Tsipras and SYRIZA: More old than new

Agora Contributor: Nick Malkoutzis
Photo by Myrto Papadopoulos [www.myrtopapadopoulos.com]
Photo by Myrto Papadopoulos [www.myrtopapadopoulos.com]

Alexis Tsipras staked his political future on the “new vs old” concept in the September 20 elections. His victory at the ballot box, though, does not mean that it can yet be deemed a winning strategy.

Why was it a risk to claim he could be the new broom to sweep away the old system and its corrupt practices? Because it is a line that has been used so often that it has been worn bare. Many of his predecessors, such as Kostas Simitis, Kostas Karamanlis and George Papandreou, all promised something similar.

Why can’t we say that the gamble paid off for Tsipras? Because to a lesser or greater extent, the failure of these three ex-prime ministers to live up to their pledge for fairness and transparency undermined their governments and stigmatised their premierships.

Simitis projected the image of the driven technocrat but buckled under the weight of the corruption scandals a bloated PASOK amassed after feasting on power for many years. Karamanlis rode the subsequent wave of dissatisfaction and promised to tackle the alleged trail of graft left behind by Simitis, who the New Democracy leader once referred to as the “high priest of corruption”. Karamanlis too, though, could not last the distance and his government became embroiled in its own scandals and was dragged down by its pervading apathy. Papandreou, full of ideas imported from abroad, entered the prime minister’s office with apparently boundless energy for increasing transparency. The Open.gov project was launched so government spending, as well as bills, could be published online, but little else emerged as his administration’s drive also stalled before it drifted into the Lagarde list iceberg.

If history is a guide, Tsipras’s path seems to have been set: after talking a good game to get elected, he will pay only lip service to the high ideals of fairness and justice before someone else comes along promising what he once assured voters he could deliver but failed to.

Have we seen any signs so far that suggest this pattern will be broken, that Tsipras is genuinely committed to freeing his country from the choking grip of entangled interests? The reality is that there has been little to inspire optimism. Sure, some tax evaders have been asked to cough up what they owe, but this also happened occasionally under recent governments. And this is counterbalanced to some extent by the previous SYRIZA–Independent Greeks administration failing to ensure that civil servants accused of corruption were held to account, which led to some of them being allowed to return to their positions.

However, the biggest problem has been that Tsipras has failed to establish any ethical boundaries within his own government. While his ministers may not have been implicated in traditional cases of corruption that led to their personal enrichment, they have been linked to morally dubious practices which the prime minister has sought to sweep under the carpet. Last week the government dismissed as insignificant Economy Minister Giorgos Stathakis’s failure to declare bank deposits of 1 million euros in his derivation of wealth declaration when he became an MP in 2012. Stathakis admitted the error and said he declared the money the following year, making him fully compliant with the law. The impression this gave, though, was of a government that claims to defend the rights of the working class but whose ministers are so comfortable they even forget that they have a million euros resting in an account somewhere.

At the same time, the coalition also played down the fact that State Minister Alekos Flambouraris had failed to declare his interests in a construction company. This was a continuation of the controversy that broke out before the elections, when it emerged that the firm, in which the minister was the main shareholder, had signed a contract with the Peloponnese Regional Authority while Flambouraris was part of the cabinet.

Again, the affair was waved away as the contract had been awarded while Flambouraris was still part of the opposition in 2014 and there could be no possibility of using his influence to secure the deal. The law, however, prevents ministers from owning shares in companies, especially those working with the public sector, and questions were raised about whether Flambouraris terminated his involvement before taking office. The minister produced the paperwork he claimed proved he had done so, but the fact that he followed an unusual legal procedure raised fresh suspicions.

Tsipras, though, backed him throughout the whole affair, as he had done with another cabinet member, Giorgos Katrougalos, when he was accused of a conflict of interest earlier this year. It emerged that through his law office Katrougalos had taken on the cases of civil servants trying to get their public sector jobs back and – a few months later – he took up a position in the cabinet, first as alternate interior minister and later as labour minister, from where he could draft legislation that could return these clients to work. Katrougalos claimed he severed links with his law firm when he became a minister, but the inappropriateness of him taking a cabinet position in which – at worst – he could favour his former colleagues could not be disguised.

Tsipras has had several chances to show that he is committed to maintaining high ethical standards but at each turn over the last months he has eschewed these opportunities. His failure to establish a Plimsoll line beneath which he is not willing to allow his government to sink means that in the few months he has been prime minister he has already given the impression that anything goes. If this is the message coming from the top, if Tsipras is not able to get his own house in order, then he cannot claim to represent something new. In fact, it feels very much like a case of the same old story.

*This article appeared in last week's e-newsletter, which is available to subscribers. More information on subscriptions is available here.

You can follow Nick on Twitter: @NickMalkoutzis

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