Friday, April 25, 2014

From Pericles to Potami

In this NYT Op-Ed, Nikos Kostandaras draws the full circle of political conduct from Ancient Greece to the 21st century. "We are unique in that we consider any man who takes no part in public affairs not just uninvolved but useless", Kostandaras quotes Pericles and adds: "Since the founding of the modern Greek state nearly two centuries ago, Pericles’s exhortation has been remembered only in speeches on national holidays. Politics has been dominated by a professional caste whose credibility depended on keeping voters happy. This led to rising demands by interest groups at the expense of the whole society".

Yes, the sad state of Greek political affairs is well known. After all, it has been broadcast throughout the world in recent years with particular emphasis on the expression of a 'failed state'. Yes, Greek politics seem to be a mess but, no, Greece is not alone in this. Like so often, Greece is just so much more extreme than other countries but similar trends can be observed in many other countries. Notably my own country of Austria.

Like Greece, Austria's politics after WW2 were dominated by two large parties: the Conservatives and the Social Democrats; ÖVP and SPÖ. Or, as they are called: the Blacks and the Reds. In the early years, ÖVP/SPÖ garnered over 80% of the vote on a combined basis. They differed from ND/PASOK in 3 important ways. 

First, instead of competing with one another which wastes energy, they decided to team up and form grand coalitions, recognizing that it is a lot more fun to run a democracy with a two-third majority than without it. There was a common objective: always make sure that both parties share equally and fairly in the gravy of the state and a huge public sector. 

Secondly, ÖVP/SPÖ realized that there has to be gravy before it can be distributed; that one should nurture the cow if one wants to distribute milk. In short, they both had an interest in a strong private sector.

Thirdly, preferential treatment and corruption, which cannot be avoided in a system like that, never went to individual politicians privately. Instead, the beneficiaries were always the parties and whatever is good for parties is good for the country. So the reasoning went.

A system like the above cannot be replaced because that would require the beneficiaries of the system to amputate themselves. Fat chance of that ever happening! However, the system can be allowed to erode over time. That can be a very, very long time.

Austria's erosion process began over 25 years ago and was evidenced by the continous decline in the combined share of the vote of ÖVP/SPÖ. Voters still knew that, whoever they voted for, they would still get the same government after the election but they started 'sending signals'. A new right-wing party (FPÖ under Jörg Haider) moved from 5% in the mid-1980s to over 30% in the late 1990s, becoming temporarily the largest party in opinion polls. The power behind this new party was not so much its right-wing position but, instead, the fact that 'it declared war on the corrupt ÖVP/SPÖ dictatorship which pursued party politics at the expense of all Austrians'. That struck a theme with the voters. Still, the ÖVP/SPÖ survived that challenge which only goes to show how hard it is to remove a system which has been entrenched for decades.

"You can fool some of the people all of the time; all of the people some of the time; but you can't fool all of the people all of the time!" --- Any hope for significant political change must rest on this premise coined by Abraham Lincoln. A very interesting development took place in Austrian politics during 2013, and this may give some hope to Greeks.

In the September 2013 national election, ÖVP/SPÖ barely came over 50% of the vote while 2 parties which had not existed a year earlier scraped the 4% hurdle for parliament. One of them ("Frank", named after its founder, the Austro-Canadian billionaire Frank Stronach) focused on rhethoric and emotions and has meanwhile lost all of its support. For all practical purposes, it no longer exists (except for the seats in parliament which they can hold on to). The other party ("NEOS", standing for 'New Austria') garnered just over 4% at the elections but is now running in double-digits according to polls. NEOS focused on rational argument and serious conduct.

Even though I was very impressed by NEOS from the start (I voted for them), I am now overwhelmed to see how receptive a society which has been permeated by ÖVP/SPÖ party politics and interest groups for decades with entrenched infrastructures, how receptive so many Austrians are to rational argument and serious conduct. I am reminded of the many Greeks I have met, particularly from the younger generation, who also seemed to be receptive to rational argument and serious conduct.

"The economic crisis of the past four years is opening the way, after decades of stagnation, for radical change in Greek politics. New people — from business, sports, academia and various professions — are entering politics; new parties are pushing for a place in a field where for generations two parties and a handful of political dynasties controlled developments", writes Nikos Kostandaras. That, dear Greeks, is the prerequesite for the realistic hope for change!

