21 Οκτωβρίου, 2015

A New Beginning

This is the first speech delivered by the leader of Potami Stavros Theodorakis. Mr Theodorakis explains his motivations, the reasons why he created Potami and his vision for the Movement.

I don't know how to start. No matter how much I prepared for this moment, I still feel awkward. So, let me start from the end. Can someone be in politics without an active past in political parties? Can I, can you, can scores of us get out there, unite and merge into a river – a POTAMI in Greek - that will change Greece?

Let’s take things one by one. The idea is not just mine. Every day, I hear the same question from people I meet: "What must we do?" In many cases, the question is triggered by a piece that I wrote, or something that I said on TV. In other cases, it is triggered by the front page news, by the government decisions and the partisan fights. We are in a dead end. After a couple of words are exchanged, even those that had decided how to cast their vote wonder if "there is a better alternative".

Therefore, the idea is yours. It came from the students I met in Leros. It came from the group that stopped me to talk in Volos. It came from the young people that call me from Chania. It came from the cooperative I visited in Ioannina. It came from those that invited me to join them in Aristotle Square in Thessaloniki. To be truthful, none of them actually asked me to form a political party. But, they did tell me that our politicians live in their own make-believe world, that they only care about power, that they are divorced from reality, that they are stuck in the trenches fighting ghosts from the past, while life moves on.

And then you see the queues at the bus stations. Early in the morning, you see 40, 50 people waiting. The bus comes but can take only half of them, and the other half has to wait until the next bus comes. They arrive late at work, their school, their doctor’s appointment, but nobody ever thought that there should be more buses in operation in the morning.

In the past few years, I am often invited to talk to students. I am asked to speak about life "out there". I spoke in Thessaloniki, in Rhodes, in Peristeri, in Nea Ionia, in Porto Rafti. I must tell you: they have understood everything. They know their parents’ mistakes, the mistakes of us all. They know that we only care about our team, our home, our party, but not about the public good.

"And how will you handle the debt?", are asking those who find these stories about buses and kids rather quaint. A country's survival cannot rely on the largesse of its creditors. Well, we can assign the best negotiators - that’s the easy part. But the question is what will you do for your country, so that you do not have to rely on the kindness of your creditors? How will you rebuild your economy? Who will invest? How will funds that were transferred overseas by scared citizens find their way back home? Who will take the risk, how will you make them trust you? The ones governing today scare away those that are still investing in this country, while the ones that want to run the country scare away those that may be thinking about investing.

We do not encourage investments. As if everyone should be working in the public sector or for multinationals. I have nothing against giant corporations coming from the United States, Russia or elsewhere, but I feel ashamed when I see Greek herbs made in China. Greeks innovate abroad, but here they have to do battle with taxes and bureaucracy.

You know how high the unemployment is, especially youth unemployment. Instead of doing something about it, we implemented fast, hasty solutions that have ruined many lives. Families drop below the poverty line. Social structures that used to support the weak are falling apart. From squandering, we went straight to penny-pinching.

Young professionals - employed or unemployed - have to spend "half a salary" on contributions to "social security". Instead of rewarding the ones that create, instead of motivating them to set up their own businesses, we regurgitate the same tax evasion stories. Every single month, a new tax is imposed or an old one is "modified". At the same time, it takes €10.000 out-of-pocket for a medical operation in Greece, while it takes €100 in Germany for the same operation, And, one out of three kids cannot get a spot in a public preschool.

You must have already heard about it. To study, Greek students now go even to Tirana, Albania. Instead of establishing good universities here, we send our children to Albania and Romania. The list of paradoxes is endless. The greater Athens region is home to 20 military camps. Why? What is the point of having that many military camps in the nation’s capital? Does anybody think that there is an explanation, other than to accommodate the sons of politicians and party supporters? Court decisions take up to 5, 7, 10 years. The cases of poorer citizens are not heard, and prisons are overpopulated with detainees that have not seen their day in court.

Greece has the highest rate of fatal car accidents in the West, the highest rate of caesarians, the largest number of cram schools, which form a de facto parallel education system. On the other hand, we read the least number of books, we have the lowest rate of blood donors, the smallest number of charitable contributions. In downtown Athens, there are at least one to two rallies per day. Public transportation comes to a halt, life comes to a halt, and for what? To put pressure on whom? On the minister looking at them through his tinted car window? Desperate citizens are facing a state that is deaf to them. The notion is commonplace that if you do not break the law, someone else will, and profit from it. We must all go back to square one and make a social compact. Justice, for small and big things. Justice, performance evaluation and meritocracy. This is what will discourage the brain drain, this is what will keep the talented young people in Greece, people who now flee because they know that you need to have the right connections if you want to survive. This vicious circle must be broken.

We need a smaller parliament, not an additional senate, as some have been proposing lately. In addition to voting for a political party, citizens should also select the candidate of their choice from a common list of candidates. All laws and provisions that make politicians unaccountable must be abolished. We must remember that the politicians now appearing before the courts, had been acquitted by a majority vote in parliament, of course at the behest of their parties. General elections should be held every four years, so that black money is eliminated from politics.

I want to discuss this point for a few moments. In the past decades, we have been living in a constant election campaign. The government does not dare to implement any reforms because of the "political cost", and the opposition does not consent to any reforms, because it expects the government to fall "in the next couple of days". Supporters with fat wallets are always hanging around. Some gamble on the "fall", some gamble on the "stay", while big spenders play both ways.

