Has Venize­los got what it takes?

Kathimerini English - - Comment -

It’s a fea­ture of pol­i­tics at its Machi­avel­lian best that even the worst of en­e­mies can end up re­ly­ing on each other for sur­vival. So it was on Thurs­day, when Prime Min­is­ter Ge­orge Pa­pan­dreou called on his one­time bit­ter ri­val Evan­ge­los Venize­los to take on the huge task of steer­ing Greece through the eco­nomic cri­sis. Venize­los has craved in­flu­ence and at­ten­tion for years but as fi­nance min­is­ter at this par­tic­u­lar junc­ture, he may find that get­ting what he wished for wasn’t worth the wait. The Thes­sa­loniki MP and for­mer de­fense min­is­ter should be aware of the dan­gers of be­ing thrust into the spot­light when the tim­ing is not quite right. His re­cent po­lit­i­cal ca­reer has been de­fined by a mo­ment of po­lit­i­cal op­por­tunism that went badly wrong. Fol­low­ing a dis­as­trous show­ing for PASOK in the gen­eral elec­tion on Septem­ber 16, 2007, Venize­los at­tempted to usurp Pa­pan­dreou as party leader. Even be­fore the fi­nal re­sults were in, he headed to Zappeio Hall in cen­tral Athens, where the PASOK chief had min­utes ear­lier con­ceded de­feat, to an­nounce he was launch­ing a lead­er­ship chal­lenge. Venize­los wanted it to look like a bold move but he made his an­nounce­ment stand­ing in the dark out­side the con­fer­ence room in the midst of a scrum of jour­nal­ists. It looked des­per­ate rather than de­ci­sive. It sent out all the wrong mes­sages to the party faith­ful, who ul­ti­mately de­cided to stick with what they knew and to trust in the Pa­pan­dreou name, on which PASOK was founded. Venize­los was routed in the lead­er­ship elec­tion two months later and had to slink out of the spot­light. In what must have been a frus­trat­ing cou­ple of years for a smart and ar­tic­u­late politi­cian, Venize­los had to bite his tongue and put aside his per­sonal am­bi­tions as he watched Pa­pan­dreou move closer to of­fice thanks to the grow­ing in­com­pe­tence and in­ef­fi­ciency of the New Democ­racy gov­ern­ment. Venize­los main­tained a base of sup­port within the party but PASOK’s clear vic­tory in the Euro­pean elec­tions in the sum­mer of 2009 put paid to any chances of a full-blown re­bel­lion. Pa­pan­dreou led PASOK to a re­sound­ing vic­tory in the Novem­ber 2009 gen­eral elec­tion and skill­fully solved the prob­lem of what to do with Venize­los by mak­ing him de­fense min­is­ter – giv­ing him a sig­nif­i­cant port­fo­lio but not one that would give him the kind of pub­lic and me­dia plat­form to launch broad­sides at the PM. Given his past his­tory as an out­spo­ken and bloody-minded mem­ber of gov­ern­ment, Venize­los has been re­mark­ably re­strained over the past cou­ple of years. He has re­served his strong­est crit­i­cism for cabi­net meet­ings, where he of­ten voiced op­po­si­tion to his pre­de­ces­sor’s fis­cal pol­icy. In the last cou­ple of weeks, though, Venize­los had be­come more prom­i­nent, ap­par­ently crit­i­ciz­ing Pa­pan­dreou’s lead­er­ship but then back­track­ing. The me­dia cov­er­age of his views on the econ­omy also in­creased. It was a byprod­uct of the pub­lic anger about the aus­ter­ity mea­sures be­ing adopted and the opin­ion polls show­ing sup­port for PASOK plum­met­ing. Venize­los dis­tanced him­self from moves by MPs over the last few weeks to chal­lenge both Pa­pan­dreou and Pa­pa­con­stanti­nou, but it’s clear that these re­volts were in­stru­men­tal in forc­ing Pa­pan­dreou’s hand, first to make a clumsy at­tempt to co­op­er­ate with ND and then to an­nounce a reshuf­fle. Re­ports