Sunday, 21 September 2014

Is Democratic Left set to make a shock return to Greece's coalition?


Photo by Harry van Versendaal Photo by Harry van Versendaal

When Democratic Left quit the coalition government in June, the possibility of the small centre-left party bridging its differences with New Democracy and PASOK seemed impossible. Suddenly, though, some kind of reconciliation – a return to the government, even – does not appear to be out of the question.

The idea of Democratic Left (DIMAR) making a coalition comeback was first raised last week by New Democracy MP Dora Bakoyannis. The ex-foreign minister said Prime Minister Antonis Samaras should appeal to DIMAR to return after the two-party coalition survived a no confidence vote in Parliament but saw its presence reduced to just 154 of 300 seats when PASOK deputy Theodora Tzakri was ousted from her party.

Bakoyannis suggested that this slim majority needed to be bolstered to ensure that the government could secure parliamentary approval for its policies but also to prevent individual lawmakers within the coalition from holding the government to ransom, or “behaving like Tarzan” as she put it.

How realistic, though, is it to expect DIMAR, which has 14 MPs, to rejoin the government given the fundamental disagreement with Samaras over the handling of public broadcaster ERT in June and the party’s subsequent criticism of coalition policy? Our Q & A attempts to answer this question.

How did DIMAR react to the idea of returning to the Samaras-led government?

When questioned about Bakoyannis’s proposal, DIMAR leader Fotis Kouvelis made it clear he could not see a way back to the current coalition for his party. He stressed there were a series of differences between DIMAR and Samaras in the build up to the closure of ERT and that he did not envision a way these divisions could be mended unless there is a change in government policy.

Even Bakoyannis’s suggestion that a new policy framework should be drawn up to accommodate DIMAR did not move Kouvelis, who pointed out that a similar document was drawn up when the three-party administration was formed in June 2012 but was never rubber stamped and implemented. The coalition, he said, acted like a one-party government rather than a three-party one.

“Given the policy that was followed and our disagreement with it, but also the policy currently being implemented, it is not possible nor is it logical for DIMAR to return to the government and for a new policy agreement to be drawn up,” he said.

Is DIMAR leader Kouvelis’s view shared by everyone in his party?

Since leaving the coalition, DIMAR has been through a period of introspection as it tries to find a new political role. This has created some splits in the party, with some MPs feeling it should not have walked out of the coalition. These differences of opinion were also evident in the way DIMAR reacted to the idea of resuming its cooperation with New Democracy and PASOK.

The party’s parliamentary spokesman Vassilis Economou backed the idea. He said that the conditions for such a return did not exist now but that a “new framework, a new philosophy, a new logic, a general calling, a new start” might make it possible. He called on Samaras to take the initiative.

Another deputy, Grigoris Psarianos, came out in favour of DIMAR becoming part of the government again but suggested that SYRIZA should also join. He said the “SYRIZA of Texas” – a reference to a recent speech by leftist leader Alexis Tsipras taking the return to the drachma off the table – would make a suitable partner in a broader coalition.

Lawmaker Theodoros Margaritis did not entirely rule out a return but suggested that no such option could be considered as long as Samaras remains prime minister.

MP Yiannis Panousis took a completely different view to his colleagues and said the time had come for DIMAR to start talks with SYRIZA and Communist Party over the formation of a leftist government in the future.

How is DIMAR likely to react over the next few months?

DIMAR appears trapped after its decision to join and then leave the government, just as the ultranationalist party LAOS was when it became part of the interim government led by caretaker Prime Minister Lucas Papademos in late 2011 and early 2012. LAOS disappeared without trace after its leader Giorgos Karatzaferis walked out of the administration rather than support the terms of Greece’s second bailout.

DIMAR’s decision to vote “present” in the recent no confidence vote underlined the party’s paralysis. DIMAR has been polling at around 3 percent (the threshold for entering Parliament) in recent weeks. It will not be lost on Kouvelis and his MPs that the prospect of the government collapsing and elections being called soon would leave DIMAR facing the possibility of not entering Parliament. That’s one key reason why DIMAR’s return to the government, which looked impossible five months ago, now doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

Neverthless, Kouvelis’s position means that an immediate, unconditional return is out of the question. In fact, the DIMAR leader may block any kind of cooperation. Kouvelis has long been worried about his party damaging its leftist identity by working with New Democracy and PASOK to implement unpopular austerity policies as well as some reforms that DIMAR disagrees with. The prospect of SYRIZA winning the next general elections and DIMAR being one of its few potential coalition partners means that Kouvelis faces a real conundrum in deciding his party’s next move.

There is, of course, the possibility that those within the party who feel that DIMAR is consigning itself to oblivion by remaining on the sidelines will attempt to take the situation in their own hands. The likelihood, though, of a leadership challenge being mounted against Kouvelis at this stage seems slim.

A more likely option is that, as the party ponders what it should do next, some of its MPs could provide the government with support in Parliament should it be required. The knowledge that a handful of DIMAR MPs are willing to back key bills would give the government greater confidence and would allow Samaras to avoid giving in to the demands of any coalition MPs driving a hard bargain.

Sunday’s Ethnos newspaper quoted an unnamed high-ranking DIMAR source saying: “If the government faces a potential crisis, when DIMAR will be called upon to offer its cooperation, it may be a chance to change government policy to the advantage of more vulnerable citizens. Then, we would have to start from scratch with the other parties to create a new policy framework.”