A quarter-pounder democracy

Agora Contributor: Nick Malkoutzis

Just under 17 years ago, New York Times commentator Thomas Friedman put forward a theory that if McDonald’s restaurants open in a country, a functioning democracy and institutions won’t be far behind. In July, the last McDonald’s operating in Greece’s second largest city, Thessaloniki, closed. There were once 11 McDonald’s franchises in Greece, now just two are left. Friedman did not opine on whether the opposite of his theory was also true.

Then again, maybe there are more immediate ways of assessing whether Greek democracy and institutions have been downsized rather than supersized over the last years. Last week’s events offer a good guide. The arrest of Golden Dawn’s leadership was a moment for Greece’s police and judiciary to announce their return to active duty. The swiftness with which they dealt with the neo-nazis was impressive. But that newfound zeal was preceded by months of delay, ineptitude and complicity.

An honest police force, a robust judiciary and, above all, a political system with the will to tackle the hardest of challenges were all absent ahead of the arrests. Institutional failure played as much a role in the resurgence of fascism in Greece as anything else.

If we thought that this had been rectified in one fell swoop with the prosecution of Golden Dawn’s leading figures last week, our illusions were swiftly shattered. Three of the party’s MPs – Ilias Kasidiaris. Ilias Panagiotaros and Nikos Michos – were released on bail after a magistrate and prosecutor decided the men would not commit the offences they’re accused of, such as assault. As if to rub the judicial system’s face in its own impotence, Kasidiaris struck two journalists and threatened to start “smashing things up” before he’d even left the grounds of the court complex.

Later, Panagiotaros and Michos threatened journalists on the doorstep of the Greek police’s headquarters. Police officers watched impassively as the extremist MPs raged at reporters and cameramen. “We’re going to have fun now,” they boasted. “Only bullets will stop us,” they claimed. Still, nobody felt the need to escort them back inside the building and place their handcuffs back on.

After showing signs of life, the country’s institutions are flatlining again. There is, of course, a long way to go in building the case against Golden Dawn but there is every reason to be concerned about whether Greece actually remembers how to apply the rule of law, whether it is able to mark the limits of acceptable behaviour and use the power at its disposal to enforce them. There was an encouraging sign on Monday when former Defence Minister Akis Tsochatzopoulos was found guilty of money laundering in connection to the bribes he accepted to sign arms contracts. But for every Tsochatzopoulos conviction, there have been too many cover ups. The Siemens cash-for-contracts scandal and the Lagarde list of depositors are just two of the obvious ones. It’s also worth remembering that several years ago, a parliamentary committee found there was not enough evidence to prosecute Tsochatzopoulos.

Our Parliament, judiciary, police and public administration, among others, are in a decrepit state and few have tended to them during the crisis years. None of the parties have a coherent plan for reforming them and putting them at the service of citizens.

Throughout its history, Greece and most of its people have been victims of “extractive institutions.” The term was coined by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson and is analysed in their book “Why Nations Fail”. They describe these institutions as being “designed to extract incomes and wealth from one subset of society [the masses] to benefit a different subset [the governing elite].” In contrast, inclusive economic institutions “create the incentives and opportunities necessary to harness the energy, creativity and entrepreneurship in society,” the authors say.

Acemoglu and Robinson stress the role of a strong centralised government in creating such institutions. This government, though, is the result of the will of its people as expressed through the political parties that represent them. If we are honest, the public demand for the creation of inclusive institutions has not been strong enough in Greece. The crisis is beginning to change that and civil society is beginning to play a more active role in trying to shape a fairer deal out of the remains of the worn social contract as well as filling the gap left by a hastily retreating state.

At a political level, though, there is a paucity of ideas about how to reshape our institutions. The latest efforts to shake up Greece’s public administration have been a disappointment so far. Greece’s tax collection, for instance, remains under political control and is yet to be granted the independence that was promised. Our courts are still a mess, with stacks of documents wheeled around in shopping market trolleys. An opportunity to assess civil service needs and personnel is being swatted aside in order to create a mobility scheme for 25,000 civil servants that seems to serve a very limited purpose. What good is it moving teachers from the education to the health sector, for instance, when there is no concerted effort to evaluate our judicial officials? What have we achieved by shutting down the municipal police but not tackling corruption in the national force?

