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Debating Greek democracy
by Thanos Kalamidas
2009-09-25 07:56:14
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Watching the debate between the leaders of the six main Greek parties one night and then a day after watching another debate between the two main opponents – Prime Minister K. Karamanlis and opposition leader G. Papandreou – I have to admit that I got a taste of how people in Greece have felt the last ten years; that politicians are worth nothing. It doesn’t matter what age or background they have, they sound just the same; boring and disengaged from reality.

Before I start describing my opinion on the two debates; one thing really impressed me. I’m not a fan of political debates and I don’t think they add anything to democracy. These debates give the wrong impression because instead of listening to ideas, proposals and solutions, what you see is how the contestants look, move and speak; something that would make total sense if they were beauty queens or reality show contestants, but definitely not prime ministers and nation leaders. It has been said that if Winston Churchill or Franklin Roosevelt would have had to deal with a televised debate, they would have faced total humiliation without hope to be elected – especially compared to somebody with the gift for similar situations, like John F. Kennedy or even Bill Clinton.

The last few years, the campaign focus has been put on the undecided voters, or those who move from party to party, depending on what the parties offer. I presume this is a reason to organize debates; they target purely undecided voters hoping that this extra move, that extra wink of the eye, will give the small percent they need to win over the opposition. But that doesn’t mean that these kind of debates help democracy, especially under the conditions they are made. Most of the time it is not a conversation, but politicians with wooden language who carry on a monologue without listening or answering to what the other one says. And that’s exactly what the Greek debate with the six leaders was all about, and that’s exactly what the following debate between the two leaders was. The main problem with those monologues was that one of the debaters didn’t explain why he has failed and why he’s going to do everything right now, while the other one didn’t explain how the hell he’s going to keep all his promises; all he did was explaining that the government has left the country in financial ruins.

These debates are well organized from the PR responsible of the parties, making sure that their candidates won’t have to deal with uncomfortable questions; that their candidates will have the chance to promote their best side and looks; that their candidates will get the best lighting and the best chair in the best place; that their candidates will be the stars. All these things of course leave too little room for a real exchange of ideas and opinions. However in the first Greek debate where the six parties participated, there was something that could work. In the first part there were reporters who asked the questions and yes, you often had the feeling that some of the reporters were on the payroll of the parties, but the second part even had a small surprise. The leaders had the chance to question to each other. One question each, but it was a good taste on how these debates should work, and how democracy does work. The first debate lasted a bit over three hours and the second one and a half. Out of those over five hours it was these fifteen minutes that made them worthwhile to watch and if, emphasizing if, there was any chance for those debates to work for the good of the democracy it was only these fifteen minutes that really worked and I hope that in the future this will be a format for all political debates.

About the first debate: there were six parties, six leaders, including the prime minister and the leader of the opposition. In this national election I think there are over 28 parties participating, but according to the Greek constitution only the ones that get over 3% of the votes have the chance to participate in the parliament, which leaves mainly six parties. Most of the Greek parties are very persona-centered, with their leaders being the center of the party and not the ideas they represent. Mr. Kostas Karamanlis, the Prime Minister and the leader of the conservative New Democracy (N.D.) party was nervous. Even though he is a superb speaker and a talented opponent in a dialogue, his physical condition didn’t help him much (he has put on a lot of weight while he’s been the prime minister); combined with his constant nervousness, he gave the impression of a bully. I’m not going to say who won or who lost this debate, but my impression of the Prime Minister was very negative, exactly because he reminded me of bullies from high school. Without saying anything, he blamed the socialist party for everything. The party ruled the country for nearly twenty years, but he forgot to mention that he has been the prime minister for the last six years. If he wanted to change something he had the chance and the power to do so, especially during his first term when he had the majority of the parliament. His excuses for the scandals and the mistakes were poor and by saying “I didn’t know but I am a real man so I take responsibility” while on the same time leaving hints that perhaps the scandals had started during the socialists’ regime, simply verified the impression of a high school bully!

