Greece: Blank TV screens and a blank reform agenda

The decision to shut down the public broadcaster split the government and signified a departure point in Greek politics.

Most Greeks have opposed the government's move to shut down the national broadcaster, ERT [AFP]

Last month, New Democracy, the biggest partner in Greece’s ruling three-party coalition, took the unexpected decision to cease operation of the country’s national broadcaster, ERT. Within a day, all broadcasting stopped and a blank screen was displayed in its stead.

The move was intended to display the government’s bravado in dealing with the unions, to display its assertiveness in public-sector reform and to capitalise on anger against the perceived corruption and ineffectiveness of everything public in Greece. But the political calculus behind the decision was flawed, and it threw the government into a crisis.

The move did not go down well with the public. A wave of protest and solidarity erupted in Athens in opposition to the decision, and the latest polls show that a full two-thirds of the electorate opposes it. New Democracy’s coalition partners – PASOK and the Democratic Left – issued stern warnings and indicated that government stability would be threatened if New Democracy insisted on going through with its decision. They claimed, with considerable merit, that the decision was illegal, since it was issued with a legal mechanism reserved for passing emergency measures and did not have the entire cabinet’s approval.

But New Democracy refused to back down, asserting that the broadcaster’s closure was a necessity: First, the Troika – comprised of the IMF, European Commission, and the European Central Bank – mandated layoffs in the public sector. Second, corruption within ERT made reform impossible; a clean slate was required. After many sharp exchanges and a media firestorm, the Supreme Court decided that the decision was illegal and ordered ERT reopened until a new broadcaster takes its place.

The decision vindicated the coalition’s minority parties. After much wrangling, New Democracy refused to back down and the Democratic Left withdrew from the government, refusing to ratify what it considered an illegal decision.

New Democracy’s hypocrisy

There is a large measure of hypocrisy in New Democracy’s decision. ERT was indeed mired in corruption and its all-powerful unions protected their interests at the expense of the public. But successive governments, left and right, were complicit in this, using the broadcaster as a political device for patronage. After the closure, the former news director of ERT wrote a blistering letter to the prime minister outlining specific abuses his party had engaged in.

The crisis could have forced the coalition partners into closer cooperation … instead, petty squabbling led to a weakened government which will have difficulty passing measures in the new fiscal year, likely leading to early elections and prolonged instability.

Among those were appointments of non-qualified party loyalists to key positions, scandalous sinecures, and attempts to intervene in news reporting to serve the government’s agenda. Furthermore, just 18 days before the decision to close down ERT, New Democracy had appointed loyalists of all three parties to the board of ET3, one of the three channels operated by ERT.

It is one thing to aim for reform and fail. It is another to use public anger to shut down institutions that the government itself not only has failed to reform, but has corrupted further. If the unions share part of the blame, so does the political leadership for not devising a long-term plan to address these problems, letting them fester instead and buying votes in the process.

These developments highlight a wider trend in the way reform – or the pretense of it – is carried out in Greece. The political modus operandi goes something like this: The Troika proposes measures of varying harshness and popularity. The government drags its feet and, depending on the issue, attempts to negotiate while currying favour with various special interests that oppose reform. When things come to a head, there is some sort of crisis.

The minority partners are not absolved of all blame. PASOK, formerly one of the two biggest parties in Greece and an all-powerful political machine, has seen its popularity plummet from 40 percent to about 7 percent. Fearing that a reform-minded agenda will undermine whatever is left of its strongholds in the public sector, PASOK dodges contentious political decisions and constantly attempts to square the need for reform with maintaining what popularity it still has with its traditional base, the public sector and the unions. The Democratic Left is in a similar quandary. Fearing it will lose votes to the radical left, it merely tries to control the media cycle by issuing vague and half-hearted statements. Both parties lack a clear, long-term political agenda.

It should be no surprise, then, that both those parties, along with New Democracy, have signed an agreement with the Troika that mandates public-sector layoffs. New Democracy asserted that the coalition government couldn’t achieve any, and this is what the majority partner was willing to do with or without them. The minor partners neither had a proposal as to how that goal could be achieved, nor proposed a realistic alternative for ERT. They merely stalled and complained, presenting an image of being strong-armed by the prime minister’s party.

A familiar pattern

This pattern is not new in the country’s political life – it has repeated itself many times over. But it could only last as long as external pressure kept a lid on dissent. Sooner or later, a secondary issue would emerge in which Greece’s European partners exerted no influence and the differences between the coalition partners would burst into the open. 

Inside Story – Greece: Embattled but defiant

The closure of ERT is exactly such an instance, and highlights the fault lines within Greece’s government. It is a coalition of the lowest common denominator, formed to gather enough votes to pass measures that satisfy the criteria for the country’s external funding to continue. But a true coalition government’s purpose is to form a broader social platform enabling measures to pass in parliament with the widest possible social acceptance. If there is no genuine consensus, a crisis is bound to erupt when international pressure is absent.

The decision to shut down ERT backfired in a way commensurate with the amateur way it was planned and executed, putting considerable strain on government cohesion. In the wake of the Democratic Left’s withdrawal, the government is scrambling to reshuffle, but there are open questions.

The Democratic Left could have negotiated further with New Democracy to publicly pressure it, but it abruptly chose to withdraw instead. It is worth asking whether ERT was the true reason that Democratic Left withdrew, or whether it was trying to find an excuse to do so. For its part, New Democracy is asserting that Democratic Left’s ministers were stalling, implausibly insinuating that the minority partner was the true obstacle to ERT’s reform.

This crisis signified a departure point in Greek politics. The government had gone a long way in stabilising the country, but a new modus vivendi was needed. The crisis could have forced the coalition partners into closer cooperation, with genuine consensus-seeking mechanisms in place, to pass reforms and see the country through this difficult time.

Unfortunately, this didn’t happen. Instead, petty squabbling lead to a weakened government that will have difficulty passing measures in the new fiscal year, likely leading to early elections and prolonged instability.

Nicolas Katsaounis is a Greek blogger and commentator. He has previously worked in various political research capacities for the Greek media and holds a Masters degree in international affairs from Columbia University.