Saturday, 11 February 2012

Political Schizophrenia

The agreement last week of a course of spending cuts amounting to three billion euro this year has ended a period of alliance between Greece’s three governing coalition members, and sparked a bizarre period of political schizophrenia.

The first act of personality division came from right-wing Laos leader Yiorgos Karatzaferis. He announced yesterday that he would instruct his 16 members of parliament to vote against the austerity measures he helped negotiate.

“They robbed us of our dignity,” he said, in reference to the troika of Greece’s creditors, the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund. “They degraded us. I won’t tolerate or allow that, no matter how hungry I may be. It is not negotiable that they should want to remove our last trace of sovereignty.”

This left open the question of whether Laos’ four cabinet members would remain. In the event they withdrew from the government, with two of them saying they would vote for the measures.

The bizarre antics of Laos contributed to the broader volatility of the political scene. It also seems to have infected the two remaining coalition members, socialist Pasok and conservative New Democracy, with severe cases of self-contradiction.

“Those who want us to wean ourselves off the addiction of powerful nations, the International Monetary Fund, The European Central Bank, the international markets, are correct,” socialist leader George Papandreou told his 153 members of parliament in a rousing speech. “This is my stance. It is a big ‘no’.”

This is the man who, as prime minister in May 2010, argued passionately in favour of putting Greece under the yoke of eurozone bailouts, which was accompanied by strict austerity terms. It follows, in Papandreou’s logic, that a weaning off borrowed money from overbearing lenders begins with borrowing more.

Not to be outdone, conservative leader Antonis Samaras has sculpted his own impressive about-turn. “We remain true to our positions,” he told his MPs today. “The recipe of the memorandum was wrong. A change of policy is needed… But for these things to have any meaning, for us to be able to talk about an upturn and a policy change, the country has to exist, to stand on its feet.” As a result, he said, his MPs should vote for the austerity package, and any who did not would be stricken from the party ticket come election time.

There is method in the madness. Party leaders have begun their re-election campaign. Even if they are in favour of the austerity package, they have to sound as though they are against it. It is a necessary part of the process of restoring identity to their parties, since no one can in good conscience hurt their constituents for the acquisition of foreign capital. The vote on Sunday night will help secure a 130 billion euro loan without which Greece will go bankrupt next month. Apart from budget cuts it also approves measures designed to boost the competitiveness of the economy and provide liquidity to the financial system.

Yet the loan is a politically poisonous gift. Papandreou is against it because Greece needs to stand proud. Samaras is against it because the recipe was wrong in the first place. So both will vote for it.

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