Two years ago, George Papandreou was elected on a message most succinctly defined by his trademark slogan “Η αλλάζουμε ή βουλιάζουμε” (We are either going to change everything or we are going to sink). His Obama-like campaign was promising change, transparency and knocking down the corrupted Greek welfare system nurtured by his own father, Andreas Papandreou.
But while a week can be a lifetime in international politics, 104 weeks, it turns out, can by no means guarantee transformation when it comes to policy, performance and most importantly, implementation in Greece. On the second anniversary of his election, Mr. Papandreou is busy with unpleasant confrontations with a reality that clearly agrees with the second part of his pre-election trademark slogan as Greece is slowly sinking instead of changing. And with the plan B being Mr. Samara’s irresponsible populist propaganda against the EU-backed reforms, it’s almost scary to imagine the second act of this modern day Greek tragedy-the sad tale of promises made that cannot be kept.
After two years of governance, Greece’s Prime Minister is ideal for the central character of his country’s drama, who however well-meaning, is brought down by hubris and ends up running around having to beg European leaders for billions of euros in emergency loans. But how did the lifelong socialist and for many, Greece’s only hope to kill the Balkan tiger within and become a modern European country ended up looking at banners demanding “George go home” (a reference to his birthplace in America) right from his office window in the parliament? What has or hasn’t changed after Papandreou’s two years governance anniversary?
1. Read those lips-taxes, taxes and …taxes
From fuel and tobacco, to alcohol, food, property, tickets and car insurance the so-called Greek socialist government increased or added fourteen (!) taxes in two years forcing some 70% of households to cut back spending on basic foods and healthcare. The reason: Greek administration cannot collect taxes. Tax dodging has long been a way of life in Greece. The Federation of Greek Industries has estimated that the government may be losing as much as $30 billion a year to tax evasion — a figure that would have gone a long way to solving its financial woes. While Papandreou’s administration is well aware of the fact that that the most aggressive tax evaders, are the self-employed including taxi drivers, restaurant owners and electricians, but also doctors, engineers, architects and lawyers, Greek tax authorities seem unable or unwilling to target them and collect taxes so the Ministry of Finance “technocrats” for once again went for the easy way out: they taxed civil servants, pensioners and private sector employees. No change here.
2. Still waiting for the development
In 2009 George Papandreou-just like Antonis Samaras does now- kept talking about the development of economy through investments claiming that “There’s money” (λεφτά υπάρχουν). Two years later with the Greek economy in free fall, Greece generating the growth to produce the needed budgetary surplus to start paying down its debt sounds like a lame joke. Papandreou’s deeply unpopular government seems paralyzed and has yet to raise a single euro from fresh privatizations and structural reforms. Liberalizing reforms for over 150 “closed shop” professions -including lawyers, architects, pharmacists and public notaries- which are blamed for stunting Greece’s economic growth are basically moving as slow as a snail and still haven’t materialized despite government officials reassuring Troika that they will liberalize the market every time they want to secure the next bailout trench.
3. Jobless and hopeless
From promising fat-cat economy growth and more jobs back in 2009, George Papandreou ended up applying barbaric austerity policies that deepened the recession and led to more job cuts, pushing the jobless rate to hit a new record in the second quarter of 2011. According to Bloomberg data the quarterly jobless rate has risen for eight straight quarters. One in five women is unemployed, compared with 13.7 percent for men. Almost half of the unemployed in the country have been without work for a year or more with Macedonia and Thrace being affected the most. And the social deterioration is bound to get worse as lately, the national blues are related to a worrying trend that shakes Greek society to its core: suicides. From being the country with the lowest suicide rate in the EU, warm and sunny Greece has seen its suicidal rate for men doubled. The overall suicide rate has risen to 4 in 100,000 people, from 3 per 100,000 in 2008. Greek health experts have now reached the conclusion that there must be a link between the Greek financial crisis and the increase of suicide rate in the country.
4. It’s the public sector stupid!
In October 2009 Deputy Prime Minister Theodoros Pagalos was determined to push the public administration reform and cut many state jobs as he counted profligate spending and expansion of the public sector the main reason Greece’s economy has been hugely uncompetitive. Two years and countless interviews later, nothing has changed. Greece is still burdened by a bloated public sector that accounts for 40% of GDP and the endless talks about the closing down of unprofitable entities still remain only on papers. “The state is the ‘sick man’ and will have to be transformed into a state of law, one that will exercise its executive powers and be flexible; facilitating development, innovation and entrepreneurship,” Prime Minister stated two years ago, but so far butchering civil servants’ wages is the only “reform” his government has implemented on the “hard core public sector”.