There is no way of telling upfront which new party, which new politician will strike the right theme in order to set in motion an avalanche. Vanessa Andris, a Greek-American, wrote in the HuffingtonPost 3 years ago that "What Greece needs now is a new hero". One of my readers has been arguing for a long time that Greece needs its own Lech Walesa. Again, one can't tell upfront who is the right person and which is the right party but the more the alternatives which present themselves, the greater the likelihood that one of them will set off the avalanche.

One piece of advice for Mr. Theodorakis of To Potami: a nice TV persona and a vague idea of what one has in mind may be enough to start a small fire. But if he wants to start a blaze, he should take a copy from NEOS. In order to convert a small fire into a blaze, there has to be a grassroots, bottom-up organization of motivated people (many volunteers!). Soft facts may suffice to start the small fire. The blaze requires that soft facts are supported by hard facts such as specific policy positions, shared value structures and a clear vision of what kind of a country one would like to see in a generation from now.


  1. Potami is due to be a short lived invention created with the support of one of the Greek oligarchs (Bobolas activated mainly in TV and construction etc etc), in order to take away some of the SYRIZA share in the upcoming elections, keeping New Democracy alive in order to make it as government at least another few months and implement - as required (by whom?) - some more of the Greek burden.... Peoples tendency to vote TV personas in the last two decades (couch potatoes and lack of involvement) has been applied in order to manipulate as much as possible the elections outcome....

    1. @ Dimitris Felas.

      I agree with most of what you say, but i don't think it will be short lived.

      a) He has appeal to women and you know how greek women vote.
      b) It's not just Bobolas. Vardinogiannis' and Psiharis' media also treat him like a king. Add, "Proto Thema" of Anastasiades, that DAILY, will have at least ONE news article in prime space about Theodorakis. "Theodorakis eating, Theodorakis gazing the sea today, Theodorakis said a joke, what does Theodorakis keep in his backpack, what is Theodorakis' favourite perfume, Theodorakis farted".

      We are talking of the country where George Papandreou became PM and Tsipras is the next one. You think that with all this "pushing" behind him, he will just disappear, with so much desperate people around? I think now. And unfortunately, many are still fond of good actors.

  2. Mr. Kastner,
    About "To Potami" ("The River"). It was "invented" out of nothing (apparently), as a "one man show", less than one month ago. It has seen unprecedented media support, by apparently opposing sides (more fiercly from ex-PASOK supporting media but a gentle boost from center-right media too). Mind you, the people behind those media, are the same that have been in cahoots for 30 years with PASOK. The same people that don't pay their fees for state tv frequencies, that are bankers, own football teams, oil and construction companies. The people that have been making the money with that establishment. The same media, up until a few months ago, were trying go resurrect PASOK, or it's new masqueraded transformation, called "The Olive tree" (Elia). The "Elia" experiment, was a last ditch effort by Venizelos to make forget the voters that he is PASOK. Alas, the euro-elections are closing, and polls show that neither PASOK, nor Elia seem to work.
    And lo and behold! Instantly, "To Potami" appears, with one man, who has worked for years for the same media magnates (and ex-PASOK member in "his youth" as he says). One day BEFORE the foundation of his party, when nobody knew what his positions would be, newspapers already had polls out giving him, no less than 7%!!! Everyday you could find 3 newspapers, with 10 page coverage of a party, that nobody knew about! There are other parties that get born and die and nobody writes 5 lines and suddenly Theodorakis comes and 10 pages in all the ex-PASOK supporting newspapers. The tv channels (owned by the same people), even plan to invite him in the pre-electoral debate, although, in all past debates, the rule is, that in the debate, are invited parties that are already represented either in the national or european parliament. He is none of the two, but they want to invite him. He is running all around Greece, when someone asks him "where does he find the money to found a party, finance pubblicity" etc, he replies "we have no money, we have small donations from friends and keep it simple". There is a joke about this actually, because everywhere he repeats "i have been working since 16 years old". And someone from the crowd replies "i have been working since 16 years and now i am a pensioner, but i still don't have money to make my own party".

    You ask him where he stands politically, he replies "we want to govern, either with left or with right, and if people want to, why not, i could become the PM". Still to this day, his "founding program", is a vague collection of trivialities and generalizations, that seem to be written in part by George Papandreou and in part by Tsipras.

