Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Machine is dead. Long live the Machine. Is it the end of business as usual in Greek politics?

For the best part of four decades the two major parties in Greece have relied upon their ability to provide jobs in the public sector as a means of winning public support and elections. For many “a place in the sun” as a civil service job is called in Greece has been a powerful motivator since such positions offer far more security, better pay and conditions than in the private sector where low wages and flagrant abuse of labour legislation are now the norm.

In the past when the economy was growing at rates that made Athens the toast of the European Union Greek governments were happy to ignore such abuses as employees could easily find work elsewhere and the State could easily fund the ever growing number of people on the public payroll. However, with access to cheap credit seemingly at an end and the IMF and EU breathing down its neck for cuts the country is about to undergo radical changes that will not only alter the nature of its economy but also the relationship between rulers and ruled.

Greece's creditors are insisting on a massive reduction in the size of the state and in particular has demanded that for every new hiring, five public sector workers leave. Given the size of the civil service in relation to the rest of the economy this involves a severe jolt to the labour market and is likely to lead to even higher unemployment as the private sector is also shrinking at an unprecedented rate and will not be able to absorb the tens of thousands of new job seekers. This, in turn will push down wages and purchasing power for those employed so further worsening the government's economic position as more businesses close and tax revenues plummet.

In the long term the inability of the ruling party to offer incentives to its supporters in the form of jobs will lead to a breakdown in the network of patron – client relations which is the lifeblood of the modern Greek political system. Whether nominally socialist or conservative the two largest parties, PASOK and New Democracy which have dominated parliament since 1974 have regularly used power to reward followers with state jobs.

While the leader of the right wing New Democracy, Kostas Karamanlis may have promised to reform the state and cut public spending his party followed the internal logic of the system and added employees to the public payroll on an unprecedented scale.

Similarly, while the socialist PASOK vowed to improve public services the reality was that while those working in the education and health rose steadily the quality of services offered dropped to the point that whilst the country had one of the worst school systems in Europe it employs four times the number of educators working in Finland, home to the world's highest ranking schools .

At first glance such moves may seem contradictory but they fit in perfectly with the logic of a political caste that despite marching under different ideological flags differ little in terms of day to day policy. The job of the ruler is to stay in power and once you understand that and leave aside political lablels everything else starts to make sense. If you cannot reward followers then the well oiled party machinery that can deliver votes quickly starts to break down.

The problem is that there are no longer jobs or contracts to hand out. The insistence of the IMF/EU/ECB troika has seen to that by standing tough despite Papandreou's claims that the new austerity measures will not lead to more civil service job losses. However, this hasn't stopped PASOK, state run TV channels and the government's supporters in the media in general from pushing the line that some will still be hired.

In the recent vote the PASOK candidate for the position of Mayor in Thessaloniki, Greece's second largest city committed himself to creating 50,000 new jobs. This at a time when Papandreou has been forced to cut 40,000 places. Even then the government NET news spoke of 8,000 new openings but failed to mention  that any “new” positions created will, in fact be filled by people transferring from other sectors of the civil service.

As the reality of the situation filters down you are likely to see a fragmentation of the party political scene as party members and functionaries jump ship either to join other parties or quit politics all together. The record low turn out in the latest local elections is just a symptom of this sea change in public life and is likely to intensify as the crisis worsens as Athens sits by on the sidelines unable to influence an economic policy decided upon in Brussels, Frankfurt and Washington.

Already Dora Bakoyianni, who was until last year a contender for the leadership of New Democracy has created a new party with the aim of challenging her former colleagues for the centre right vote. Such moves are likely to be replicated in PASOK if MPs and cabinet ministers fall out with the leadership or see that the party is doomed at the polls.

Does this means that the political scene is about to change for good? Probably not in the short term if the tactics and strategies displayed during November's local elections are anything to go by. Too many of the major parties' nomenclature are wedded to the present sysytem which has brought them power and personal wealth for decades to give it up without a fight. Instead they will keep on down the same road but with fewer and fewer resources to back up their promises. In the place of a corrupt, mismanaged political system which costs hundreds of billions you will have a corrupt, mismanged one that runs on far less money.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Found your blog thru you RATM Wake Up Video... nice blog, great read!

While I'm pretty far from you (Brazil) our reality is not so different, give the large role public service has in our economy and the political problems we face.

Keep up the good work.