Mr. Georgios Papandreou, the leader of the Greek Socialist Movement (PASOK) was exactly the opposite. The man is obviously leading a healthy lifestyle, so he looked slim and well-trained. He is known in Greece for his love for sports and a healthy life. His biggest enemy is his speech. The man has a problem. Perhaps he is dyslexic – it’s nothing wrong if a prime minister is dyslexic, as I said before this is not a beauty queen competition – but his mistakes made his speech difficult to follow or even understand. Unfortunately for him, this has often proved his nemesis and he has even been blamed as a …foreigner. He grew up in the USA and spent part of his youth between USA and Sweden, having even studied in Sweden. I don’t think he speaks better English or Swedish, but his speech has really worked against him and this has been brutally used by his opposition, even inside his party for dirty hits. However he looked calm and focused on what he was saying. Unfortunately my opinion is that he didn’t say how he’s going to do all the things he said, and perhaps his promises sound attractive, but people have lost their faith in politicians’ promises. Mr. Papandreou also represents a party that ruled the country for nearly two decades. The later decade was a traumatic experience for the Greek people, and it is odd that he accuses the government for scandals and corruption while his party lost the government six years ago due to scandals and corruption. Of course he tries to focus on the people, repeating that things are not the same with the party and he has done a few changes, some very radical to prove his word. However the past experiences and the disappointments from the socialists are still there.

The third debater was Ms Aleka Papariga, Secretary of the Greek Communist Party (KKE). I have to admit one thing about the Greek Communist Party and their leadership; they are honest! It doesn’t matter what happens in this world, it doesn’t matter what has changed and if the Berlin wall has fallen, they never change. Actually when you listen to them you get the feeling that you are back in the 70s and that Stalin is around the corner! I’m not being sarcastic; on the contrary I find them honest and surprisingly refreshing. In a world were populism and opportunism rules, they have ideas and an ideological background. Ms Papariga was her good old self; after all she has nothing to lose or gain, she knows – apparently everybody does – that the party will never become government and they will probably never become part of a coalition, and even if they would become part of a coalition (which happened briefly in the past) it will be under a state of emergency and their power will be very limited. On the same time the communist party has seen its parliamentary power increase over the last years, because people are disappointed and sick of the other parties. They vote for the communists knowing that they will never govern, but at least they are steady in their ideas and they make some kind of logical and not opportunistic opposition. My impression of her was pretty neutral; she was exactly what I expected and she said nothing more than what I expected. Something positive about her was that she voiced her opposition loudly in this debate, knowing that it was just a …beauty queen competition, but she participated because she couldn’t afford not to.

Mr. Alexis Tsipras represented the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA); a collection of parties that combines everything from Euro-communists and environmentalists, to people who left the Communist Party, Trotskyites and disappointed socialists.  This is a party that has the reputation of being left-wing intellectually, often embracing the most controversial sides of the left in Greece. In general the leaders of these Greek parties are young (of course always comparing with the past) but Mr. Tsipras is 35 and he looks like a …kid. He was the new kid on the block for a long time, attracting a lot of people, especially young people, and the party got unbelievable ratings in surveys. But then he grew up and became part of the system, adopting the same wooden language and gradually turned the party figures back to its usual low percentages. Apparently he is endangering the party entrance in the parliament this time, due to controversy over some of his acts that caused other members of the coalition to get angry. From the very beginning I’ve been very …reserved with Mr. Tsipras. He gave me the feeling that he would like to be the secretary of the communist party, but since that was impossible he could live with the left coalition. In this debate he won some of the points, but he lost the last period – that again has its explanation. Mr. Tsipras uses the disappointment of the people from the two main parties and their fear to vote for the alternative communist or nationalist party; he is very animated and he doesn’t …care! He knows, just like the secretary of the communist party, that he will never become prime minister so the only thing he has to fight for is a seat in the parliament and if he is lucky and everything goes wrong, a small minister seat in a coalition government. Apart from that he enjoys the tolerance of the other leaders (a minor one but I will explain that later) so he can be as comfortable and as cool as he likes. My opinion is that it will be a great loss if this party is not a part of the next parliament.

