Will centre-left let go of past to grasp change?

Agora Contributor: Nick Malkoutzis
Photo by Panayotis Tzamaros/Fosphotos
Photo by Panayotis Tzamaros/Fosphotos

On Sunday, Greek social democrats will vote in the first round of a leadership contest for a party that has not been formed, a political manifesto that has not been written and with goals that have not been decided. At first sight, it does not appear the most promising start for what is being billed by those involved as the rebirth of the country’s beleaguered centre-left.

To make matters worse, the effort to set up this unusual vote has been dogged by problems. The traditional bastion of the Greek centre-left, PASOK, and the centrist newcomer, To Potami, were in talks about joining forces last year but the process collapsed at the last minute. This year’s effort has been hampered by technical problems, which meant the original date for the vote could not be met, arguments over whether electronic voting would be allowed (it will not) and a glut of candidates.

Three televised debates have been held by the potential leaders but the pure chaos of trying to follow nine candidates answer questions from a panel of journalists in a random order was surely too much for anyone but the most devoted follower to keep up with.

However, despite these flaws, the contest to elect the man or woman who will lead the effort to unite the country’s centre-left forces has the potential to be one of the most significant political developments of the last decade in Greece.

In the autumn of 2009, PASOK gained 43.9 percent of the vote to return to power for the fifth time since it first won a general election in 1981. The fiscal timebomb, though, went off on its watch. And in the June 2012 national poll, the erstwhile powerhouse of Greek politics gained a once-unthinkable 12.3 percent as voters held it accountable for the painful austerity measures implemented after Greece sought an international bailout in 2010.

This collapse is what produced the term “Pasokification,” which is now used in political analysis around the world. It is the scars of this sudden and brutal demise from dominant force to also-ran in such a short period of time that PASOK, and the centre-left as a whole, have been trying to heal over the last few years.

Insularism

The old guard has not been willing to let go, though. After George Papandreou, son of PASOK founder Andreas, stood aside in 2012, former finance, defence and culture minister Evangelos Venizelos took over as leader. In the midst of its collapse and with the crisis in full flow, the party chose to rely on a man who had served it as an MP since 1993. When Venizelos was unable to revive PASOK’s fortunes, and with divisions growing, former Athens-Piraeus Prefect and ex-Deputy Health Minister Fofi Gennimata was handed the wheel. Although seven years younger than Venizelos and with a limited presence in Parliament, Gennimata’s strongest credentials for the job seemed to be the daughter of the late minister and PASOK founding member Giorgos Gennimatas, a respected figure in Greek politics.

This insularism was reminiscent of the way Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa described the decline of the Sicilian aristocratic family, the house of Salina, in The Leopard. It also recalled the book’s most famous quote: "If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change."

The various attempts by the centre-left to make a new beginning over recent years have been weighed down by a half-heartedness, a detachment from reality and inability to move with the times that is prevalent in Lampedusa’s description of the 19th century nobles. “…they think they have an imperial past which gives them a right to a grand funeral,” says one of the characters in the book of the Sicilians.

In the September 2015 elections, PASOK allied itself with other barely-alive centre-left groups, to form the Democratic Alignment. It is testament to how far the centre-left had fallen that the grouping’s result of 6.29 percent in that ballot was considered respectable by many of those involved.

In those elections, To Potami won 4.09 percent, confirming the feeling that its leader, journalist Stavros Theodorakis, and those around him would find it impossible to claw back the ground that PASOK lost. SYRIZA had rushed in to take this space and after the madness of the first half of 2015 its leader Alexis Tsipras started his chameleon-like transformation from radical left activist to something more sophisticated.

Finding space

Tsipras realised that a lot of disgruntled PASOK supporters carried him to power but he was also aware that to stay there he would have to display a level of pragmatism that would not drive them away once the effects of their frustration with their former party would ware off. This is, in part, why Tsipras has adopted a more realistic path since 2016, appreciating that his only hope of political survival relies on Greece successfully exiting the programme and the economy recovering. PASOK supporters may have been attracted to the party in the 1970s because of the socialist message promoted by Andreas Papandreou but they stayed because he provided jobs and prosperity through the 1980s and 1990s, before his successor Kostas Simitis opted for a more reformist approach in the late 1990s.

The centre-left’s challenge now is to find a space between Tsipras, who is trying to be all things to all men, and New Democracy, led by Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who wants to stake a sole claim to the idea of reforming Greece.

It is not clear if this space exists or if any of the candidates are capable of finding it. Among the nine, current PASOK leader Gennimata is the favourite, while Potami chief Theodorakis, Athens Mayor Giorgos Kaminis, MEP Nikos Androulakis and former minister Yiannis Ragoussis and Yiannis Maniatis are also vying to be in the second, run-off vote on Sunday, November 19.

Some of the candidates have certain strengths, all of them have flaws. However, whoever is elected has the opportunity to get the centre-left back in the political game. Although New Democracy has a double-digit lead over SYRIZA in the opinion polls, it is still some way short of the support needed to hand it a parliamentary majority. In fact, the surveys published since the summer suggest that SYRIZA has been slowly narrowing the gap.

Tsipras will hope that a series of potentially positive developments in the coming months, such as the return of growth, further bond issues, an agreement on debt relief and the exit from the programme due next August will give him a political boost. It is unlikely that SYRIZA can challenge for first place when the elections come but Tsipras, still only 43, will hope he can gain a level of support that will provide him with a strong platform in opposition.

Opportunity

There is also the possibility that the next election will fail to produce a government and a second vote is needed. It would be under the proportional representation system (no 50-seat bonus for the winner) after the change to the electoral law passed by the current government in 2016. This could mean that four or five parties would be needed to form a coalition or even that the wining party is excluded from the next administration.

Either way, a revived centre-left would have the opportunity to play a constructive role, possibly even that of kingmaker, in the next Greek government. It would still be a far cry from the glory days of PASOK’s dominance but given how far social democracy in Greece has fallen during the crisis, it would be start in regaining relevance.

The challenge, then, for the candidates is to guide the new grouping into such a position but to also ensure that it has a message and set of beliefs that are progressive and germane. Because if there is one thing the Greek centre-left can take away from the last years it is that it can no longer wallow in the past. Whoever emerges victorious from the upcoming ballots must pursue change to make a difference, not so things can stay as they are. 

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