Monday, February 04, 2008


“... the only thing that gave us security on earth was the certainty that he was there, invulnerable to plague and hurricane . . . invulnerable to time, dedicated to the messianic happiness of thinking for us, knowing that we knew that he would not take any decision for us that did not have our measure, for he had not survived everything because of his inconceivable courage or his infinite prudence but because he was the only one among us who knew the real size of our destiny…” Gabriel García Márquez.

To the question of what Suharto and George Fountas have in common, the answer readily is drawn from the well-spring of comparison. Both were presidents. Both enjoyed tenures in their chosen domains, of exceptional longevity. Both came to personify the institutions that they purported to serve. Finally, the past week has seen both of these august personages’ demise, as if to form the ultimate moral in a cautionary fable about the futility of human endeavour and the inexorable loneliness in the exercise of temporal power.
In his famed novel “The Autumn of the Patriarch,” a “poem to the solitude of power” according to its author, Nobel Prize-winning Gabriel García Márquez, the death of an archetypal and eternal Caribbean dictator is examined through six re-tellings via different perspectives. One of the books most striking aspects is its focus on the god-like status held by the protagonist and the unfathomable awe and respect with which his people regard him. Dictators such as those who formed the inspiration for this remarkable book managed to hold sway over the populations of their respective nations despite internal political divisions because of the mythical aura which surrounded their persons. García Márquez symbolizes this with the discovery of the dictator's corpse in the battered presidential palace; the newly liberated subjects are unable to identify the body of a man whose image has marked their entire lives because they are unable to see him as a human being.
Suharto, who seized power from his predecessor, the first president of Indonesia, Sukarno, in 1967, through a mixture of force and political maneuvering against the backdrop of foreign and domestic unrest was a case in point. Over the three decades of his “Orde Baru” or “New Order” regime, Suharto constructed a strong central government along militarist lines. While for most of his three-decade rule, Indonesia experienced significant economic growth and industrialization, his rule, led to political purges and the deaths of millions of suspected Indonesian communists and Chinese-Indonesians, and enaction of legislation outlawing communist parties and ethnic Chinese. In addition, his invasion of East Timor in 1975 was notorious for its brutality with a reported 200,000 dead during the length of Indonesia's occupation. Contrary to common belief, is was not the Asian economic crisis of 1998 that caused his fall from power, nor the opposition from the energised party led by Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of the man he overthrew in order to come to power. In fact, the reason why Suharto fell from power was the same reason that John Howard fell – because having assumed the guise of the nation personified, he found it impossible to realise that he was in fact, mortal and human, not eternal. Suharto stood for reelection for the seventh time in March 1998, justifying it on the grounds of the necessity of his leadership during the economic crisis. As in past years, he was unopposed for reelection. However, this time, his hubris sparked protests and riots throughout the country. Dissension within the ranks of his own Golkar party and military finally weakened Suharto, and he was compelled to stand down from power. Quite simply, to quote Márquez, “... he governed as if he felt predestined to never die ...”
Our own Pericles, synonymous with the Golden Age of Athens that was according to Thucydides, "in name a democracy but, in fact, governed by its first citizen," was mercifully spared such an ignominious patriarchal autumn by being removed from office not by humiliating human hand, but rather, the pestilence of plague.
There is much grandeur in the solitude of one-man rule in the public consciousness, regardless of how oppressive that rule is. Within minutes of Suharto’s death, his persecution of the Chinese, his corruption and his brutal invasion and occupation of East Timor where forgotten by a populace still haunted by the face of their eternal patriarch. Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono declared a week of mourning. All Indonesian government offices and departments were ordered to fly their flags at half-mast for one week, in respect his passing and two metric tons of jasmine flowers and 100 kilograms of red roses were reportedly prepared for the funeral ceremony.
The concept of patriarchal leadership looms large within the modern Greek political consciousness. Until recently, the Greek political sphere was dominated by superannuated politicians belonging to generations of political dynasties. Quite often, especially in Australia, Greeks lament the absence of a “Great Leader” around whom all may unite, in order to be conveyed along the current of his unique vision to a bright, felicitous destiny. The innate tendency of Greeks to attempt to cut down, malign, dethrone and destabilise those of their peers having the temerity to aspire towards assuming that role, is perhaps, the distingishing feature of our own hellenic brnd of Caudillismo. Caudilloes may come and go but we will always despise them, no matter how benign they are, simply for being Caudilloes. There are no jasmine flowers for our former fuhrers.