Next up is the cancer of the Greek political life, and I’m afraid a virus common to all European parliaments. The People's Orthodox Rally (L.A.O.S. which apparently in Greek as one word means the public) and the leader, Mr. Georgios Karatzaferis is the perfect example of a populist, opportunist and a very dangerous for the democracy persona. The former body builder (Arnold is his idol), former journalist, owner of a media chain including a television station, radio stations, newspapers and magazines, mysteriously a billionaire since he got involved with politics, former member of parliament with the conservative party (N.D.) and since 2000 founder and centre of the party. The man is mixture of ideas and ideologies, making Mein Kampf sound like a fairytale. The man will do anything for power, especially if this power leads to the prime minister’s seat. During the debate he said some of the most amazing things; he is not against immigration as long as he can choose who immigrate to Greece and they represent certain …qualities! I suppose they must be Arians with PhDs and called Arnold!!! He has created a party of unworthy television celebrities, background fascists, grotesque ideological trash and exhibitionist untalented singers, and he is able to promise or say anything as long it gets him to his target. Unfortunately for all of us people, the undecided voters vote for him. These are people who are afraid of the new world, people who suffer from xenophobia and hate anything foreign, nationalists, fascists, and all the lumpen elements of the society. The man unfortunately exists and I’m afraid he’s going to be here for long time if nothing changes. I’m afraid that due to the confusion that will follow the probable defeat of the conservative party, he will return and he will lead the Greek political life down dangerous paths, just like Le Pen nearly did in France a few years ago. Let’s hope that people will soon realize how dangerous he is and they will stop him. Oddly the leader of the party focused all his menace against SYRIZA, blaming them for nearly everything, from his daughter’s dirty diapers to the summer wild fires.

And finally; the new appearance in Greek political life. At last an organized and united environmental party. The Ecologists Greens are represented by Mr. Nikos Hrysogelos (the Greek Greens don’t have exactly one leader but …representatives) who gave the highlight of the debate: he presented two glasses of water, one from a Greek river which was very dirty and brownish, and one like it should be. This was shocking while making everybody smile on the same time. I always believed that the environment is just like culture – these are not narrow subjects and when they become political parties, they cover every human activity and yes, there is a green economy and there is a green foreign policy and there is a green way towards peoples’ prosperity. I have mentioned in past articles that this was what Petra Kelly dreamt of when she founded the first Green party in Germany. Since then a lot of things have changed, and my opinion is that the green politicians became just politicians, expressing ideas and opinions far from the Green foundations Kelly tried to put down. In Finland the Green party is constantly mocking every sense of a Green party, and their environmental worries stop somewhere before their ministerial ambitions. There’s nothing different with the Greek Ecologists Greens. Some of their ideas and opinions show naivety and ignorance, sometimes a dangerously unexplained ignorance. Still the appearance of an environmental party in Greek political life is something positive. First of all because it forces the rest of the parties, even the nationalists, to add sentimental issues to their programs. It has worked as an alarm for the Greek people. However just like Finnish Greens, they will sacrifice everything at the door of a ministerial office. They have the chances to become partners in a coalition government because they are naïve and easy to manipulate with anything – in Finland the Greens find the creation of another two nuclear plans something normal, despite the reaction of the Global Greens and Greenpeace – it is in exchange of two ministerial seats! Mr. Hrysogelos last move with the two glasses won him points but I’m sorry, I’m very suspicious.

In general, as I said, in the beginning the debate was a mocking of democracy and instead of showing us something positive, it emphasized the negative parts and perhaps some dangerous elements. The next day followed another debate, this time between the two main players; Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis and the leader of the opposition, Mr. Georgios Papandreou. They said exactly the same things they said the day before, they made the same accusations, they gave the same explanations and they gave the same promises, both avoiding to answer any questions or even look at each other.

The only thing I can hope for is that the people realized that this is not a beauty queen competition or a reality show, and what matters is not the tie or the movements of the hands, but the ideas. Despite all things said, abstinence is a voter’s right and it demonstrates what people really think and why there is something wrong at the moment with our democracies and something has to change.


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Anastasios2009-09-27 16:53:27
Dear Thano, unfortunately for Greece, Karamanlis is a supreme idiot and a weakling. He has hurt the country just like other Greek politicians have done before him. I believe Greece suffers tremendously due to generations of really bad crops of politicians. I have no hopes for Papandreou either. I do not think he has the ability but I hope dearly that I am wrong. The Greek people must react to these pathetic morons by not voting at all. Only then I think politicians will get the message, because judging from their actions it is obvious that they have no respect for a people that has been through so much hardship.

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