5. The National Healthcare system (still) in the intensive care unit
Two years after promising to modernise the Greek National Health-care System (ΕΣΥ)-created by his own father back in the 80’s-Papandreou’s government has brought the core values of the Greek National Health System under threat as never before. Papandreou hasn’t implemented any of the srtuctural reforms he wanted.The system is still funded through payroll taxes, general tax revenue and- of course- bribery, while open-ended provider payment systems, the absence of a referral system and family doctor system, and the uncoordinated public-private provider mix still remain untouched.
The centralized system is literally breaking down as it faces the biggest financial challenge in its history as a result of the Greek economic downturn.”Socialists” keep cuting services to patients, closing and merging hospitals despite the fact that Greek hospitals run at even higher bed occupancy due to the crisis. While everyone agrees that public spending should be squeezed by reducing wasted resources and inefficiency, it is a common place that the National Health care system should be given top priority. Shutting down hospitals does not appear to make much sense, except as cost reduction which doesn’t sound very socialistic- in fact it is completely unethical.And with the Greek state still spending tons of money to preserve useless overcrowded public organisations but at the same denying its citizens the right to have health care, Greece has turned from a state of law to a state of pure absurdity!
Papandreou’s education policy results are controversial. While the Minister of Education Anna Diamantpoulou brought an admittedly well designed bill on third grade-education on which both (!) the governing socialists and opposition conservatives agreed, Greek first and second grade education students were distributed with photocopies instead of books as government bureaucracy hit for once more humiliating the Greek socialist ruling party and causing outrage to Greek people.
Greece has always been a country that fostered riots and Athenians are accustomed of central avenues being blocked due to riots, demonstrations and union strikes. But the past two years fierce fighting eruption outside the Greek parliament has become a daily routine. Every time MPs vote on some new hard-hitting policy demanded by the EU and IMF, Syntagma square becomes a battleground between frustrated protesters -who no longer include just union leaders condemning the government’s policies, but a broader collection of people, mostly young- and riot police.
Countless rioters have been injured, with many suffering serious respiratory problems due to Greek police’s obsession with firing teargas. The high levels of toxic chemicals released in the air even led Amnesty International (!) to criticize Greek Police for its tactics and Papandreou’s government to apologize for the overzealous use of force. And if the Greek economy won’t recover any time soon, the mood on Syntagma Square is doomed to turn even uglier.
8. Kallikratis-the end of an era
Kallikratis administrative reform has been one of the few reforms that PASOK did actually materialize. In 2010, one of the most decisive, dynamic and controversial ministers, Yannis Ragousis, current Minister of Trasnportation then Minister of Internal Affairs , brought the legislation to parliament claiming that Kallikratis would signal the end of an era for the most centralised state of Europe and the start of a new course. Ragoussis much needed reform would devolve power from the centre while abolishing 4,500 of some 6,000 (!) municipal enterprises after the merger of municipalities saving up to two billion euros a year. However, the ambitious reform hasn’t been effective as it requires improved use of technical, administrative and economic services impossibleto be provided right now due to lack of cash.
9. Immigrants’ vote, a “historical change”
The controversial law that gave municipal voting rights, and the possibility of being city council candidates, to legal migrants from non-EU countries was also brought by Mr. Ragousis who characterized the vote of long-term legal residents in municipal elections as “historic”. Opposition leader Antonis Samaras hit out at the move as lengthening voters’ rolls by 250 000 names, arguing that Papandreou gave migrants a municipal vote in the belief that they would return back the favour.
10. Green dreams
Papandreou’s pre-election green dreams took the back seat as the country’s monetary woes mounted. From the original proposal to transform the former Hellinikon International Airport of Athens into a Metropolitan Green Park, the government is now desperately seeking investors to turn the space to a commercial venture that includes casinos and resorts. And while Greece has one of the highest rates of car ownership Per capita, the government encourages people to buy new cars! At the same time in Thessaloniki, Chania and other Greek cities there still are only a handful of recycling stations while those who wish to recycle their plastic bottles are forced to carry them into the cities’ central squares and place them in a 4m2 green box!