GREECE: Election dispute over numbers

The government and official opposition in Greece are outbidding each other over future spending on education in the run-up to the general election on 4 October.

Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis, speaking at the opening of the Thessaloniki International Exhibition, a traditional political forum, claimed that expenditure on education during the last year of his administration was 4.6% of gross national product, or GNP.

Days later the leader of the official opposition George Papandreou - the next premier if public opinion polls are confirmed at the ballot box - said his party would increase spending on education to 5% of GNP as well as allocate EUR1 billion to the sector in the first year of his administration, were he to be elected.

That's where a tug of war of announcements between the two parties started.

Then Finance Minister John Papathanasiou claimed that in order to increase expenditure on education to 5% in one year, a new government would need an additional EUR7.6 billion. This mean that Greece's deficit - currently 7% to 8% and doubled that allowed by the EU - would rise by an additional 1%. He accused the opposition of misleading the electorate.

But in his haste to defend the policies of his ruling party, Papathanasiou made several mistakes - which the spokesman for the opposition hastened to point out. It was explained that the 5% target for education did not relate to a single year but would be a gradual increase over four years (the expected life of the next parliament).

Moreover, the opposition spokesman said, if the finance minister accepted that current expenditure for education was 4.6% of GNP, as the prime minister claimed, the difference between what was currently being spent and what was promised by the opposition was very small.

If, however, EUR7.6 billion was needed to raise education spending to 5% of GNP, it followed that current expenditure on education was nearer 3% than 4.6% as the prime minister said.

Later, the finance minister issued a statement claiming that the figure the prime minister had quoted related to the total amount government ministries spend on education and training and not just the budget allocation to the education ministry.

What it really all means is that by promising increases in education spending, George Papandreou has stolen a march on the prime minister, who imposed severe cuts during the five years of his administration.

Higher education expenditure in Greece has long been the lowest in the EU and some institutions are in dire financial straits. Recently university leaders protested about the education ministry's failure to pay subscriptions to scientific magazines essential to teaching staff, while at least one university has initiated legal proceedings against the state for the non-payment of contracted scientific research.

Given the country's exceptionally high deficit and its inability to borrow from international credit organisations without crippling interest rates, as well as the EU's reluctance to renegotiate the terms of a stability treaty with Greece (as it has done with other member states), it will be interesting to see whether Papandreou - if elected - will be able to keep his promise and where he will find the money.