sug­gest Venize­los was not first choice as Pa­pan­dreou would have pre­ferred a non­po­lit­i­cal fig­ure but when he had to turn to his po­lit­i­cal per­son­nel, there were few can­di­dates more ex­pe­ri­enced than the 54-year-old, who had served in five dif­fer­ent min­is­te­rial posts. This gives Venize­los a dis­tinct ad­van­tage over his pre­de­ces­sor and any tech­no­crat that might have taken up the po­si­tion, be­cause it means he knows how the Greek po­lit­i­cal sys­tem works. One of Pa­pa­con­stanti­nou’s weak­nesses was that he was never able to com­mu­ni­cate his poli­cies prop­erly with his col­leagues, MPs and the pub­lic. This is a mis­take that Venize­los is un­likely to make. Equally, as an ac­tive mem­ber of the party since 1990, he will have a cer­tain amount of good will among PASOK’s par­lia­men­tary group. Pa­pa­con­stanti­nou had burned all his bridges with the cen­ter-left deputies by fail­ing to give them the sense that he was tak­ing on board their views. The truth is that once Greece signed up for the 110-bil­lioneuro bailout from the Euro­pean Union and the In­ter­na­tional Mon­e­tary Fund last year, the de­ci­sion-mak­ing process was never one open to much de­lib­er­a­tion or de­bate. Nev­er­the­less, it is one of the skills of a politi­cian to make peo­ple feel that their opin­ion counts, even if it ul­ti­mately has no im­pact. This is a tech­nique that Venize­los should be ca­pa­ble of ap­ply­ing. Sig­nif­i­cantly, in his first in­ter­view since be­ing ap­pointed, Venize­los showed an ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the prob­lems the gov­ern­ment has faced con­vinc­ing its own mem­bers and the pub­lic that it is on the right track. “We need to let peo­ple know there is a be­gin­ning, mid­dle and end to this,” he told Mega TV on Fri­day. The im­por­tance of draw­ing a clear roadmap for the exit from the cri­sis should not be un­der­es­ti­mated if the ma­jor­ity of Greeks are go­ing to stick with the aus­ter­ity mea­sures. Main­tain­ing in­ter­nal sup­port is one thing; achiev­ing the tar­gets Greece has been set to qual­ify for its loans is an­other. Some doubt Venize­los has the knowl­edge to tackle this prob­lem given that he is a con­sti­tu­tional lawyer, not an econ­o­mist. But there are those who’d ar­gue Greece doesn’t need an econ­o­mist to point out that it needs to down­size its pub­lic sec­tor, im­prove tax col­lec­tion and at­tract pri­vate in­vestors. What it needs is some­one to get the job done. In his farewell speech to his De­fense Min­istry col­leagues, Venize­los aptly said, “I’m leav­ing de­fense to join a real battle.” There are con­cerns that Venize­los (and his new deputy, Pan­telis Economou, who has been pulled in from the So­cial­ists’ more tra­di­tional, pop­ulist wing) will not have the con­vic­tion to push through the tough mea­sures. There are also doubts whether, de­spite his knowl­edge of French and time study­ing in Paris, he will be able to tune into the same wave­length as his EU coun­ter­parts and the IMF of­fi­cials that will keep push­ing for re­forms in Greece. What’s cer­tain is that if Venize­los fails in any of these tasks, he will be pushed into the shad­ows per­ma­nently and Pa­pan­dreou will go with him. It would be a tragic fi­nal twist to their ri­valry but the pain would be felt by more than just the two of them.

Newly ap­pointed Fi­nance Min­is­ter Evan­ge­los Venize­los (l) and out­go­ing Fi­nance Min­is­ter Ge­orge Pa­pa­con­stanti­nou at the swearing-in cer­e­mony of the new gov­er­ment on June 17.

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