Sunday, 18 March 2012

Venizelos Begins

The socialist Pasok party estimated that about 200,000 people showed up today across the country to vote for Evangelos Venizelos, finance minister, as the party's new boss. Venizelos stood unopposed but voters were able to cast a blank ballot. Registered party members and friends were eligible to vote. So were 16-18 year-olds, legal immigrants and EU nationals residing in Greece, in a bid to broaden participation.

In an odd twist, voters were charged a two euro administration fee. Playing on the fact that the Greek 50 cent coin bears the  profile of Eleftherios Venizelos, Greece's great, liberal statesman, political cartoonist Andreas Petroulakis depicted a Pasok functionary telling a voter, "Give us four old Venizeloi and we'll give you a new one."

Pasok's outgoing president, George Papandreou, pioneered the election of party president by popular vote in 2007, beating out the rival Venizelos at the time. It was a historic instance of glasnost in Greek politics, where parties are run as closed shops. It was also a cunning way to avoid an election by party congress, where Papandreou feared Venizelos' influence. Voter turnout then was impressive at well over a million. If Venizelos was hoping to electrify the party base ahead of a general election expected at the end of April, he rather confirmed the lack of current in it. 

The election of Venizelos is, of course, a foregone conclusion. What is important about this election is the way in which it has led Venizelos to frame his arguments, foreshadowing the rhetoric that is likely to follow in the general election.

Venizelos has taken a staunchly pro-austerity line, supporting fully the painful reforms Greece must still implement as part of its commitment to two eurozone bailout loans amounting to roughly 200 billion euro. Petroulakis' cartoon is apt; Venizelos is largely presenting himself as the man behind the euro. He is banking largely on the freshness in people's memory of a massive debt restructuring that wiped 100 billion euro off Greece's debt pile. But he will have an uphill task convincing Greeks that five years of recession and a 21 percent unemployment rate were necessary or acceptable prices to pay for remaining in the euro. Even harder will be convincing them that the end of that recessionary spiral is now in sight (mid-2013 according to Greece's creditors) and economic growth is around the corner.The power of faith rather than results will have to be his main weapon. Pasok is languishing in opinion polls at roughly 12 percent, a quarter of its election victory performance in 2009.

On the other side of the aisle sit the socialists' reluctant coalition partners, the conservartives, who spent two years running on a pro-growth, anti-austerity, anti-bailout platform. They joined the government after great hesitation in November last year, when Greece's euro area partners made it clear that they would not bail out a country that was divided about what it wanted. In effect, they made conservative New Democracy responsible for imminent, disorderly bankruptcy. ND can now argue that it had the right idea all along, but Venizelos is magnifying as much as he can the conservatives' essential contradiction - of eating the austerity lunch while ranting about its recipe.

Venizelos is doing two things - unapologetically assuming responsibility for Greece's painful economic transition to what, it is hoped, will be a competitive economy by 2015, while owning up on behalf of the entire political class to having been less than honest about the foundations of Greece's former prosperity. "We took a country, developed it as much as possible, put it in the single currency, made it one of the world's 28 most developed economies, and this development had feet of clay," he told Alpha. "Because we did not say the truth amongst ourselves, we did not tell the Greek people in a timely fashion that we have to bring public finances under control. Because without a sustainable state you cannot have a sustainable economy." 

The sum of these two elements is, in Venizelos' view, a break with the past and a re-ignition of Pasok's covenant with Greek voters. "We begin" is his slogan. Looking at Pasok's poll numbers and poor participation in today's vote, the general response may be, "You're history."

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