Scandal-plagued Greeks shrug off corruption

April 29, 2009

Bombarded with revelations of scandals for decades, Greeks have developed a slightly thick skin regarding graft. An opinion poll this week showed corruption was rated fifth among top voter
concerns, coming after the global economic crisis, education, crime and health.

Fed up with years of socialist scandals, Greeks elected the conservative New Democracy government by a landslide in 2004, mostly convinced by its pledges to clean up Greek politics.

Five years later, fresh scandals have made headlines, ranging from selling overpriced government bonds to state pension funds to suspect land deals with a wealthy monastery.

The euro zone member is among the EU’s lowest ranking countries on the Transparency International corruption watchdog’s index, actually worsening a few notches in recent years.

New Democracy, clinging to a one-seat majority in parliament after a narrow re-election in Sept 2008, trails the main socialist PASOK opposition by up to 7 percentage points in opinion polls.

Violent riots in December, partly fuelled by the financial crisis, and unpopular economic measures have prompted talk of a snap election – possibly as early as June 7, along with the European Parliament vote.

“Greeks appear fed up but they are more sophisticated than other Westerners when it comes to political corruption – they don’t seem to mind if the amounts are small but they take offence if they are big,” said a western diplomat in Athens.

Greeks regularly complain about low level graft but appear to have accepted it. They have even invented an expression for the small bribes they often have to put in a public servant’s palm to get things done -”grigorossimo”, meaning fast-stamp.

But the latest wave of political scandals has exasperated even some die-hard New Democracy supporters. At barber shops, cafes and restaurants around the country, the conversation inevitably revolves around political corruption but most agree little can be done under the existing political system.

In the latest case to reach parliament, lawmakers must decide next week whether a former shipping minister must stand trial after charges by a shipowner that he was asked for bribes in order to be awarded lucrative Aegean island ferry routes.

For the conservative deputies, the choice is between appearing determined to fight corruption and showing a solid front, fending off the prospect of early elections. For opposition parties, it’s a chance to eat away at the government’s public support.

Analysts say voters are disillusioned, unconvinced politicians from both major parties really mean to clean up house and this is reflected in opinion polls. Only 14.7 percent of those asked by the GPO polling agency said scandals was a top priority.

“No politician ever goes to jail,” wrote commentator Filipos Syrigos in the liberal Eleftherotypia daily. “Scandals are only a political playing field … until the Greek people really get fed up and look for their own way out.”

(Employees sit behind a stand with souvenirs at a shop for tourists in Plaka neighbourhood in central Athens March 31, 2009. Recession-hit Europeans are trimming travel plans and their absence threatens a vital source of income in a country that relies on tourism for about one in five jobs. Holiday bookings fell about 15 to 20 percent from 2008, according to the Pan-Hellenic Federation of Tourism Enterprises (POET). Hotels have slashed prices to counter the drop, hoping wary consumers may push spending decisions to the last moment. Photo taken March 31, 2009. To match feature GREECE-TOURISM/ REUTERS/John Kolesidis (GREECE TRAVEL SOCIETY BUSINESS))

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