There's always next season

Agora Contributor: Nick Malkoutzis
Photo by Panayotis Tzamaros/Fosphotos
Photo by Panayotis Tzamaros/Fosphotos

A stale parliamentary debate that rarely stayed on topic seemed a good way to wrap up another disappointing political season in Greece.

Monday’s discussion was meant to be about the June 15 Eurogroup agreement, but it is doubtful if any Greeks emerged much the wiser about their immediate and longer-term futures from following the exchanges between the government and the opposition, which lasted more than seven hours.

Much of the time was taken up by arguments about unrelated issues, such as Defence Minister Panos Kammenos’s apparent intervention in a major drug smuggling case and comments made by New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis regarding leftist violence.

Amid the noise, though, none of the participants were able to provide a convincing picture of how they imagine Greece progressing from this point onwards. In fact, the whole debate looked backwards rather than forwards. This was not a discussion about who has the best ideas to lift the country out of the mire, but about who had inflicted the most damage and pain upon the Greeks so far.

The opposition pretends as if Greek history began in January 2015, when SYRIZA and Independent Greeks (ANEL) first came to power, and that the causes of today's problems do not lie in previous decades or even the first years under the EU-IMF programmes. The coalition behaves as if the situation it inherited was so bad that nothing it has done could have made things worse, but Wednesday marked the two-year anniversary of the referendum and serves as a reminder of much worse things could have become.

The arguments put forward by both sides are patently untrue and discussing them is a waste of time. What matters now for Greece is to look ahead and ensure that every opportunity to recover and heal the wounds is taken.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has been forced to adjust his narrative repeatedly since last year because of the way in which the nature of the negotiations with the lenders changed but also due to the government’s inability to secure the key goals it set, such as a definitive deal on debt relief and inclusion into the European Central Bank’s QE programme.

What Tsipras is now offering to the Greek people are the leftovers, rather than a vision to feed hope for a better tomorrow. Market access, economic growth, further reforms and programme exit are important steps given the depressing journey Greece has been on since 2010 but they are also the bare minimum given the scale and impact of the adjustment that has been made over the last seven years.

Tsipras and his government have very little to say when it comes to shaping contemporary Greece beyond the confines of the programme with progressive or ground-breaking policies in areas such as the business environment, education and innovation.

Mitsotakis and New Democracy are streets ahead of SYRIZA on such issues. The conservative leader has shown that although he has a tendency to flatter to deceive, he has a much better understanding of the private sector and the requirements of a modern education system, as well as the links between the two, than his rival.

The opposition chief, though, has yet to give a convincing response as to how he would be able to implement his planned tax cuts when this would have to be combined with fiscal targets and levels of debt relief that Greece’s lenders are clearly not willing to discuss. Also, the idea put forward by New Democracy that significant fiscal space could be created by slashing waste in the public sector but leaving jobs and pensions untouched does not stand up to any serious scrutiny.

It will take something much more persuasive and inspired to lift the public mood. The successive years of job losses, economic hardship, fiscal discipline, false dawns and broken promises mean that disaffection in Greece is not the result of just what has happened over the last couple of years. It runs much deeper than that.

The recent edition of Pew Research’s Global Attitudes Survey indicated that 98 percent of Greeks view their country’s economic situation as “bad.” This figure was unrivalled in the advanced or developing countries surveyed and 46 points above the global median. Just 21 percent of Greeks believe that their children will be better off financially.

Despite all this, though, Greece has a chance to put the worst of the crisis behind it. This time next year, the discussion could be about leaving the bailout programme, the implementation of debt relief measures, growth and investment. Of course, there will still be immense challenges ahead: the fiscal targets for the decades to come will be demanding, if not completely out-of-reach, and it will take many years for unemployment to drop to pre-crisis levels.

However, given the deep, dark hole that Greece has been stuck in for almost a decade, it represents the closest thing to hope that we can expect. It will be up to the country’s decision makers to capitalise on this potential change in fortune and use it to lift everyone out of their personal despair. To do this, though, they will have to display much more vision, determination and mastery than was on display in Parliament on Monday. The next political season has to be better.

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