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Matt's Greece Travel Blog

Greek Politicks for Dummies

parliament buildng in Syntagma AthensSomeone once said that Greek politics is a comedy played by fools with great aspirations, to an audience of fools with no aspirations. To expect a Greek government to make changes that will benefit the country as a whole is probably unrealistic. The Greek government is not organized to improve anything except individual bank accounts at the expense of the Greek people. Not that Greece is the most corrupt country in the world. It's not according to Forbes, in fact we don't even come close to Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Burma, Equatorial Guiana and the Democratic Republic of Congo. We are classified with India, Mexico, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and Thailand with a score of 5. You need to score 3 or below to make the bottom 50 and out of 180 countries we are closer to being in the top 50 with most of our western pals. But I don't want to talk about corruption because that's a whole other story. I want to talk about incompetence because stealing from your neighbors comes from a black heart while incompetence is often just a lack of attention to detail and can be rectified. And what could be a better example of mass incompetence than Government?

So let's look at the structure of the Greek government for some clues as to why it bounces from one crisis to the next without fixing anything, just paying off whoever complains the most, thus buying votes for the next election by using public money.

First you have the Prime Minister, the leader of the party in power and always with the same name. A Karamanlis or Papandreou have been in power for the last half a century. In these fifty or more years there has been a Mitsotakis, as well as a Simitis for a short yet productive period. The Mitsotakis name includes Dora Bakoyiannis too, probably the next Prime Minister after George Papandreou gets his turn. To get an idea imagine if in the USA from 1940 until now we only had presidents named Bush or Kennedy and then for 8 years we had Jimmy Carter. Its something like that. But the country, is controlled by a small number of people and the PMs are usually named Karamanlis or Papandreou. Greece also had a dictatorship from 1967 to 1974 when to have one of these famous names was not really an asset. The first Karamanlis was already in self-inflicted exile in France. Of the two Papandreous, Andreas and his father George, one was in jail and then exiled and the other was under house arrest until he died. When the Junta fell the Karamanlis scurried back to form the first new democratic government and a couple years later the Papandreou came back from whatever he was doing in Sweden to form the opposition and take his turn at the helm. It sounds quaint and friendly but actually its all kind of nasty but I won't get into that either. Some might say that these were charismatic leaders who had Greece's best interest at heart who unfortunately could not control the greed and corruption of the people they had put into power below them. Maybe so. Anyway these are the only two names you really have to remember and they are the leaders of the two parties. If you have a problem keeping track of who is who just remember that Papandreou begins with a P and his party is PASOK and Karamanlis's first name is Costas and a C minus equals a D plus and he is the head of New Democracy.

And who are the people below them in government? Well first we have the ministers. Actually first we have the president but unless I am missing something all he does is go around cutting ribbons and gives toasts at dinner parties and visits other countries to talk about how great things are going here in Greece. I don't think he has any power unless the government totally falls apart and they don't know where else to turn and then maybe he gets to mediate while the Karamanlises and the Papandreaous argue over what happens next. The fact that he is picked by whoever is in power sort of tilts the playing field a little. A good basketball analogy would be the home team having to throw the ball into a supermarket dumpster while the away team still has to use a regulation basket. So lets not worry about him since he is not important.

The ministers are in control of all the different facets of government and society. For example there is the Minister of Transportation and part of his job is to make sure the ferry schedules are submitted and approved in time for the travel agencies and tourists to be able to make hotel bookings and know there is a ferry to the island the hotel is on. Or wait, maybe that's the Minister of Merchant Marine. I forget. Maybe they are still trying to figure out whose job it is because the travel agents are still waiting. Then there is the Minister of Tourism. This is a very important job since much of Greece's income is from tourism. Under PASOK it was so important that they got rid of the post. Tourism makes up 18 percent of the Greek economy and employs over 850,000 people and in 2007 earned the Greek economy over 11.4 billion euros according to the Bank of Greece. That's why this important ministry was given to Kostas Markopoulos who is Greece's third tourism minister in two years and the fourth since 2004. And who best to operate on this important sector than a surgeon? That's right. The Minister of Tourism is a Vascular and Thoracic Surgeon from Montefiore Hospital in Pittsburgh.