The legacy of our own patriarch is a case in point. Having enjoyed arguably the longest tenure as president of the Greek Orthodox Communtiy of Melbourne and Victoria, he has become synonymous with that institution, the iconic concept-image of a president of the Greek community. His legacy would include presiding over a period in the GOCMV’s history whereby it was lifted out of the quagmire of liquidation, its asset base was expanded, it managed to avail itself of the ear of the State Government, its festivals became a key showpiece of the Melbourne municipal calendar and it itself became the personification of the Greek community in Melbourne.
Resentment against our own Caudillo swelled as the years past and he still remained at the helm of the GOCMV. No more or less incompetent or capable then past presidents, he also had to face accusations of corruption, notably with regard to the infamous “cheque” provided by the Greek government in order to bail the GOCMV out of its financial woes, only for the new Greek regime to seek its return. This incident sparked off a mass of “who stole the cookie form the cooke jar” hysteria that lasted for years and whose undertones have not quite yet been stamped out. Further allegations involved subverting the electoral process, alienating ‘disloyal’ or ’untrustworthy’ committee members, holdnig the reigns of executive power tighter than ever before and most hubristically of all from a Greek point of view, refusing to relinquish those reigns.
For try as they might, our Caudillo’s desperate detractors could not rid themselves of him. He won election after election, faced with an opposition tarnished with its own record of controversy and mismanagement and who most importantly, lacked vision of its own. Márquez’s own assessment of his dead patrirch could have easily applied to our own situation: “... the regime wasn't being sustained by hope or conformity or even by terror, but by the pure inertia of an ancient and irreparable disillusion, go out into the street and look truth in the face, your excellency, we're on the final curve ...”
When the Caudillo fell just the other week, it was not as victim to the new, renewed, youthful opposition hammering at the doors of the presidential palace. After all, he had successfully survived a most difficult election. Instead, he fell, as in the manner of Suharto, through the perfidy of one of his ‘own,’ who despairing of living constantly in his shadow, defected. Now the Caudillo is gone and the new occupants of the presidential palace face the task of dealing with his legacy. As Márquez put it: “Over the weekend the vultures got into the presidential palace by pecking through the screens on the balcony windows and the flapping of their wings stirred up the stagnant time inside, and at dawn on Monday the city awoke out of its lethargy of centuries with the warm, soft breeze of a great man dead and rotting grandeur.”
Surely it will be a difficult task to preside over a Community that has become so intimately conjoined to the image of a singular man. Despite the vociferousness of their opposition, the new regime is astute to realise, just as in the case of the Indonesian government, that nothing is to be gained by execrating the memory of a former leader. Instead, it has vowed to honour him, work with him and facilitate his continued participation in the Committee. At the same time, it will have to take steps to forge a new identity for itself and the Community, without of course abjuring such an important part of its history. Most importantly, the youthful new regime will have to deal with the ill-concealed fury of the dispossessed gerontocrats, who believe that the governance of the GOCMV is their birthright and who cannot accept the rule of a younger generation over their ‘inheritance.’ The autumn of the patriarch truly then is a turning point for our Community. The new regime is faced with the choice of continuing the hallowed institutions and practices of an increasingly ritualised organization or applying its resources to reach a wider demographic, in order to make themselves relevant to an increasing number of younger Greeks who re estranged from the organised Greek community in general and indifferent to the sense of identity and belonging that it has traditionally attempted to assert and foster. This will necessarily entail a re-assessment of the words ‘Greek’ and ‘Community’ - no easy task, promising no guarantee of success, given that the competing interests of a fragmented, diverse community as that of the post-modern Greek Australians defies easy generalisations and commonalities of purpose. For the time being, take the patriarch’s demise, the man who like no other, became the GOCMV, in one of two ways, brought to you by Márquez: ... “the rockets of jubilation and the bells of glory ... announced to the world the good news that the uncountable time of eternity had come to an end...” or more probably from the view of the new regime: “Only then did we dare go in without attacking the crumbling walls of reinforced stone, as the more resolute had wished, and without using oxbows to knock the main door off its hinges, as others had proposed, because all that was needed was for someone to give a push and the great armoured doors… gave way. It was like entering the atmosphere of another age, because the air was thinner in the rubble pits of the vast lair of power, and the silence was more ancient, and things were hard to see in the decrepit light.” Hasta el lunes.


First published in NKEE on 4 February 2008