ATHENS — THE political buzzword these days in Greece, a country enmeshed in political stalemate and financial scandal, is ``catharsis.'' Civilians are calling for - and political leaders of all stripes are joining in the chorus - a thorough examination and cleansing of the political system.
The momentum for this soul-searching has been provided by two weeks of inconclusive attempts to form a government. On June 18, Greek voters withdrew much support from socialist Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou, who has been implicated in a several million dollar scam. But the electorate did not throw its weight behind either of the main opposition groups - the conservative New Democracy Party or the Communist Party - prompting so-far unsuccessful bids to cobble together a ruling majority coalition.
But, even as the country heads toward a likely second election, Greeks are skeptical of promises by the opposition as well as Mr. Papandreou's Panhellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok) to thoroughly investigate Greece's worst postwar scandal.
``The people of Greece are lost, they no longer are able to distinguish a truth from a lie,'' says Dimitra Apostolakou, a young accountant in Athens.
``We've had cries of `out with the thieves' throughout history,'' acknowledges Stavros Petrolekas, a historian at the Center for Political Research and Information, a private think tank in Athens.
``What is original here,'' he says, ``is that no government has been castigated to the extent of this one, and [that] the extent of the allegations [reaches] so high up.''
The path to ``catharsis'' is not clear. A parliamentary investigative committee formed to look into the scandal involving alleged political payoffs worth millions of dollars was dissolved early last month when parliament adjourned a week early.
Greek banker George Koskotas, now awaiting an extradition hearing in Massachusetts, has alleged that with the knowledge of government officials, he embezzled $230 million from his Bank of Crete and funneled them to Prime Minister Papandreou and his party. Mr. Papandreou has denied these claims.
Much of the evidence - 10,000 pages of raw data - gathered by the committee remains under lock and key, says a high-ranking Pasok member.
Critics charge that because the committee was formed proportionately, with a majority of Pasok members, Pasok effectively controlled an investigation of itself.
``There were some people who were quietly relieved when the report died,'' the official says.
Since the Koskotas allegations last November, 12 former government officials have been jailed or forced to resign. Two such high-ranking officials are longtime personal friends of Papandreou.
If the ``catharsis'' is going to be anything more than an election ploy, experts say, it will have to involve the close cooperation of legislative and judicial branches of the government. But no official investigation is possible until a new government is formed.
If ministers are implicated in a scandal, the Constitution allows parliament to form a committee that has judicial authority to examine criminal charges. In the case of parliament members or lower-ranking government officials, criminal charges are left to the court system to investigate independently.
Parliament can also form committees to investigate misuses of public funds and trust by lower-ranking officials.
``While the rules of procedure in the Constitution require committee discussions be held privately, they always find their way to the press,'' says Evangelos Voloudakis, associate professor of constitutional law at Athens University.
``The original committee was dissolved simply because somebody was going to be held accountable. And with elections so close, well, it just wasn't going to happen,'' Professor Voloudakis says.
``The crucial thing for these people is not the punishment if found guilty in Greece,'' Voloudakis says. ``It's whether they are convicted. That is the end of their political career.''
While catharsis may prove successful in cleansing out those who have robbed the Greek public, it is clear that the imprint left on citizens will take longer to fade.
``Yes, many people may go to jail,'' concedes Ms. Apostolakou. But, she predicts, ``Many may hold public office again.''