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Old Handouts Die Hard for Greek Politicians Facing Voters Soon

Niki Kitsantonis|The New York Times
Tuesday, 10 Apr 2012 | 11:55 AM ET

With the country perched on the edge of a financial abyss and international creditors anxiously awaiting more belt-tightening measures, Greek lawmakers have been working extra hard lately. But not always in the ways one might expect.

Greek police officers stand on October 17, 2011 in front of the Panathinaiko Stadium during a demonstration in Athens. Greek sailors, customs officials and other government employees went on strike on October 17 and magistrates were to follow suit to protest cutbacks ahead of nationwide strikes this week. Greece's two main unions are staging a two-day general strike on October 19 and 20 to denounce the new government austerity cuts intended to resolve a debt crisis that has shaken the eurozone.
AFP | Getty Images
Greek police officers stand on October 17, 2011 in front of the Panathinaiko Stadium during a demonstration in Athens. Greek sailors, customs officials and other government employees went on strike on October 17 and magistrates were to follow suit to protest cutbacks ahead of nationwide strikes this week. Greece's two main unions are staging a two-day general strike on October 19 and 20 to denounce the new government austerity cuts intended to resolve a debt crisis that has shaken the eurozone.

Some members of Parliament have lobbied for fishing licenses for the owners of pleasure boats in the Aegean islands. Others have asked for government jobs for award-winning athletes or members of dismantled state agencies. One sought to exempt theaters and cinemas from a controversial property tax. Another to reduce fines for the owners of illegally built homes in parts of northern Greece. The list goes on.

In all, more than 90 such budget-busting proposals have been floated as lawmakers scramble to push through last-minute amendments to bills otherwise intended to meet the demands of creditors who want Greece to liberalize its job market, cut red tape, and shrink state payrolls.

Most have been rejected by Prime Minister Lucas D. Papademos, a former technocrat who is trying to open up Greece’s encrusted economy. He has appealed to lawmakers to approve only “crucial” changes to the austerity measures that he would like passed before Parliament is dissolved, perhaps on Wednesday, and elections are called, most likely for May 6.

But the proliferation of items threatens to delay that step, as lawmakers go to the trough one last time. Greece’s practice of trading favors — often government jobs — for political support is as old as its 400 years of Ottoman rule, when the system evolved. The word for it, “rousfeti,” which means favor, has its roots in the Turkish word for bribe.

By any name, the practice is largely responsible for the bloated system that has contributed to Greece’s burdensome debt. From the legislative wrangling, however, it appears that change will not come easily, if at all.

“If politicians were serious about changing this system,” said Takis Michas, a political commentator, “they would make public all the names of the people they have appointed to the civil service throughout their political careers.”

Instead, he said, politicians are still operating according to the system of votes for favors, and most Greeks still covet a cushy government job even though that system is fast crumbling. The country’s foreign creditors have already penciled in talks for June, with whatever government that emerges, on an additional $14 billion in cuts over the next two years.

Members of Parliament insist that their proposals are not only justified but also necessary. “We all know that Parliament is closing, so we’re trying to fulfill some needs,” said Nikos Zoidis, a deputy in the Socialist party known as Pasok who represents the Dodecanese, the Aegean island group that includes Rhodes.

An official close to Mr. Papademos would not comment on specific proposals but stressed that only “crucial changes” would be considered. “This is not business as usual,” he insisted.

It should come as no great surprise, many here say, that representatives who built their careers on the system are unwilling to change it.

“This is what made them, what allowed them to make others and establish supporters,” said Costas Bakouris, head of the Athens office of Transparency International, the global corruption watchdog, which last year ranked Greece No. 80 of 183 countries in its corruption index. Bulgaria was the only European Union country ranked lower.

“With everything that’s going on, the pressure and the turmoil, we would hope to see them change,” Mr. Bakouris said of Greece’s politicians. “But, basically, what we’re asking is that they commit suicide.”

Unable to maintain the system — or fed up with it — many lawmakers have bowed out of politics.

“In Greece, the cross is sold in exchange for a government job,” said one of them, Theodoros Pangalos, the outspoken deputy prime minister and seasoned Socialist, referring to the X that voters make on the ballot.

“No one has dared touch this system to date,” Mr. Pangalos, who will not seek re-election, said this month in an interview with the French-German television channel Arte. “But it is time for it to change.”

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