Nick Malkoutzis | If Novartis makes pills to combat nausea, they will have sold like hot cakes in Greece over the past few days. The decision earlier this month by an anti-corruption prosecutor to send to Parliament a case file that contained statements from three protected witnesses who accuse 10 politicians of accepting bribes from the Swiss pharmaceutical giant has unleashed all the negative and vomit-inducing elements that Greek politics has to offer.
Claims about “the biggest scandal since the formation of the Greek state” have been followed by, among others, a blatant disregard for the presumption of innocence, suggestion of interference in the judicial process, seemingly absurd allegations, disdain for the legal protection provided to whistleblowers, abuse and threats directed at the protected witnesses, criminal complaints against the country’s prime minister and serving ministers, claims of treason and charges that Greece is turning into something between Poland and Venezuela.
All of this was condensed (if that is the right word for something that last more than 20 hours) into Wednesday’s debate in Parliament, which resulted in a majority of MPs voting for the House to launch a preliminary judicial inquiry into the claims that as many as 10 politicians, including two ex-prime ministers, received cash to give Novartis preferential treatment in pricing and payment. To ensure the needle moved all the way from unedifying to unacceptable, the debate also included a bewildered ex-caretaker premier Panayiotis Pikrammenos tearing up as he spoke to MPs, and accusations being traded regarding the death of four-year-old child during a routine operation in 2015.
It is difficult to know where to begin with this affair, especially as the probe so far appears to have only scratched the surface. Also, the fact that so many politicians have become embroiled, triggering all-out war between the government and the opposition, means that giving the matter the analysis it deserves is virtually impossible.
The identity of some of those on the list certainly gives rise to suspicions that the coalition is either actively trying to tarnish its political opponents or to milk a flimsy case for all it is worth. If SYRIZA were to draw up a list of the political figures with which it has the most hostile relationship, former Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, ex-Deputy PM Evangelos Venizelos, New Democracy vice president Adonis Georgiadis, PASOK MP Andreas Loverdos and Bank of Greece governor Yannis Stournaras would certainly figure on it.
Equally, some of the claims, such as a top Novartis executive wheeling in a suitcase to the prime minister’s office in order to hand over a bundle of cash to Samaras – the occupant at the time – are so far-fetched they give the impression they have been hastily cobbled together just to create some noise.
It would be very convenient for Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who is searching for a new political narrative as Greece nears the end of its third and final programme, to be able to return to the “old vs new” cleavage that served him well in the September 2015 elections, when he was re-elected despite agreeing a new bailout after ineffective negotiations that cost Greece billions.
In fact, in his speeches to SYRIZA’s parliamentary group last week and the address to the House on Wednesday night. Tsipras claimed that getting to the bottom of the Novartis case is exactly the kind of thing Greeks voted the leftists into power to do. He again tried to portray his party as representing something new and untarnished, taking on the corrupt “old political system.”
However, the argument that the whole affair is a fix or a plot by the government cannot be based on conjecture or the existence of a clear motive. Just like the accusations against the 10 politicians named by the witnesses, it has to be backed up by facts and examined through the proper channels. One side cannot accuse the other of engaging in trial by public opinion and then do exactly the same thing. Both undermine the country’s institutions when they do this.
Perhaps the most convincing presentation in Parliament on Wednesday came from Stournaras, who has been accused in connection to the time he spent as finance minister between 2012 and 2014. He addressed each of the allegations against him (and his wife) and provided documentary evidence which he argues proves the claims are nonsense.
A purely verbal battle serves those who want to create enough suspicion so people deem the accused guilty before their case has even been heard and those who want to cover up their responsibilities behind the dust cloud kicked up by the warring parties.
However, amid this confusion and as we wait for the inquiry to begin (probably in order to send the case back to the judiciary for further investigation) certain observations are worth making.
The first is that the limitations created by the legal requirement for prosecutors to send case files to Parliament when the names of politicians crop up, without first substantiating claims against them, have been laid bare.
At the moment, there is no case against any of those accused other than the statements given by the three protected witnesses, some of which appear to be based on speculation and hearsay. That is how you end up with someone like Pikrammenos, who spent four decades as a top judge and stepped into the breach when Greece could not elect a government in 2012 amid a bank run, having to defend himself in public against accusations he lined his pockets during the 34 days he served as caretaker prime minister.
On the flip side, though, this system has often led to cases fizzling out after reaching Parliament. Despite pledges to change it in the past, New Democracy and PASOK have left it untouched – perhaps because they knew it offered them an extra layer of protection. It is worth remembering, for instance, that a parliamentary inquiry into defence spending several years ago did not find anything suspect about the actions of PASOK minister Akis Tsochatzopoulos. Several years later, though, he was convicted of money laundering after associates admitted accepting bribes during arms deals.
In his speech on Wednesday night, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras suggested a constitutional review so this law could be changed. If New Democracy and PASOK want to show that they are ready to break with the past, they should take the Greek premier up on his proposal and test whether he is genuinely committed to this idea or if he, too, is simply paying lip service to the ideas of transparency and accountability.
The issue of accountability should also trouble us regarding another aspect of what was discussed in Parliament. Many of those who took to the podium (at least those who had any role in deciding policy and controlling spending) highlighted their role in reducing expenditure (even though this was done as part of Greece’s bailout commitments) and all seemed to concur that there had been waste and overspending in healthcare in the previous years. Samaras, for instance, spoke of putting an end to the “party” in the healthcare sector when he was prime minister.
The accused served in office from at least from 2007 onwards so the implication of what was said by those who were ministers more recently is that they believe their predecessors overspent on medicines and may have been complicit in corruption. It should be noted that spending on pharmaceuticals in Greece shot up by roughly 80 percent between 2003 and 2009, with public coffers taking most of the strain.
If so many previous ministers and governments knew what had gone on, why did none of them try to hold anyone to account? If their predecessors were allowing pharmaceutical companies and doctors to “party” at the expense of taxpayers’ and patients’ why was there no effort to expose this?
If there is anything useful to come out of the Novartis probe (given the track record of previous investigations involving politicians, expectations of any serious findings are low), it will be New Democracy and PASOK facing up to their own past and ceasing to sweep their responsibilities under the carpet. As long as they continue to avoid doing this, Tsipras will be able to play the “old vs new” card and will know that casting aspersions about his political opponents is enough to convince part of the electorate that they are guilty.
Of course, it would also be useful for the prime minister himself to be aware that he could soon find himself on the receiving end of this treatment if he fails to recognise his government’s failings: There have been calls, for instance, for an inquiry into the first six months of 2015, his coalition partner, Independent Greeks (ANEL) Panos Kammenos, is being investigated over a failed arms deal with Saudi Arabia and the opposition parties believe they will be able to hold Tsipras to account in the future for alleged judicial interference.
The problem, though, with this trading of accusations, as well as threats of inquiries and special courts is that it usually just creates consternation that takes us further away from getting to the bottom of potential scandals and addressing the issues that impact people’s daily lives the most. It was telling, for instance, that during some 20 hours of discussion in Parliament about medicines, very little was said about the dire state of the Greek health system. Few of the participants felt the need to express concern about waste or significant cuts over such a long period leaving citizens without appropriate care. The coalition parties and the opposition may choose to roll in the muck of scandals now but this only distracts from the serious challenges. They should be mindful that there are no magic pills for those.