In the last thirty years, I met every political leader in Greece. Every one of them claimed that he could do everything on his own. If you asked any one of them to help solve a problem, the answer was always "not now, but surely when I become prime minister". All you could hear was "When I take over, everything will change". How could that be? Have you ever held a real job? Do you even know what work means? Have you ever made anything on your own? No! But, they have inherited the gift of politics.

Any party that gets just 25% of the votes cannot resolve the problems of this country alone. There must be a national plan and at least 50% of the voters backing it, in order to convince our European partners that "this time, the Greeks are determined". How can we get to this 50%? Through cooperation, obviously. Not by putting together “our guys”, but through the partnership of parties that represent people with different ideas.

We must handle social issues with reason, not with dogmas and prejudices. Immigration, drugs, waste management. All these issues are opportunities for innovative thinking in other countries. In Greece, they trigger wars. Immigrants are not bad guys, but there is no room for all of them here, unless we want them beggars at the soup kitchens of churches. The ones living here should vote in local elections, and their children should become valedictorians, if they deserve it. As simple as that. Drugs are everywhere in the Greek countryside. Ten regions across the country, islands and small cities, have been asking for years for a drug substitution program and rehabilitation centers for their addicts. However, in Athens, the government’s different agencies cannot decide who is going to save them. We would rather have them slaughter each other in prison than providing them with methadone. The same goes with waste management. Instead of recycling and composting, we continue to dump everything in the forests and the sea. Traces of plastic are now found in the flesh of fish in the Aegean. Are we going to do something about it, or will be bestow one more "gift" to the next generation?

Greece can be saved by its land, its sun and its sea. All we have to do is to recognize it and dynamically invest in it. Agricultural and food products from the land. Energy, health and happiness from the sun. Fish and tourism from the sea. Instead of knocking down the ugliness from the kitsch decades, instead of setting a development roadmap, we congratulate each other on the fact that tour operators prefer Greece when the situation in Egypt or Turkey is explosive.

In order to move forward, we need to fight the bureaucratic system, the one nurtured by the political parties. Every problem today is the responsibility of a minister, a deputy minister, three or four alternate ministers, a dozen secretary generals and, of course, the political party managers. We must eliminate the gap that separates us from the actual problem. We must discard titles (Minister of Culture and Sports, meaning what exactly? Minister of Justice, Transparency and Human Rights – the UN personified, right?), and we must get to work. One person should be in charge of primary education, another one in charge of higher education and innovation. Someone should be in charge of museums and archaeological sites. And, of course, another should be in charge of agriculture, our olive groves and such. Each minister-politician must be in charge of a specific sector, together with an expert in the field serving as secretary general. The term should be four years, and there must be a performance evaluation in place to monitor the general directors. This performance evaluation system is long overdue, and must be implemented immediately.

In Europe, just like in Greece, our enemies are the populists, the nationalists, the euro-sceptics. Europe is our family. We must confront some old grudges, tear up some old notebooks, draft new ones, but we must never think of leaving our family. Europe is the ultimate paradigm of the unity of differences. We should be able to distinguish between some leaders' mistakes and the European values. Especially today, when so many in Europe question the solutions applied in the case of the Greek crisis, it is our chance to prove ourselves to be even more European. We must make Europe realize that not only classic Hellenism is valuable, but that modern Greece still has plenty to offer as well.

Greece is not just its political parties. We are now in a car with no brakes, no steering wheel. We are already on the highway and the parties keep fighting each other over whether we should listen to folk songs or soviet anthems on the radio. Let me get this straight. It is obvious by now that the ones that led the country to today's deadlock, cannot give the country a new start. Who can trust them? They lived for bribes. Bribery became synonymous with politics. Some participated in this, others did not react, even though they knew what was going on. They must all step aside.

On the other hand, we cannot be saved by people trapped in theories of the 19th century, or by people espousing that Greece will be saved if it goes back to the past.

This is why we decided to create “Potami”. Who decided to do it? People asking the same questions. Professionals, but not professional politicians. None of us has ever served in ministries or politburos. Students, intellectuals, economists, workers, artists, unemployed, businesspeople, doctors, architects.  A diverse group of individuals with a brain and the power of reason and justice. Within the following hours, you will know what and who I am talking about.

Regarding myself, I will not be on the ballot for the European Parliament. I do not feel qualified; I do not even speak foreign languages. So, I will stay in Greece. What I will do next depends on you. If the outcome is positive in the European elections, we will then decide what to do in the national elections. If we fail, if I fail to be precise, then following the European elections, I will try to return to journalism. Until then, I will stay away from journalism. This means that "Protagonistes" will no longer be on the air and that I will not be actively engaged in Protagon.gr. I would like to apologize to my colleagues, in television, in Protagon.gr, in the newspaper. The plans that we made need to be put on halt. The priority now is to challenge the status quo in politics. Our mission is to agitate stagnant waters by pouring in some water from POTAMI, our river.

Where will our campaign funds come from? The "grassroots" model of the Obama campaign is the answer to this question. Rather than soliciting money from only the wealthy minority, Obama asked for a few dollars from the majority. We too are asking for "one to ten euros" from each one of you. More about this will follow, through our website at www.topotami.gr. For the moment, please prepare your ten euros (rather than a single euro coin), and join us in POTAMI.

I know... It is not easy to break old habits, but there is no other way to change our lives. So, have a nice day… I hope to meet you out there… Let's dare together!

Stavros Theodorakis