You know the American saying that “Money talks, and BS walks?” Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras must have picked it up during his years at Amherst College where he was a one-time roommate of a guy named George Papandreou, who won the office first.
Now Samaras is taking a page from the Papandreou Handbook of How To Win An Election. Papandreou, the former PASOK Anti-Socialist leader, was on the verge of seeing himself ousted six years ago by his chief rival, Evangelos Venizelos who rightfully pointed out that Papandreou had lost two straight to New Democracy Capitalist leader Costas “The Invisible Man” Karamanlis who was such a lightweight he had to wear tie shoes so he wouldn’t float out of the room.
Then in 2009 Papandreou, who beat back a challenge from Venizelos, wised up. He promised Greeks “The money is there,” just like his father, former premier and PASOK founder Andreas Papandreou had four decades earlier, then proceeding to hire anyone who voted for him.
That helped create today’s crushing economic crisis in Greece but that’s another story. The ever-gullible Greeks bought the pitch hook, line and sinker but within a year Papandreou had to go hat-in-hand to the International Monetary Fund for a bailout because he found out Karamanlis had cooked the books and Greece was broke.
Hounded out of office in 2011 in the wake of relentless protests, strikes and riots against austerity measures he imposed on orders of international lenders, Papandreou opened the way for Samaras win the 2012 elections.
Samaras has been dogged by protests too because he’s kept to the line of pay cuts, tax hikes, slashed pensions and worker firings he opposed when Papandreou was in office, but weary Greeks have mostly been going through the motions, knowing nothing will change.
But New Democracy, like PASOK – which has fallen from 44 percent of the vote in 2009 to between 3-5 percent under Venizelos, who is Deputy Premier/Foreign Minister in Samaras’ coalition government – has taken a beating in the polls too.
Samaras, in the second election in 2012 that brought him to power, won 29.66 percent while the runner-up Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) had 26.89 percent, a miniscule difference of only 2.77 percent.
But because of a peculiarity in Greek election law, New Democracy was rewarded for finishing first with 50 extra seats in Parliament, giving it 129 to SYRIZA’s 71. Samaras had to form a coalition with PASOK and the Democratic Left (DIMAR) which left last year and has since vanished in the polls.
And Samaras, seeing New Democracy take a hit with critical May elections approaching for the European Parliament and Greek elections, pulled a Boss Tweed, the 19th Century New York Democratic politician who essentially bought elections with patronage and power.
In the last two months, Samaras has moved to buy the May vote too, with a series of sweet moves that Greeks are buying again because politicians know voters are bigger suckers than people who buy anything from a TV shopping network.
He said Greece, in the seventh year of a deep recession, had miraculously achieved a primary surplus of 1.5 billion euros and he would return 70 percent of it to austerity victims – including low-income pensioners and a New Democracy core constituency of the police, military and emergency personnel workers who already have better benefits than most civil servants.
It’s a mirage really because the primary surplus doesn’t include interest on $430 billion in debt, including the $330 billion owed the Troika of the European Union-International Monetary Fund-European Central Bank (EU-IMF-ECB) for two bailouts.
It also doesn’t include the cost of running Greek cities and towns, state enterprises, social security and some military expenditures, which means you have a primary surplus too if you don’t count what you owe for your mortgage, credit cards, loans, car payment, insurance and utilities.
But Greeks believe it, even though he has since said he’ll return only 500 million euros instead of 1.05 billion euros, half what he promised and that it would go to five million people, almost half the population.
That works out to 500 euros per person and the low-income pensioners are about to see a 25 percent cut in their auxiliary pensions, wiping out the election giveaway, and the courts have said he had to return the money to the military, police and emergency personnel anyway.
It worked and New Democracy has retaken a slim lead over SYRIZA, which isn’t as bad as it sounds because the Leftist leader Alexis Tsipras said if he comes to power he would revise the Troika deal or renege on it, which would leave Greece broke and unable to borrow.
Samaras’ strategy has also been to jail most of what’s left of the ultra-super-extremist far-far-to-the-right-of-Attila-the-Hun Golden Dawn, and plan to open party finances to scrutiny, allowing an audit of the money political parties take from the treasury and spend any way they want while borrowing more from banks and not repaying it.
So Samaras and New Democracy (and the PASOK hanger-ons) might win in May and last out its term until 2016, unless Greece goes bust in the meantime. Money may not be able to buy happiness but it can buy an election and that’s when Greeks will find out the cost is more than the price.