People’s faith in institutions is at rock bottom. It is no coincidence that a recent survey indicated that Greeks’ biggest fear is the lack of justice. This probably reflects a twofold concern that not everyone is bearing an equal burden in this crisis and that there is no guarantee in today’s Greece that the guilty will pay and the innocent won’t. Economic recovery, if or when it comes, will mean little if the accountability, transparency and efficiency of Greece’s institutions has not improved in the meantime.

Unless there is pressure from the grassroots up to produce ideas that can be turned into policies, which can be put into practice, the institutional malaise will continue. Until our institutional weaknesses are addressed in a concerted manner, the cracks in our country will only get wider. Without this revolution, we will never have the real deal and will have to settle for an unsatisfying alternative: a quarter-pounder democracy.

7 Comment(s)

  • Posted by: H. Trickler

    @Eleni Tsigante

    No answer makes it all clear!

  • Posted by: H. Trickler

    @Eleni Tsigante:

    >"why a foreigner like yourself with only contempt and animus towards Greece has such an obsession about it, unless of course you are paid?"

    Please explain how you came to the completely wrong conclusion that I have any contempt of Greece??

    And no, I have no obsession but still try to find out how it came to those problems of the southern countries in the Euro zone (not only Greece) - and please: who do you think does pay me??

    >"Since you obviously don't want anything good to happen here..."

    Which of my text did make you think that?

    >"They were foreign journalists at that, scoring a worldwide scoop."

    Don't tell me that only foreign journalists have been at the scene. And those who have been beaten by GD at that instant, did they depose a criminal complaint? There have been many witness and maybe even film recordings to prove it.

    >"As for the lack of arrests, this shows exactly how far greek society has become used to its lack of protection from GD violence and the unfortunate complicity / inaction of both the police and government up to this point."

    My five cents: Such a spectacular action does not change anything in the inner workings of police and the legal system.

  • Posted by: Eleni Tsigante

    Mr Trickler, I am so sorry to see you turn up here too like the proverbial bad penny and wonder why a foreigner like yourself with only contempt and animus towards Greece has such an obsession about it, unless of course you are paid?

    As a greek living in Greece I find that conservative magisterial Nick M. writing an article like this is proof of a gathering consensus for the shape of the future among fellow greeks. Since you obviously don't want anything good to happen here I am sorry to see you re-appear with your ongoing ill-informed spite.

    As to your remark, you clearly don't understand journalists - who would rather have the footage & good story in the heat of events. They were foreign journalists at that, scoring a worldwide scoop. As for the lack of arrests, this shows exactly how far greek society has become used to its lack of protection from GD violence and the unfortunate complicity / inaction of both the police and government up to this point. Underlining Nick's point. We wait to see now if things change.

  • Posted by: Nick Malkoutzis, Macropolis

    This is a good point. The lack of one or several figures that can inspire confidence or just inspire, full stop, are absent.
    There are a number of reasons for this - perhaps I should try to address them in a future blog post.

  • Posted by: H. Trickler

    @Nick Malkoutzis:

    If Greek law is what you explain, why did the beaten journalists and their co-workers at the site not request from the policemen to carry out their duty? This would have given them an even more attractive news-story!

    You might remember my nasty comments in your former blog. These mostly concerned that your brillant writing did not show what could be done against the crisis.

    This time your last paragraph suggests a grass root movement. My biggest concern (that you doubted not to exist ;-) is that the necessary change of the mindset can not happen this way. Imho Greece needs kind of a Greek Lech Walensa to lead kind of a radical change.

  • Posted by: Nick Malkoutzis, Macropolis

    Article 242 of Greece's criminal code allows authorities to arrest suspects who are in the process of committing or have just committed a crime. They do not require a complaint first.

    I truly hope that this is not your biggest concern in relation to what I've written.

  • Posted by: H.Trickler

    >"Still, nobody felt the need to escort them back inside the building and place their handcuffs back on"

    OMG Mr. Malkoutzis how is it possible that a journalist like you lacks basic knowledge about law?

    When a journalist gets beaten this is a crime that only gets prosecuted if the victim makes a criminal complaint. The victim could have asked the policemen and others for their name and address to become witnesses. Only after such complaint police may prosecute such offenders!

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