August 16, 2022

Distrust of Government Impedes Reform in Greece

Most Greeks say they have little confidence in a political class that they see as corrupt and unaccountable. A recent study by Transparency International in Greece found that 9 out of 10 Greeks believed that their politicians were corrupt, and 80 percent said that Parliament had lost credibility.

“We’re here because we have lost confidence in the present political system, which has brought us to the edge,” Christos Siveris, 35, said last week as he waved a Greek flag outside Parliament during a crucial confidence vote, which Mr. Papandreou won. “This is our Thermopylae,” he added, referring to the ancient battle in which an outnumbered army of Greek warriors held out against a Persian force before ultimately succumbing.

This week Mr. Papandreou will seek parliamentary approval for an austerity package that was agreed on Thursday with European officials and the International Monetary Fund. He is expected to succeed, despite tensions within his Socialist Party and in the face of intransigence from the center-right opposition, which was in power when Greece’s debt soared.

But as the crisis extends into a second year, a growing number of Greeks are turning a critical eye on their own government. They are questioning why members of Parliament have immunity from prosecution unless Parliament votes to lift it, and they want to see more transparency and accountability in party financing.

And having faced across-the-board wage and pension cuts, they have come to question why the lawmakers have benefits that include state cars, generous double pensions (from the government and their own professional guilds), bonuses for attending committee meetings on top of their $8,500-a-month salaries, and personal staff who are widely perceived to attend to a tradition of providing favors in exchange for votes.

In recent years, a number of former officials from both the conservative New Democracy and the Socialist Parties have been implicated in a range of corruption scandals. In one episode, which occurred when New Democracy was in power, the government approved a highly complex land swap in which a Greek Orthodox monastery on Mount Athos received prime, state-owned real estate in exchange for much less valuable land in a rural area. But to date, no officials have been charged with wrongdoing.

Such scandals “add to the frustration and the popular perception that they’re crooks,” said Costas Bakouris, the president of Transparency International’s Greek branch.

Aggravating that perception, the legislators have immunity from prosecution unless the full Parliament votes to lift it, something that has happened only 17 times out of the hundreds of requests since democracy was restored in 1974 after a military dictatorship. Even after they leave office, former lawmakers can be prosecuted only during the parliamentary session in which they are accused of breaking the law and the subsequent session.

In addition to the austerity votes, Parliament is expected to vote this week on whether to broaden an investigation into Akis Tsochatzopoulos, a former defense minister from the Socialist Party who is accused of corruption in the Greek Navy’s procurement of German submarines.

Greece’s Skai television and the related Kathimerini newspaper reported that Mr. Tsochatzopoulos had been living in one of Athens’s most exclusive areas in an apartment purchased from an offshore company. To many here, the case has come to represent everything they consider wrong about the political system, not least because as a former government minister, Mr. Tsochatzopoulos is immune from prosecution. He denies wrongdoing.

In a rare move and an acknowledgment of public sentiment, the two main parties have proposed that his immunity be lifted so that he can be prosecuted.

In another high-profile case, a former Socialist Party transport minister was charged with money-laundering this year after he admitted that he received several hundred thousand dollars from a Greek subsidiary of Siemens.

This month, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, a lawmaker from the New Democracy Party and the son of a former prime minister, caused a stir when he proposed reducing Parliament to 200 members from 300; eliminating double pensions, special payments for serving on committees and immunity for government ministers and lawmakers; and opening up the books on party finances.

“It was received extremely well by the average person on the street by not so well by my colleagues,” said Mr. Mitsotakis, a Harvard-educated former venture capitalist who is clearly positioning himself as the “new” New Democracy, not least because he has said he has criticized his party’s near total opposition to the austerity measures. (Although he, too, said he planned to vote against them.)

“We have a fundamental trust problem in Greece. We asked people to make huge sacrifices that we’re not willing to make,” he said of his colleagues. “There’s something wrong with that.”

In a nod to the growing popular outrage, Mr. Papandreou said in a speech last week that he would form a committee to look at reducing the number of Parliament members and to abolish the law protecting members from prosecution, although it remains to be seen whether he has the political capital to carry out the constitutional changes those moves would entail.

But other analysts believe that anger at the political class is deeper than the government has acknowledged and will not be easily assuaged. In Syntagma Square each night, Greeks from across the political spectrum have gathered to air their grievances. This collaboration of right and left is new in a country that endured both a civil war after World War II and a military dictatorship from 1967 to 1974.

“That’s unique for Greece,” said Nikos Alivizatos, a constitutional lawyer. “I’m not sure the politicians are conscious of that.”

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