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Controversy corner: An ominous precedent

September 11, 2009
A statue of Eleftherios Venizelos in Thessaloniki (cc) flickr user macropoulos

A statue of Eleftherios Venizelos in Thessaloniki (cc) flickr user macropoulos

Controversy corner includes opinions, analysis and commentary “out of the Athens News covers”.

THERE IS only one precedent in the history of modern Greece when a prime minister allegedly called an ‘unscheduled’ election for the purpose of losing it. And that was Eleftherios Venizelos, arguably the country’s greatest statesman; the man whose unrivalled diplomatic and political acumen had single-handedly doubled Greece’s sovereign territories in less than ten years (1912-1919).

At the peak of his power in 1920, having suspended all domestic democratic procedures, Venizelos suddenly called the first legislative elections in six years. His subsequent defeat at the 1 November 1920 polls proved to be a political watershed that ushered in Greece’s darkest hour, the Asia Minor Catastrophe of 1922.

Historians are still debating the claim (most notably by the premier’s Cretan friend, the renowned novelist, Nikos Kazantzakis) that Venizelos lost the 1920 elections on purpose, to avoid his share of responsibility for the impending disaster. But nobody can dispute that Venizelos was the only man who could foresee it, and capable – if not to avert it altogether – at least to limit its scale and tragic consequences.

Greece’s defeat by Kemal Ataturk’s reformed Turkish army in 1922, with the sacking of Smyrna and the uprooting of 1,500,000 Greek inhabitants from their ancient Ionian lands on the eastern coast of the Aegean, has indelibly scarred Greece’s political landscape for the rest of the 20th century. Its reverberations are still casting their shadow over Greece’s internal political divisions as well as its open ‘national’ fronts in Epirus, Macedonia, Thrace, Cyprus and, of course, in the Aegean Sea.

Now, Kostas Karamanlis is no Eleftherios Venizelos.

But precisely because he possesses neither the international stature of his great Liberal predecessor nor the record of government achievements in the past five years, Karamanlis had little to lose in the remaining quarter of 2009. There is nothing worth salvaging for posterity to justify him calling an early legislative election for October 4 barely three months after the June 7 Euro-elections.

By the end of October, Greece is bound to face the same humiliation it suffered in 2005, when its EU partners in Brussels branded it the black sheep of Europe. The country had to submit to two years of fiscal supervision for letting its budget deficit overshoot the 3-percent-of-GDP by a wide margin: 7.6 percent of GDP in 2004.

The deficit has now jumped back to 8 percent with public debt well above 100 percent of GDP. And Greece’s inescapable humiliation in Brussels may be compounded with ridicule. This is not because Karamanlis’ economic aides had courageously decided to pump-prime domestic demand in order to combat the domestic impact of the global recession, but because they had virtually dismantled the country’s tax-collection mechanism in the preceding five years of New Democracy governance. At the same time, public expenditure and debt was allowed to rise out of control while Greek banks were ‘bailed out’ for their dubious Balkan investments with an additional 28-billion-euro package they never asked for.

An honest and thorough admission of these flaws, in conjunction with tough political punishment (expulsion) of all the ND culprits, could have salvaged some of Karamanlis’ personal credibility. Even if this wouldn’t ward off a respectable defeat in 2010, Karamanlis might still have rescued his public image of a charismatic leader betrayed by an entourage of lesser ministers.

But then there are also pressing matters of Greek foreign policy which may come to crunch by December 2009. And Karamanlis is definitely no Eleftherios Venizelos in this field.

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