    You want a hypothesis? The greek elite, is watching Samaras' goverment trembling, as PASOK is in shambles and Samaras lately lost some MPs that wouldn't vote for goverment policy. Samaras is now down to 151 MPs and PASOK doesn't seem in position to be able to help New Democracy form a new goverment after the next elections. The next national elections, however, are close. More probably in autumn. Worst case, in April 2015, because Samaras will need 180 votes to elect president of the repubblic and only has 151. The same elite, doesn't want Tsipras to take power alone. They see that PASOK can't be resurrected despite the "Elia" trick. So what they do? They jettison PASOK and create "To Potami", which stays intentionally ambivalent. So that in ANY case, it may form goverment with either ND and SYRIZA, so that the greek elite, can maitain its grasp on things.

  3. 2of2

    How does it sound to you? Too conspiracy-like? Well, i don't know. How often do you have in Austria 10-page reviews for a party out of nothing, with no positions and headed by someone who only knows to smile well to cameras and attract women with a gaze to the infinite, while using theatrically studied gestures with his hands? By the way, in a poll, 75% of Potami's voters, are women. Exactly because Theodorakis, was always the kind of "glamour, smooth operator" type of tv journalist that appealed to femminine audience.

    To Potami, aims to a) cut votes from SYRIZA, specially the more center-left voters that once voted PASOK, b) be vague enough to be able to cooperate with New Democracy without being called traitor of his positions, c) if all goes south and SYRIZA wins the elections, to be needed by SYRIZA to form goverment and thus become controlling factor and as last resort, make the govermet fall if SYRIZA follows the "wrong way".
    And consider that i am usually a liberal voter, with a deep personal disgust towards Tsipras. But that doesn't stop me from trying to find a logical explanation behind miracles. Do you know that the founding conference of his party, was transmitted LIVE through internet by the biggest center-left circulation newspaper and 2 more big portals (one of which center-right?). Things UNPRECEDENTED in greek political history. About 3 hours, live transmission on the first page of three of the biggest greek portals. Do you know how many newly founded parties would beg for just 1 portal to do that? Do you know how much MONEY it costs to occupy for 3 hours such portals?
    I doubt Theodorakis awaits for your advice, Mr. Kastner. Judging from the powerful greeks that promote him through their media on daily basis, like the best thing since sliced bread, i bet he has an entire army of professional image makers. But as i said, he has a precise role to play, so, be patient with him and do not despair. His mission is not to start a blaze right now. His mission is to put out SYRIZA's fire.

  4. Maybe you should consider renaming your article, to "From Pericles to Hollywood".

  5. Just so that you learn a bit of the inner facts, i managed to find the first page of one of the several newspapers that shamelessly promote Theodorakis. This newspaper, was supporting PASOK. As PASOK started declining, it started supporting New Democracy more. Now it's supporting New Democracy and Potami, against PASOK. It's a top selling newspaper in Greece.

    Title of the front page: "The River is washing them ashore! This "transmission" threatens to finish off PASOK! Venizelos a simple specator. DIMAR (Democratic Left) inside the vortex. SYRIZA also wet! Internal polls give even double digit percentages!"

    As the blog's title says, "8 pages of apotheosis for the River". I couldn't find the other newspaper that had 10.

    But, take whatever you like. From Alafouzos' group (Kathimerini, SKAItv) to to Ethnos, to any other "establishment's" media group, they are boosting him like there is no tomorrow. SKAItv was one of the portals showing him live for hours. Don't expect to see Tsipras treated the same there.

    Greeks always have the "lost vote" syndrome. They don't want to vote for a party that won't make it to the 3%. So, this is why the media already gave Potami 7% before we even knew that it existed. Now they give it 10%. Give it another month, they will give it 20%.

    And Theorodarkis plays for the villagers the story of the "poor, independent guy, that tries to make a party against the bad greek elite", etc.

    The owner of the newspaper in the link, was prosecuted for money laundring and tax evasion, after he was caught in the french-swiss borders with 4 mln euros in his trunk. Now he moved in Switzerland. He bought an estate with 2 residential complexes outside Zurich, in Kilchberg.

    In Switzerland he can be certain he will have less legal trouble in the future, he has various murky cases haunting him.

    Like we say in Greece, "show me your friend and i will tell you who you are".

  6. Mr. Kastner,
    Put yourself in the shoes of a woman 18-45 for a minute. Be honest. Wouldn't you want to vote him and as a bonus have him save you at the same time?

    This is how Alexis Tsipras started too. With the difference that Tsipras didn't have acting talent and wasn't trainned to lean his head to one side and look at the camera at 3/4 profile, so you concentrate on 1 eye only, the other being lost in a semi-shade, which is the preferred studied look by Theodorakis and makes women melt.

  7. The River, that newspaper polls were giving 7% a day before its founding convention and that in April, they were giviing it 10,4%, at the end took 6,6%.

