The past week has been something of a fire sale in terms of getting long-simmering scandals out of the way as the country heads for European Parliament elections in a month’s time. There was the vote early Tuesday on whether to hold a parliamentary inquiry into the allegation that former Aegean Minister Aristotelis Pavlidis extorted money from a shipowner; on Thursday, Parliament debated the Siemens bribery scandal; in the early hours of Friday morning, Parliament was to vote on whether to hold an inquiry into how Pavlidis awarded lucrative subsidized contracts for ferries serving remote islands.
Three debates and three after-midnight votes in five days had MPs feeling something like priests during Holy Week: exhausted by an excess of what they usually do in carefully measured doses. Holy Week, however, culminates in the annual, symbolic resurrection of Christ, with its message of hope for humankind. The Passions of our Parliament offer no such hope of redemption, culminating as they do in nothing more than confirmation that our political system is an empty ritual devoid of any meaning or any hope that our politicians will be held accountable for failure or mendacity. It’s a refresher course in cynicism.
After years of practice, every wing in the Parliament played its role in the ritual to perfection. The government – whichever of the two main parties is in power – professes to pursue truth but has to allow some higher principle to get in the way of the parliamentary process. New Democracy had two arguments this time: that Pavlidis had been cleared by an earlier inquiry (by a committee on which ND was in the majority) and, with regard to the Siemens scandal, that the issue was still being investigated by the judiciary and so should not have been sent to Parliament at this stage. The opposition parties, in self-righteous frenzy as always, portrayed themselves as paragons of virtue who need only be voted into office to clean up politics once and for all. The smaller the party and the less chance it has of ever being in power, the more unequivocal it is in its demand to “hang the bastards.”
This time, though, the stakes were higher than usual. The government, with 151 members in the 300-seat Parliament, is hostage to every single one of its MPs. Pavlidis had every reason to bring down the government if he appeared in danger of being abandoned by his party. Under the grotesque law on government ministers’ accountability, if this Parliament were dissolved without Pavlidis being indicted, then he would be free of all charges. So the government was obliged to give him a free ticket, whether it suspected him of wrongdoing or not and despite angry demands by some ND members that Pavlidis simply “do the right thing” and resign. Pavlidis, an old hand in politics, did nothing of the sort, knowing very well that the only way he could be lead to the gallows would be if he himself made things easy for the government.
Fearing that enough ND MPs would vote for an inquiry into Pavlidis, thereby giving the opposition motion a majority, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, was preparing himself for early national elections to coincide with the European Parliament poll. In the end, the motion did not get the necessary 151 votes, so the government will keep on its day-to-day struggle, not daring to tackle any of the very serious problems that the country faces in case it loses its one-seat majority.
The worst legacy of scandals that lead to loads of bluster but nothing else, though, is that the charade instills a sense of futility, anger and cynicism in citizens who see politicians making a mockery of justice. When their representatives are so shameless, how can we expect citizens to adopt a higher moral code? Any delay in subjecting politicians to the same justice as the rest of us is, very simply, an incitement to crime – in places high and low.
Editorial in AthensPlus, 8 May, 2009