Another important ministry is Foreign Affairs and this seems to be sort of a stepping stone to being Prime Minister in a Pasok government. You travel around and meet leaders and prepare them for what you are going to do when you take over the country like George Papandreou did as MFA. Unfortunately by the time he gets into power all the people he met will either be retired or will have forgotten what he told them he would do. But as MFA if you are doing a good job your picture will be in the paper every couple of days smiling next to some famous leader from another country. Probably the hardest part of this job is convincing other leaders that despite what they see on CNN, things are not that bad here and Greece has a very bright future and is a great place to invest. So far the easiest people to convince are the billionaires, princes, sultans, Mafiosi, movie stars, athletes and wealthy exiles who buy villas on the islands. Its hard to find fault with current MFA and former Athens Mayor Dora Bakoyannis though in my opinion I would rather have her back here running my city than running all over the world. ND had different ideas and whether she is being primed for leadership, or sent so far away that only people who read beyond the sports pages know where she is, I can't really tell.

The Ministry of Defense is in charge of the military and how much weaponry Greece needs to buy to protect it from its neighbors. In the United States this job is held by Robert Gates who had been the Director of the CIA and an intelligence officer in the Strategic Air Command. In Greece the position is held by Vangelis Meimerakis whose experience as the former Deputy Minister of Culture in charge of Sports makes us all feel safer knowing that our borders and airspace are protected by someone who knows what playing 'D' is all about. But before we take aim at his lack of military expertise let's remember that back in the first Bush administration the Secretary of Defense was none other than Dick Cheney whose only military experience was dodging the draft. I feel safer already.

One Ministry that has been in the news lately is the Ministry of Education and Religion. But wait. Aren't education and religion opposites? Isn't education a process of taking things apart and examining them to gain understanding, while religion is having faith that God has a plan and everything is OK as long as you go to Church and give money to the priests? Well in Greece where they proudly claim there is no separation of Church and State they have created this schizophrenic ministry and what a great idea this was as anyone can tell by the advances in Education and the way the church has sacrificed all to feed the hungry and poor while surviving only on meager donations, illegal real estate transactions and investments in stocks and mutual funds. And who best to oversee this mess than Aris Spliotopoulos fresh from his stint at the Ministry of Tourism and a degree in Communication and Mass Media.

One look at the resume of Dimitris Avramopoulos and you wonder why this guy has not done more with his life. He has received some kind of award from every major city and country on earth and yet the peak of his career seems to have been as Mayor of Athens from 1994 to 2002 though I can't find anyone who can tell me how he improved the city. In fact if you recall those days before the 2004 Olympics, all those projects which began on his watch that become so mired in red-tape, cost over-runs and ineptitude, were completed in a flurry of activity in the remaining two years under the mayoral rule of Dora Bakoyiannis who got all the credit. Where's the justice in that? I have heard one story about the Avramopoulos rule in Athens though you have to take it with a grain of salt because the person who told me was a street person who happened to be sitting on a bench in Platia Dexamini before one of the mayor's famous televised speeches. City workers came in and tore out all the plants and bushes behind the podium, which had been there for several decades, then replaced them with blooming flowers to create a more beautiful background for the TV cameras. After the speech about all the improvements he had brought to the city, Avramopoulos and the cameras left, the city workers dug up the flowers and took them away, maybe to the site of the next speech, leaving the original plants and bushes on the pavement without replanting them. Well you can't blame a general for the behavior of his troops and Avramopoulos has more than shown his leadership capabilities during his tenure as Minister of Tourism when he realized that the best way to promote tourism in Greece was not through buying ads on television in the US but by going there himself and personally promoting Greece at Hollywood parties. Word is that Avramopoulos sees himself as the shining future of New Democracy and if you see him as the Minister of Foreign Affairs don't be surprised. But currently he is languishing as Minister of Health and Social Solidarity (sounds Orwellian) trying to deal with strikes by doctors who claim he changed the terms of their contracts after having made an agreement, and hospital workers who had not been paid in months. Well at least he is staying out of trouble. But charisma goes a long way in a country where people's memories are short. One travel agent who does not trust any politicians told me that Avramopoulos was the worst. Then when he became Minister of Tourism the same travel agent said "Now that Avramopoulos is Minister of Tourism maybe something positive will happen." If one person can have such a difference of opinion with himself then it does not matter what you do and anyone can get elected Prime Minister (as long as his name is Karamanlis or Papandreou).