    The big surprise is PASOK, that while the polls were giving 4,3%, took 8,04% under the name "Olive Tree", but lost 4% compared to the last national elections. Now either the "change name" trick worked on uninformed voters or the "blackmail" Venizelos did to the voters (vote me or i will make the goverment fall, worked).


    SYRIZA 26,53% (by far the most voted MEP is Manolis Glezos with over 100.000 votes). A victory, but not the triumph Tsipras was hoping for. For someone who was asking the people to vote for "the referendum that was never done", it's not exactly a walk in the park, although it gives the air of victory to SYRIZA and puts Samaras in the corner.

    New Democracy 22,80% . Worse than what Samaras was hoping for, but not a total disaster. Below 20%, Samaras would face open dispute of his party leadership position.

    Golden Dawn 9,41% (as expected, the obvious political persecution had opposite effects, as per greek tradition. With their leader and half their MPs in jail awaiting trial for more than 6 months, with their party state financing cut after parliament vote, with mass media embargo on them, with the poll companies giving them from 4,5% to 7,5% and they went up). Notably, the candidate for Athens' mayorship, ALMOST took the same votes as the ND's candidate. He has been imprisoned too once and this was his electoral poster:

    Free state pubblicity... "after the night's darkest hour, a golden dawn always rises". He got 16% in Athens in the first round. Morale of the story: you can't deal with a party by simply putting them behind bars. Has never really worked very well while in democracies. Samaras has been put under pressure by foreign powers to "deal" with GD, as one of Democratic Left's ministers (the minister of Justice) admitted too (Samaras was pressured before going to visit AIPAC in USA), but this way only works while in dictatorship. To demolish GD, they must de-heroificate them, let them be exposed to media and take attrition for their positions and most of all, deal with the problems that fuel GD, without stupid moves. If they keep doing it the same way, the problem may keep growing and growing. And it is also a mistake to marginalize its voters as "nazis", because it will only make them become a "hard nucleus" of die-hard supporters that feel "everyone against me".

    The River 6,59%. True to his vocation, after the elections passed, today Theodorakis decided that it was time to inform the voters where his party stands. Well, almost. The River will cooperate with thw SocialDemocracts in the EU Parliament, but will not join officially the SocialDemocrats group.

    KKE (comunist party) 6,08%

    ANEL (Independent Greeks) 3,43% (50% loss of their power compared to the last national elections, not strange, since they are mainly a party built around the "antimemorandum". If you take this away from them, they have no position and have been flirting with SYRIZA for far too long based on that position, while their voters where mainly right wingers. Big mistake).

    Democratic Left : 1,51% (Total collapse, they paid their flight from the goverment, because they didn't have the stomach to touch the ERT golden boys. For a party that was advertizing itself as the "responsible left", there wasn't much to say to their voters after that).

  8. Another interesting thing about Golden Dawn, is that despite the "all out war", it has breached the shell of "nazi label", as far as its followers are concerned. The party officially denies being nazi anyway, declaring itself as "nationalist", but it is known that at least some of its original members are nazi admirers. Nonetheless, it seems that the image of the party is being built around the "nationalist" idea now and the candidates that presented are of "high level".

    If you read here:

    They had doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc. Not exactly the image of "dumb monsters with clubs" that the mass media like to portray them.

    They elected 3 MEPs at the end:

    1) Sinadinos (vice general retired. Has commanded every special force in the greek army, parachutist diploma and commander of the greek contingent in Kossovo's KFOR NATO mission). His candidacy with GD wasn't a surprise, as he had always the reputation of a "tough nut".

    2) Epitidios (vice general, retired, ex commander of the "crisis management unit of the Euroarmy).

    He was considered a surprise, since he was thought to be PASOK and was treated well (rank-wise), during PASOK goverments.

    3) Foundoulis (retired post office employee, father of a 22 year old Golden Dawn leaflet distributor that was assassinated together with another member of GD, from an attack by extreme leftists).

    All this indicates that the media tactic against GD isn't working. Their candidates aren't the marginalized street thungs you 'd expect, they have penetrated into the wider audience and have now put suit on. It means that they won't go away easily and brings an even bigger problem. It weakers the options of the center-right in Greece, for goverment formation. It means that ND will become more and more dependent on PASOK and River for "allies".

    The funny is, that in the 2nd round, SYRIZA openly called GD voters to vote for SYRIZA, while ND said that wanted no nazi votes. Results show that at the end, the majority of GD voters, supported SYRIZA in the 2nd round.