Friday, 31 August 2007

Karamanlis on a hot tin roof

The ruling conservatives' immunity from criticism in managing the country's latest fires has begun to break down. That immunity was partly thanks to Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis' declaring the country in a state of emergency on August 25. It shushed socialist leader George Papandreou, who was clearing his throat for an untimely crescendo.

Of course, only the southern half of the country suffered devastation over five days, from August 24 to 27 (fires from Albania and Bulgaria briefly invaded the north); but Karamanlis' successful seizure of a psychology of general alarm expanded his authority and bought time.

The failure to extinguish the flames would have dissipated that authority quickly had Karamanlis not also called the fires a criminal act. That refocused attention on an imaginary set of culprits, possibly acting in concert, afflicting Greek society as a whole.

Karamanlis gave public opinion another nudge in the conspiratorial direction the following day when his government offered a pension to families of the dead "equal to the pension given to families of the victims of terrorism".

The trouble is that the forensic work from the police and fire department doesn't back up the government. Out of 79 people questioned on suspicion of arson, only seven had been arrested by August 28. Of those, only two were being accused of deliberate arson and only one of the two had been formally charged. But two men lighting malicious fires on opposite ends of the country, Florina and Areopolis, do not amount to a political conspiracy or a terrorist plot capable of bringing the nation to its organisational knees. And since both men are Greeks, fanciful theories of foreign sabotage from Arabs, Albanians or Turks can be ruled out.
But two days later all 79 had been arrested, the fire department said, and 36 of them were being prosecuted for deliberate arson. It remains to be seen whether the move is a cynical pre-election attempt to boost the numbers of alleged criminals in the knowledge that most of the accused will be acquitted after September 16.

Some fires are truly suspicious. Mount Ymittos, for instance, on the edge of Athens' urban sprawl, has burned no fewer than three times this summer. Pendeli, another natural obstacle to Athenian expansion, is becoming increasingly developed and suffers from fires statistically more often than your average Greek mountain. Yet despite the suspiciousness of the fires on these two mountains this summer, arrests have not been made.

One may sympathise with the authorities' difficulty in proving crime where crime is being committed, but the government's arson theory still deserves to go up in smoke. The main reasons for the disaster are probably environmental. The Parnitha fire occurred during a staggering heatwave on June 27-29. The latest fires came during extremely low humidity (see article on page 3). It cannot be coincidence that this summer's toll of burned land - an all-time record of almost 300,000 hectares - comes after a winter of low rainfall.

Under such conditions, legitimate fires more easily get out of control. An elderly woman in Zaharo is among those arrested for negligent arson. All she did was to light a fire in her traditional oven.

Much of the suspicion of arson may come from ignorance of how easily fire spreads. Arsonists may indeed have lit the three fires that surrounded the village of Ploutohori on August 28, but it is much likelier that one fire spread itself through inflamed airborne material.

As fires begin to broil the political process, the government's strategy has given it an added liability. Not only did it fail to protect civilians from a natural disaster. It also failed to apprehend the nefarious plotters of that disaster, and is unlikely now to dig up significant new evidence of arson with which to do so.

That will offer Pasok the opportunity once again to attack New Democracy on its weakest portfolios - justice and public order. The worst non-economic scandals of the past three-and-a-half years have belonged to these ministries. They attempted to cover up the nation's most momentous experience of political espionage in 2005; they allegedly kidnapped and detained Pakistani immigrants without the knowledge of a judge or prosecutor later that year; they failed to claim and operate an expensive Olympic security system until three years after the Games; and they failed to prosecute a thorough investigation into judiciary corruption in which a formerly conservative MP is implicated.

Whether that gives Pasok the critical edge it needs to win the election in two weeks is doubtful. The socialists have disintegrated into unruliness through the weakness of their leader and the tremendous ego of prominent members waiting to contest the party leadership. Winning this election is simply against their interests. Four slightly pro-conservative polls released since the fires may be based on the view that Pasok's disunity makes it unelectable.

But they equally leave open the probability of a five-party legislature, and the possibility, however remote, that New Democracy could be re-elected with less than an outright majority of MPs (151 out of 300), which requires 41.7 percent of the vote. Under such circumstances Karamanlis would need allies in the legislature.
George Papandreou could never agree to that role. It would inflame his already irate populist wing, effectively pass on his status as leader of the opposition to the communist party and ultimately cause his downfall. The Left Coalition similarly cannot collaborate with a party it has fought tooth and nail on education reform.

The communists did collaborate with the conservatives briefly once before, from June 1989 to April 1990. But they did so as part of a left alliance that collapsed when today's hardliners took over. Collaborating now would force communist party leader Aleka Papariga to climb down from a stratosphere of pure Stalinism into the real world. She has little reason to do that in what may well be her last election as party leader.

That leaves the probable new entrant, rightwing Laos. Its leader, George Karatzaferis, hails from the broader New Democracy camp, but much of his agenda is simply too unpalatable for a full coalition. For instance, he could never be part of a government that came to a compromise over the name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. He would oppose Greece's foreign policy positions in favour of Turkish EU membership and ratification of the Reform Treaty, which replaces the EU constitution. He has expressed a desire to annex North Epirus, which is the Greek-dominated chunk of southern Albania.

Foreign policy is not the only area of fundamental disagreement. Karatzaferis would seek to expel Greece's immigrant population and would find it difficult to sacrifice his sword-in-hand approach to transparency. Finance Minister George Alogoskoufis and his deputy, Petros Doukas, are sullied by selling pension funds an overpriced bond. Development Minister Dimitris Sioufas' profile has been seriously damaged by allegations of bribery arising out of a cartel investigation into the dairy industry.

Still, there is just a chance that Karatzaferis might give the government carte blanche for a period of, say, six months. But Karamanlis will be reluctant to pursue his reform programme on such a tentative basis. New Democracy is still traumatised by the memory of the 151-MP majority that brought down the government of Constantine Mitsotakis in 1993.

The most likely result of a less-than-comfortable majority of, say, 155 MPs, therefore, will be another election sooner or later. Karamanlis could refuse to form a government on the reasonable assumption that Papandreou, too, would fail to form the necessary alliances with the left to do so.

Election politics, of course, must be far from the minds of villagers in the hardest-hit areas - the western and central Peloponnese. Pensioners and a handful of state employees may be able to remain in half-destroyed villages; but unsalaried farmers whose olive trees are burned need a decade to begin to claim satisfactory amounts of oil from new saplings planted next spring. They have no choice but to go to Tripoli, Kalamata, Patra and Korinth to take salaried jobs. In time, they may recultivate their groves for added revenue, but they are unlikely ever to relocate to the village. Whatever happens in the short, political term, therefore, will likely pale before the ominous, long-term trends the changing environment is bringing to Greece; and to face 
those, the country will need a strong government.

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