Out with the old, in with the old
Perhaps more so than its promises about debt reduction, its ambitious targets for welfare spending and its abstract pledge to restore pride, what swung it for SYRIZA back in January 2015, when it first came to power, was the hope that it would represent something new.
While many Greeks were swept up by the unsubstantiated promises that another viable (and painless) option to the bailout programmes was available, the relatively small segment of voters that tends to decide elections in Greece was attracted to SYRIZA because they felt that, if nothing else, Alexis Tsipras and his party represented a break with the past.
Tsipras would be one of the few prime ministers of the last decades that was not the son, nephew, cousin, etc of a previous leader. At the same time, New Democracy and PASOK had failed to convince Greeks after five years that they were capable of getting the country out of the crisis that they had been largely responsible for creating.
By 2015, there was no sign that either of the two main parties were interested in tackling chronic problems like corruption and the lack of meritocracy. “Why not give the young guy a go?” was the thought pattern followed by many of those that handed SYRIZA victory in January 2015 not having voted for the party previously.
Now, more than 18 months later, these voters are likely to be feeling a strong sense of disappointment and betrayal. SYRIZA has done little to increase transparency or to take on vested interests. The overriding impression is that it is simply swapping the corrupt ties of the past with questionable ones of its own. In other words, it is more focussed on engaging in regime change than breathing new life into the country.
The recent auction for TV broadcasting licences is an example of this tendency. The coalition promoted it as an attempt to regulate a sector that previous governments had shamefully let operate with a quasi-legal status that left it open to shady deals. The reality of the situation, though, is that the government set no other significant criteria than who was able to pay the highest price for the new licences.
Had thorough financial checks on each of the bidders been carried out, for instance, the government could have at least argued that it ensured the money invested was from legitimate sources and the new broadcasting era was starting with a clean slate. Instead, according to reports this week, the financial backgrounds of the successful bidders were not checked thoroughly. In fact, one of the firms (headed by the son of a construction firm owner seen as having close ties to SYRIZA) that won a permit was found not to have the money it pledged in any bank account. Instead, the owner reportedly listed in his financial data a large expanse of grazing land on the island of Ithaca that is owned by a friend who agreed that it could be sold to raise funds if needed.
This bidder also received his letter of guarantee, granting him the right to take part in the tender, from Attica Bank, a small non-systemic lender that found itself at the heart of controversy this week because the Bank of Greece supervisory board blocked the government-supported nominations for the top jobs at the lender.
The central bank’s decision was accompanied by a raid on the offices of a company owned by the wife of the Bank of Greece’s Governor Yannis Stournaras. Anti-corruption prosecutors raided the property as part of an investigation into the alleged mismanagement of funds at the Hellenic Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (KEELPNO). Stournaras’s wife owns a communications firm that was part of a consortium that won a tender in 2011 to organise a cancer awareness campaign for KEELPNO.
An investigation carried out by state inspectors in 2015 suggested that Stavroula Nikolopoulou-Stournara’s company (Mindwork Business Solutions) should not have been eligible for the tender because of past convictions regarding unpaid social security contributions. She has denied this was the case and insisted in a recent letter to Health Minister Andreas Xanthos that her only offense was to fail to pay personal contributions to the retailers’ pension fund in 1981, when she was a student.
Whatever the details of the case, the fact that the state inspectors delivered their report in December, anti-corruption prosecutor Eleni Raikou ordered a preliminary judicial probe in April but Mindwork’s offices were only raided in September, on the same day that the Bank of Greece impeded the appointment of candidates who had the government’s blessing to the board of Attica Bank raises serious suspicions about what prompted Thursday’s intervention.
It could perhaps have been passed off as a coincidence if the government had not built up a history of contempt for independent authorities. Coming so soon in the wake of the coalition’s initial attempt to capitalise on the suspicion created by the latest case against the former head of the Hellenic Statistical Authority (ELSTAT), Andreas Georgiou, Thursday’s events will only harden lenders’ scepticism about the coalition’s motives and strengthen their resolve to hold it accountable for its decisions.
If the government continues on its current path, soon people will look back on SYRIZA’s greatest failure as being not its naivety or lack of competence but that it did not represent anything new; that it was as bad as those who went before.
*You can follow Nick on Twitter: @NickMalkoutzis
There is a growing sense in Germany that the German system is failing. It has not yet dawned on most that excessive exports are a sign of weakness and not strength because it makes a country dependent on external customers. But the tremors are now being felt by the finest financial analysts in the world: ordinary people who work for a living and need their paychecks to survive. The political base of modern Germany is crumbling, and as in Britain with Brexit, it will be dismissed as the work of the irresponsible proles.