The Minister of Justice you would assume would have a law degree but not always in Greece. The last Minister of Justice cut his teeth as the Minister of Agriculture and Minister of Rural Development and Food which means he had to eat a lot of kokoretsi to get to the top of the legal world. The current minister is Nikos Dendias and if you google his name all you will find are news reports of daring helicopter escapes from prison and hooded anarchists rampaging unimpeded through the streets of Athens. But I am sure he has a background that had prepared him for the challenges of this important ministry in such a difficult time. He had a beard in college in London and comes from Corfu and actually does have a degree in law so he is alright in my book. But really the responsibility of maintaining public order, and protecting the citizens from anarchists, forest fires and rampaging criminals belongs to the Ministry of Public Order. Except they got rid of it and that position is now a part of the Ministry of Interior run by longtime Minister of the Interior Prokopis Pavlopoulos who has been there since 2004. In a ministerial ship that seems to change captains almost every year Pavlopoulos's longevity should soon eclipse the previous record holder, the politician with the name you have to love: Costas Scandalidis.

Who better to have as your Minister of Culture than Antonis Samaras, a graduate of Amherst College and Harvard with a degree in Economics and Business? If you want to know about art and culture who else would you ask if not an MBA? Samaras, who replaced Karamanlis's cousin, is mostly known for quitting the first post-Junta non-Papandreou or Karamanlis government, the ND government of Mitsotakis, over the issue of whether Alexander the Great was Greek and whether people in the former Yugoslavian republic had the right to call themselves Macedonians. This caused the ND government which had a razor-thin majority (like one guy) to collapse and brought back Andreas Papandreou and PASOK for another ten years or so. Samaris started his own party Politiki Anoixi (Political Spring) which he hoped would be more of a Politiko Elatirio (Political spring) to the office of PM. At first it attracted a few people discontented with the major parties and actually got ten seats in Greek Parliament in 1993 but gradually earned less than 3% of the vote in 1996 which was below the threshold for representation in the government and the party faded into the sunset. No problemo for Samaras who endorsed ND in 2000 and was back in the government by 2004. His road to redemption continues despite his nickname of 'The Traitor' by some ND voters who refuse to forgive and forget ten years of PASOK rule.

In these times of economic instability who would you want for Minister of National Economy and Finance other than Georgios Alogoskoufis with a Phd from the London School of Economics, who is a Professor of Business and Economics at the University of Athens, has been an advisor to the World Bank, and has written four books on macroeconomics, international monetary economics, and public economics. His PhD. thesis was awarded the R. S. Sayers Prize of London University in 1981. Apparently not ND because he has been replaced by Yiannis Papathanasiou. Since it was economists and bankers who got us all into this mess then it makes sense that the only person who can get us out of it is a politician with a degree in Electrical Engineering. Why on earth would you replace someone with the credentials of Algoskoufis with an electrician at a time of monetary crisis? For you doubters I have two words for you: Ben Franklin.

I think you get the idea here. Most of the leaders have degrees in political science, a few in economics and some even have law degrees. But the government is set up so each minister can get on-the-job training as he works to understand the intricacies of running his ministry and keep the country moving forward. But wait a second. The country is not moving forward at all. Maybe that's because Greece has implemented the Peter Principle and actually improved it so that any country which wants to be left behind can take notes and imitate. The Peter Principle is the principle that "In a Hierarchy Every Employee Tends to Rise to His Level of Incompetence." So in other words if you do a good job you will be given more responsibilities and promoted until you reach the point where you will do a lousy job and then you stay in that position until you retire or get fired, which is impossible if you are a civil servant in Greece because they can't be fired. That's why it is so hard to get anything done here. But in politics they have actually improved upon the Peter Principle by changing ministers before they get the opportunity to understand their ministries, usually within a year or so. So you don't have to worry about ministers rising to their level of incompetence because they are never in a position long enough to know if they are competent or incompetent. Why is that? Could it be that if a minister does too good a job the people may notice and the next thing you know he may have aspirations of leadership and challenge the current leaders? No. That would mean that the Greek politicians are putting personal power over what is best for the country and any country where this happens is doomed to irrelevance, stagnation and eventually humiliation.

So what about the Greek people? The voters. They must know what is going on. Yeah, some do I guess. When you go out to dinner with friends you get the impression that most intelligent people see this country as some kind of lunatic asylum where rich politicians manipulate the masses by giving them jobs, money, football and bouzoukia in the same way the Republicans in the US buy votes with tax cuts. Like Americans who vote Democrat or Republican the Greeks mostly vote for New Democracy or PASOK (Karamanlis or Papandreou) whose primary purpose seems to be just to oppose each other. There is not much a government can do wrong to actually change a voter from one party to the other the way some Republicans became so disgusted with Bush that they voted for Obama. For example after all the scandals and the breakdown of law and order in the December riots of 2008, New Democracy has actually gained a point or two. That's like if Hurricane Katrina, the War in Iraq, the collapse and scandals of Wall Street and the banking system had all happened in the same year and Bush's approval rating went up. But PASOK also gained a couple points in the polls so where is it coming from?

