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Friday, March 12, 2004

Our Opinion

The Political Life and Death of Kôstas Sêmitês (A Fable in Two Parts)


Nothing less became Kôstas Sêmitês’s political life than his leaving it. Some are called to greatness, some have it thrust upon them, and then there are those, like the former prime minister of Greece, who run away from greatness with a dispatch that is almost as undignified as the obsession with which most others chase after this most elusive of social judgments. There’s nothing wrong in losing an election; there is something frightfully amiss, and insulting to the electorate, however, in refusing to contest one — especially when you’re the incumbent. Things border on the pathological when, by your own repeated claims, you believe that your tenure in office has fundamentally altered your polity and society. At such times, withdrawal is psychologically more akin to suicide than to retirement.

There will be many years to ponder Mr. Sêmitês’s singular failure of conviction, or, perhaps, loss of courage. Would that it had been the latter; it would have at least been understandable. We all get tired after awhile, and unable to contend with the shadows. It’s the former lapse that’s hard to square with a man of Mr. Sêmitês’s honesty. Once upon a time — a very short while ago, actually — Mr. Sêmitês was generally seen as more than just a good politician; he was thought of as, possibly, a great one, maybe even a statesman, capable of completing the hallowed company of Venizelos and Karamanlês oncle as the trinity of Greece’s greatest statesmen of the last century. Now, he has eternally assigned himself to the densely populated, and pedestrian, purgatory of disappointment and failure that is the stock-in-trade and legacy of mere politicos — at the most a Tony Blair manqué. In politics as in life, perseverance is its own reward, and the failure — or refusal — to follow through to the very, and often bitter, end is not a sign of maturity, let alone wisdom, but of confusion and self-denial.

Which leads us to last week’s Greek elections. PASOK’s “transition” — transmogrification is the more accurate term — from the leadership of Kôstas Sêmitês to that of George Papandreou was considered by the punditocracy, both domestic and foreign, as a brilliant stratagem by the ruling party, and the only guarantor of electoral success. It was, of course, the exact opposite: a grotesque, and transparent, maneuver that confirmed what everybody had long suspected, that, to echo an old Greek saying, the fish stinks from its head. (Last month, we referred to Mr. Papandreou’s “election” as head of PASOK as one of the more astonishing shell games in the annals of democratic politics, equal to the chadification that led to the first Supreme Court-appointed president of the United States.) As soon as Kôstas Sêmitês resigned from and George Papandreou assumed power, the elections were over. When the incumbent “resigns” on the eve of elections, and after eight years in office, his less-than-subconscious farewell message is not one of achievement or even of satisfaction but of capitulation and the most craven kind of remorse. We cannot imagine a more pitiable end for a genuinely successful prime minister, who in fact fought and won a number of critical battles, both for his party and country. As for the notion that Mr. Sêmitês’s move was motivated by the desire to avoid responsibility for what seemed to be his party’s inexorable defeat, it beggars belief to think that he is not now implicated — in truth, sorely so — in last Sunday’s results.

So, like so many fables of past and future Camelots, Mr. Sêmitês’s tale is both heartening and cautionary. His ascent was almost fairy-tale perfect, exemplifying as it did the victory of purpose over expediency and vision over ease. His descent was just as mythical — although it wasn’t so much pride that preceded the fall as its distinct absence, an almost tangible sense of fatigue and resignation over the inevitable delinquencies and satrapies of a government long in power. Which is all finally to say that what began eight years ago should have continued as it first started; still, the fact that it ended as it did was preferable to what had become, in the last couple of years especially, a continuing caricature of initial hopes and principles. Too bad. Mr. Sêmitês deserved better, and so did Greece.

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