this, the independent authority set up to investigate money laundering was disbanded earlier this year, allegedly to bring it under the wing of the finance minister, which is precisely what it is not meant to be.

The reason for the disbanding was that the government thus pre-empted the reading in parliament of the second of two reports on the bond affair, which would likely have found government collusion. (The government got around the airing of the first report in parliament by holding snap elections in September).

When he was deposed in a parliamentary committee last July, the outgoing head of the authority, George Zorbas, said that the justice minister and a supreme court prosecutor had repeatedly obstructed him from sending a request to Britain's Serious Organised Crime Agency requesting the opening of a top suspect's accounts.

That prosecutor is none other than George Sanidas, the man now proving himself to be a good fellow after all by fearlessly investigating the Vatopaidi land swap.
So much depends on the parties, that they have found the temptation to misuse power irresistible. It is popular to say that democratically elected officers are sanctified above career officials; but the truth is that non-democratic institutions that are allowed to function according to conscience tend to make democratic institutions more accountable - witness the beneficial effects of the ombudsman's office, which helps to ensure that the state is behaving well towards its citizens.

Now that both Pasok and New Democracy have disappointed, their only way of regaining the two-party system is by voluntarily making themselves accountable and increasing transparency.

The judiciary should elect its own leadership, perhaps in consultation with parliament, and operate its own disciplinary mechanisms. The state needs to increase the manpower and efficiency of the justice system, and restore the independence of the money laundering authority.

The parties must also democratise themselves more (something George Papandreou has pushed further than Costas Karamanlis by making the Pasok president electable from the party base) and agree to make their finances public and posted online.
Accountability, transparency and meritocracy form the cure for the Greek political system. The party that understands the need to implement those values will gain a competitive advantage over its rivals over the long term.

* This editorial is based on a talk given to students at College Year in Athens on September 16

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