Probably from the KKE (Communist Party) or any number of smaller communist parties who label themselves as Marxist-Leninist(KKE-ML), Ex-Euro Communists (OKOA), and Reconstructed Moaist Communists (OAKKE). Syriza (Coalition of the Radical Left) whose leaders cheered on the anarchists as they burned and looted hoping the end result would be the fall of New Democracy may have broadened their appeal to radical youth at the expense of people who actually vote. Other fringe parties which have few if any seats in parliament and may not consist of more than a monthly newspaper and a membership list swollen by the deceased include LAOS (National Conservatism and Orthodoxy), KEK (the Party of Greek Hunters!), ASPIDA (the party of the Roma or what we call Gypsies), ASKE (The Fighting Socialists), Oikologi Prasini (The Ecological Greens), and Chrysi Avgi which has a logo resembling a swastika and are against the industrial revolution, hate Jews and immigrants and are to Greece as the KKK and white power groups are to the USA.

One interesting feature in Greek politics is the way the party that wins an election is given enough seats so they can control the government. So if New Democracy wins the election with 38% of the vote (not exactly a majority) they get 51% of the seats which enables them to govern. But lets say there is an election coming up and they have done such a lousy job that they expect to lose it. They can vote to change the system so that the next government has to have a representational majority based on the percentage of the votes. So if they lose the election to Pasok, the incoming government if they don't have 51% of the vote, an impossibility in Greece, they can't govern. They either have to form alliances with the communists or the right, or if they are unsuccessful, let the party that lost the election attempt to form an alliance. So in other words if a party in power destroys the country, they change the election laws so the party that wins is unable to govern.

One law that seems to irk many Greeks is the law on parliamentary immunity in which there is a statue of limitations placed on prosecutions of crimes by members of parliament. I believe the amount of time is two sessions. Not two years, which is a set amount of time but two sessions of parliament. Why is that an important difference? Because if it appears that a member of the ruling party (or many members usually) are being investigated, and that this investigation is moving forward at such a pace that it is likely that charges will be filed before the end of the second session, all the Prime Minister has to do is declare this session adjourned, and the immunity sets in. But really this is only needed in the most desperate of situations because with a majority of votes the party in power can block any investigation of its members. So for example when a ND minister was caught red-handed taking bribes, the government voted 151 to 149 to exonerate him of any wrongdoing. In other words all of ND voted for him and everyone else voted against him. So they declared him innocent and then said that he should step down. But if he was innocent why should he step down? They did the same thing with the Siemans scandal where hundreds of millions of euros in bribes were paid and in every other country implicated people are doing hard time. The government voted 151-149 to drop the charges. So really the government can do anything it wants if the party members march lock-step together to thwart any justice that works against them. In Greece it is party first, country last after family and football and maybe bouzoukia. (In fact when the December riots began on a Saturday night, it was reported that the Minister of the Interior did not want to be bothered because he was at a bouzoukia joint.)

I suppose I could go on and maybe at a future date I will add to this and make it into a whole website on Greek politics but for a morning's work in a supposedly daily blog I think I have given you a pretty good idea of the way things are here or at least the way I see it. The point I am making is that the chaos which permeates the world of Greek politics and life in Greece may not be due to incompetence. It may be intentional. The leaders of the parties, in acts of self preservation, put people in positions they are ill-equipped to handle so nobody ever does such a good job that they become popular enough to challenge their power. If an MP has a degree in medicine then put him in charge of tourism. If he knows about agriculture put him in Justice. If she does an exceptional job running the city of Athens send her out of the country. Its not difficult to see that the system is like a minister recycling factory and its the same names changing jobs continuously. Any fan of the TV show The West Wing knows how President Bartlett disabled his main competition, Senator Hoynes. He made him Vice-President. In Greece where everyone is an adversary the Prime Minister has the power to put his competitors where they can do the least amount of good, in a ministry that they are incapable of handling and move them out before they master it. For those who show loyalty to the PM they may be rewarded with the Ministry of Culture like Samaras where they can maintain some visibility and keep their careers going. If someone is disloyal he may find himself in Ipirus in charge of the newly formed Ministry of Bears and Lost Circus Animals or with no ministry at all. Its the perfect system... unless you live under it.

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