Saturday, January 5, 2019

Two Democracies Under Siege


Whenever I’m asked about the political climate in Greece these days, I say read your favorite US paper and simply give the characters Greek names—though at times you don’t even have to do that.  For example, if you mention Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis in Greece you’ll likely summon up the same sort of angry partisan reactions as you would in the US by mentioning the name [pick one]. 

And yes, that’s the same Novartis as paid $1.2 million dollars to American lawyer Michael Cohen.

The situations in both countries began percolating at about the same time.  In January 2017, a story went public in Greece that had been rumored about in private for some time. It accused Novartis of orchestrating a bribery and corruption scheme involving Greek government officials and physicians in a more than four-billion-euro scandal intended to protect Novartis drugs from price decreases and to encourage the prescription of Novartis products during the heart of Greece’s financial crisis.  

It was said to be the largest such scandal in Greece’s history, and triggered an immediate political firestorm that still drags on, and likely will through national elections this year.  The Prime Minster accused two former Prime Ministers and other political adversaries of complicity in the scandal.  In response, the accused issued immediate denials and charged the Prime Minister and his political allies in Parliament of political shenanigans intended to buoy up the sitting Prime Minister’s badly sagging political popularity.

April 2017 Chart showing ruling party SYRIZA's (far left) relative popularity

There’s been at least one suicide attempt, anonymous witnesses offering unsubstantiated claims, charges of prosecutorial and judicial misconduct, media partisanship, and continuing efforts at sowing distrust at the nation’s institutions among the public. There are enough similarities between what confronts US and Greece to make one’s head spin.

Which is why I’m passing the buck on discussing what all this means for the respective polities to Nikos Konstandaras, managing editor of Athens Ekathimerini newspaper and contributing opinion writer to The New York Times.   He discusses Greece’s situation in an article reproduced below from Ekathimerini entitled, “Of Judges and Opportunists.” Draw your own conclusions on how it relates to US.

For the record, I’m not offering this in support of or opposition to any position, just to point out the uncomfortable similarities in what now confronts the world’s oldest and one of its youngest democracies.  Make of it what ye choose.

Nikos Konstandaras

Whether they wanted it or not, our judicial officials today find themselves at the center of political life. They share a lot of responsibility for what is happening and will have to play a leading role in fixing the situation. The government’s handling of the Novartis issue has raised serious questions regarding the separation of powers and the functioning of the state; also, one Cabinet member’s ever more intensive attacks on specific judicial officials as well as on the judiciary as a whole, demand an immediate and unequivocal answer. This must come from the judiciary as a whole. If judges and prosecutors do not defend their own honor, if they do not honor the trust of the people and the institution that they serve, who do they expect to do so?

Institutions exist to prevent problems and to solve them. We have come to understand that if the politicians, the judges and members of the news media had not shirked their responsibility of maintaining checks on each other, Greece would not have fallen into crisis. Now, instead of the crisis waking us up, we see more mismanagement, more vote-buying, more special interest groups taking care of their own issues at the expense of the majority.

The Novartis issue should have been an open-and-shut judicial investigation that would have brought those involved – whoever they are – to trial. Instead, it was used by the government in a brutal and irresponsible way, in order to undermine its opponents and possible opponents. Judicial officials – and former officials – appeared to either contribute to this situation or to condone it. In this climate, justice cannot help heal the wounds that brought us to bankruptcy and it cannot punish those guilty of corruption. Instead, it contributes to the questions regarding its independence and its integrity. The claims that judicial officials and witnesses have been subjected to political pressure, the targeting of specific judges and prosecutors by politicians and terrorists, the undermining of process, the persecution of specific targets, demand more than condemnation by the Union of Judges and Prosecutors. They demand a response from the judiciary’s top leadership. They demand action. They demand answers: What role have the ministers and top officials of the Justice Ministry played? What is the judiciary’s leadership doing to strengthen institutions? How will the judiciary respond to political players who undermine justice?

Elections always help provide answers to such questions. In the long run, though, the functioning of institutions depends on those who serve them. They have to choose between honoring the position that they hold or serving the interests of opportunists.



  1. I think I will quote Billy Connolly on that one- the fact that anyone desires the power of being a politician should automatically exclude them from ever being one. I know there's a basic flaw in that but would the elephant keeper at the local zoo do any worse?

    1. Interesting how you'd quote Billy Connolly on a post by a Pittsburgh native, where we refer to each other as Yinzers. That said, he's a modern day Will Rogers..."If you ever injected truth into politics, you'd have no politics."

  2. Elephant handlers have to take weighty issues very carefully.


    1. Tusk, tusk, Stan, you're just too punny at times.

  3. Truly difficult to know WHAT country he's talking about... it could be any of, oh, 50-100 countries today. As the great Johannes Oliphant once said, "The only way to keep politicians on the straight and narrow is to nail their asses to it." That might cut down on the number of applicants, too...