Thu | Aug 17, 2017

We could well go Greek

Published:Sunday | March 13, 2016 | 3:00 AM

Despite the ongoing immigration crisis in Greece at the time, and in spite of an elegantly argued case on my part (if I do say so myself!) explaining that because of my complicated racial antecedents I could very easily be mistaken for a North-African or Syrian refugee, and that my arrest could precipitate an international incident with repercussions and consequences, my wife persisted and I happened to be in Athens last September while the country was in the throes of an election.

Obviously I survived the ordeal. In fact, I even hitched Athenian public transportation to a Syriza rally and joined the throng raging at the Greek sky-gods about the evils of the IMF.

Not that I could understand much of what the Speakers were saying. But it pretty much boils down to the same simple formula. Us: Good. The people we owe the money: Bad. Ahhhh ... Good times!

At that time, Prime Minister Tsipras, who had initially sailed into office on an anti-austerity and anti-IMF message, was essentially shedding the most intransigent anti-austerity elements of his own party so that he could, in fact, implement the economic and structural reforms demanded by the IMF.

The Greek political landscape, with multiple political parties and a tradition of coalition governments, allowed Tispras to perform this three-card trick far more elegantly than could ever be achieved in Jamaica.

 

WAVE OF AUSTERITY

 

For although he rode a wave of anti-austerity anger into power, and then spent about a year frustrating everyone and establishing his anti-European Union (EU) and anti-IMF bona fides, he was now settling down to implement more stringent austerity measures than the country would have needed had they got down to business a year previously.

Tsipras had achieved that Nirvana dreamed of by politicians worldwide of being known as anti-austerity and anti-IMF for political purposes, but for managerial purposes now enabled to settle down and implement needed economic reform.

To illustrate how Tsipras had been able to jettison his previous political baggage and pivot completely, consider the judgement of Yanis Varoufakis, Tsipras' own former Finance Minister.

He called the election result of his former boss "the 'legalisation' of the capitulation that followed the signing of the dead end, humiliating and irrational" (IMF and EU) bailout.

So when it comes right down to it, I felt that one question the election just concluded in Jamaica would answer was shockingly simple: Can a government here, even one led by someone reputed to be a lifelong populist, survive a term of austerity?

That 7.5 per cent primary surplus was no joke, and only steady, focused and determined action could achieve it.

Looked at one way, it appears that it was very possible, because the PNP seems to have lost by only one seat (S. St. James magisterial recount is under way) and, cumulatively, by about 4,000 votes nationally.

Furthermore, there is ample evidence that the PNP played a size able part in defeating itself. For compared to the 2011 voting patterns, despite the expanded voter's list, the PNP lost more votes than the JLP gained. PNP voters stayed home.

In that respect, my view is that the decision to forgo the national debates will go down in history as a monumental blunder. It's not so much that the debates would necessarily shift voters one way or another - although that too was a possibility - so much as that the refusal to debate smacked of arrogance.

The debates are becoming a national institution, and if the PNP dismisses them on a pretext, as was done, and in the belief that it matters not because it is "PNP country", then it won't be PNP country for long.

Bottom line: the leadership declined to turn out for the debate, and PNP voters returned the favour and didn't turn out at the polls.

 

PRIMARY QUESTION

 

Anyway, my primary question here is whether a serious austerity administration could have survived. And the results, if viewed as a close miss, suggests it could have.

But it is equally possible to argue that the PNP took a sound thrashing, and that it is a lesson to any administration that the electorate will not tolerate the tightening of the purse strings.

When all is said and done the party lost 11 seats and was outflanked by the very kind of budget-busting promises and commitments that put the country in the economic bind where the Government must borrow or print money.

Well the electoral result is actually ambiguous, and it may take a few more electoral cycles for us to determine a path. Countries, like people, can either repeat mistakes or learn from them.

Of this I have no doubt: we will see this Holness administration backtrack on commitments and break promises.

For right now Holness is stuck on the horns of a dilemma: do I blow-up the IMF agreement, or do I implement my promises?

In reality, he will hedge and try to have it both ways. He will implement some things (eg the tax break, in some very modified and mutilated version) and try to escape others (eg the minimum wage commitment), while attempting to keep the IMF imprimatur.

Some things will be easier, such as the withdrawal of the school fees: unlike their parents, schoolchildren don't squeal, because they don't know that the quality of their education has diminished.

Some will be more difficult, such as fudging a way through pension reform and civil service reform, because civil servants are motivated political actors.

The administration has made some pro forma genuflections to fiscal sanity, but like the promises at the altar, that's when the bride is all dressed up and the real world is locked outside.

The promises made to the sweethearts won't be forgotten and will fall due. But who knows? Perhaps, like Tsipras in Greece, he will have positioned himself as sufficiently anti-austerity to deflect responsibility for the upcoming mess.

- Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.