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Friday, March 12, 2004

Our Opinion

Kôstas Karamanlês, George Papandreou, and the Wizard of Oz

Eisai o,ti dêlôseis. There is not a Greek who doesn’t suck in the existential meaning of that phrase with her mother’s milk. You are whatever you declare yourself to be. A casual perusal of a Greek telephone book is a virtual tour of presumption, and of ambitions not so much deferred as re-edited. Long before the human-potential movement turned the United States into the ego empire (most oxymoronically exemplified a couple of years ago by the “rebranding” of the oldest arm of our military as an “Army of One”), Greeks knew that eisai o,ti dêlôseis.

Take George Papandreou, for example. He declared himself, most emphatically, to be the head of PASOK weeks before the fact. Indeed, he claimed to be the most “democratic” and unbeholden-to-the-powers-that-be head of a political party that Greece had ever seen. Suddenly, before anybody could say abracadabra, the deed was done, in living color, in front of the entire world: he stage-managed a socialist “election” not seen in Europe since the good old days of the soviet union of workers and peasants. A million people voted, many of them under 18 — indeed, anyone from the age of 16 onward was allowed to cast a ballot, in a beau geste by Mr. Papandreou confirming his “faith” in the nation’s youth. (But why stop at 16? We think that even the radical Mr. Papandreou was too complacent by half. Why not 14, or 10, or 4? Why any age limit at all? Why not allow newborn babes straight from their mothers’ wombs to cast ballots in the brand-new, citizen-youth-inspired PASOK — or, at least, have their parents do so in their stead and, naturally, in loco Papandreou.) And there was another, yet more fascinating, “innovation” introduced by the ever-modernizing Mr. Papandreou in his election: interestingly enough, of the million people who “voted” for him, only about 15 percent were actually members of his party.

And we thought those “open” primaries here in the States, where Republicans can vote in Democratic primaries and vice versa, are strange, and come perilously close to undermining the very point to a primary election, which is to allow the registered members of a party to choose their party’s candidates. Mr. Papandreou, always the man of the future, always a leap and a bound ahead of everyone else, never imprisoned by the box of conventional thinking (let alone apparent rationality or even common sense) but always thinking outside it, took even this American electoral novelty to the nth degree and decided — well, truth be told, why not? — that if you’re going to “open” an election in any case, then why hold back and not just open it all the way? What does it matter that it’s an election to lead a party? Or that those who have been members of (and working for) this particular party from the moment it was founded (by Mr. Papandreou’s father, of course) — and, in many cases, from even before it was formally founded — have suddenly been relegated to an irrelevant minority of an even more irrelevant minority? We’re all “friends” in Mr. Papandreou’s “nice,” touchy-feely definition of society and political contestation — no Howard Dean, he — so why discriminate? Left, right, PASOK, New Democracy, socialist, communist, libertarian (come right in, Mr. Andrianopoulos), vegetarian, flat-earther, what difference does it make as long as you’re a friend?

Mr. Papandreou is obviously a disaster waiting to happen. Fortunately, now that he’s lost the real election, in which opponents as well as friends had the right to vote, he is PASOK’s disaster, not Greece’s. Assuming that Kôstas Karamanlês can oversee a relatively efficient, honest, transparent, and equitable administration for the next four years — and there’s actually no reason to assume otherwise — he will dispatch Mr. Papandreou quickly enough (in truth, rather savagely, we suspect) once again four years from now, which should prove to be the end of the Papandreou clan’s less-than-beneficent relationship to Greece over the last three generations. From grandfather to father to son, never has a political dynasty’s legacy been so ambivalent or contentious. At least Papandreou grand-père and père were articulate (if more than occasionally prevaricating); Papandreou fils’s strange amalgam of Greek and American wonkspeak, however, more often than not leaves one scratching one’s head, trying to decode possible meanings in either language.

PASOK should be delighted that it lost this election. Nothing focuses a party more than losing, especially if the party in question has been in power for 20 of the previous 23 years and has come to see government more as an entitlement than a responsibility. Under Mr. Papandreou, however, PASOK runs the risk of the sort of implosion that other political parties — especially centrist ones — have suffered throughout modern Greek history, from Venizelos’s once-vaunted Liberals to the first George Papandreou’s own Center Union, which, ironically enough, was terminally dispatched by his son’s newly established PASOK following the fall of the junta. With Mr. Papandreou, PASOK now finds itself at the most critical moment since its creation.

Among his many other accomplishments, Kôstas Sêmitês managed to take an authoritarian, third-worldist, pseudo-revolutionary amalgam of rhetoric and patronage and turn it into a (relatively) principled, European, social-democratic party based on a fundamentally constitutional vision, not only of Greece but of the world. He did this, partially, not so much by moving the party to the right, as he was accused of doing, but by moving it to a conspicuous rationality. (Not at all coincidentally, Kônstantinos Karamanlês did the same thing with the less-than-democratic Greek right when he founded New Democracy, which was also accused at the time by the unreconstructed right of being too “left-wing.”) The problem with Mr. Papandreou is that he is now prepared — because he sincerely believes it, by all appearances — to drag his party so far to the right that it will make its continuing existence not merely problematic but pointless.

Primarily because Kôstas Karamanlês, following in his uncle’s footsteps, wisely — and, it should be said, fully recognizing the manifest risks to his own political career — moved New Democracy (again) firmly to the left. As Alexander Kitroeff mentioned on this site last month (see, “Dynasties,” February 15, 2004), Mr. Karamanlês wrote his doctoral dissertation on Venizelos, so he is well aware of the fact that even the mighty fall when they lose touch with political reality. The reality in Greece since the turn of the twentieth century more or less has been that the electorate is center-left, and that the swing vote in the center tends to be relatively liberal. It is this swing vote that elected Mr. Karamanlês last week, and his uncle in 1974, and Andreas Papandreou in 1981, and Kôstas Sêmitês four years ago. Parties come and go, but, for roughly a century, the Greek electorate has tended to the left (which is why the period of right-wing domination from 1936 to 1974 is rightly seen by historians as one in which the natural political topography of Greece was arbitrarily, and artificially, leveled). Mr. Karamanlês has already announced that he only plans to serve two terms (if reelected, obviously); at the moment, Athens mayor Dora Bakogiannê seems to be his heir apparent. If George Papandreou has his way with his party, by the time Ms. Bakogiannê runs for prime minister, PASOK should be as good as dead.

It need not be that way. Mr. Karamanlês’s victory is to be applauded because democracy cannot function, even under the best conditions, where there is no serious threat (not only political but ideological) to incumbency — something that Americans have finally realized after over 35 years of an electoral consensus that now threatens to dismember the country’s body politic. If PASOK disintegrates, however, and leaves government to New Democracy for the next 20 years, the gain will have been extinguished in the loss. We genuinely wish Mr. Karamanlês well, although we know he doesn’t need our good wishes. We wish PASOK good luck because we know it will need it — although it will do it little good — during the next few years of its new leadership. The curtain has been drawn to reveal the ramshackle mechanisms behind the smoke and mirrors of the party’s new wizard. One thing’s for sure: Mr. Papandreou is not in Kalentzi anymore.

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