Greece stuck in the long tunnel of political transition

Agora Contributor: Nick Malkoutzis
Photo by MacroPolis
Photo by MacroPolis

The staggered demise of New Democracy and PASOK, which has caused the disappearance of the centre in Greek politics, has forced the country into a political transition whose duration and outcome remains unknown. Sunday’s local and European Parliament elections did little to provide answers. Only the lack of trust could be deemed an outright winner on the night.

SYRIZA achieved the victory it wanted in the EU ballot but failed to increase its share of the vote from the June 2012 general elections and build a decisive lead over New Democracy.  The leftist party has hit a ceiling in terms of its popularity. Those who were sceptical about its message and ability to govern two years ago are still reluctant to place their faith in it.

SYRIZA’s victory in the Attica region could prove vital in overcoming voters’ reluctance. The new governor, Rena Dourou, will have an opportunity to show whether SYRIZA can be trusted to run Greece’s largest district and the home of about a third of the country’s voters. A success here could tip the balance decisively in SYRIZA’s favour. If her governorship proves troubled, the party might never recover.

SYRIZA, though, would be advised to adopt an overall strategy of “wait and see.” It has a lot of work to do in terms of refining its policies, improving its personnel and honing its message. It will hope that as it does this over the next few months, New Democracy and PASOK’s weaknesses will become debilitating.

New Democracy has pushed a right wing agenda in the hope of winning back disaffected supporters but has only managed to strengthen parties further to its right. The continuing rise of Neo-Nazi Golden Dawn and the re-emergence of ultrnationalist LAOS on Sunday have exposed the fallacy behind Antonis Samaras’s ideological manoeuvring. He has now led the party into three elections. In each of them has failed to even get near matching the (then) record low of 33.5 percent ND gained in the October 2009 elections, which led to him assuming its presidency.

As for PASOK, Evangelos Venizelos survives to fight another day after the Elia alliance took just over 8 percent of the vote. It was slightly more than expected but PASOK still attracted about 300,000 voters fewer than it did in the national elections of June 2012. This, along with the collapse of former coalition partner Democratic Left (DIMAR), means that the centre-left is drifting aimlessly. It is hard to imagine that Venizelos is the man to give it new purpose.

The way New Democracy and PASOK ran their campaigns highlighted their severe limitations in being able to lead Greece through this transition and into a new political era. Their regression to negativity over the last few weeks speaks to a cavernous absence of vision.

Going into the EU vote, the government had a clear, forward-looking narrative. It was based on the premise that Greece had got over the worst of the crisis and was about to start on slow but gradual recovery. Even New Democracy’s campaign slogan was “Steady steps forward.”

There were actually enough strands to this narrative to make it a good election story. The economy is set to show the first signs of growth, unemployment has stopped rising, banks have been recapitalised, the memorandum is due to expire and tourism arrivals are set to reach a new record.

Yet, New Democracy and PASOK spent so much time on the campaign trail looking backwards. They constantly reminded voters of the difficulties of the last few years, particularly the fraught summer of 2012, and decided to play on voters’ fears. The overriding message became one about SYRIZA dragging Greece back to the dark ages rather than about the government pulling the country out of the tunnel and towards the light.

“Only an accident can take Greece back again and SYRIZA is the accident that must not happen,” Samaras told New Democracy supporters last week. “He wags his finger, makes threats, blackmails and uses foul language,” said Venizelos of Tsipras. “He is creating the conditions for a symbolic civil war. He is driving away investors.” New Democracy’s TV spots even suggested that 20 million tourists would leave rather than come to Greece if SYRIZA won Sunday’s vote.

It did not make sense for the coalition to expend all its energy trying to undermine SYRIZA when the opposition was doing such a good job of it itself.  SYRIZA has repeatedly failed to take advantage of numerous opportunities to dominate the political agenda and convince voters it has a viable alternative for Greece’s future.

The only conclusion we can draw is that New Democracy and PASOK, the two parties whose hubris was at the root of the Greek crisis, are unable to create a convincing vision of post-memorandum Greece. They appear to have reached the sum total of their powers in their roles as executors of Greece’s bailouts.

The fragmentation of the Greek political scene (more than 17 percent of Greeks voted for non-parliamentary parties on Sunday), SYRIZA’s immaturity and the jaded nature of the two ruling parties leave us with a sprawling pool of mistrust and little else. This creates prime opportunities for those who want to substitute substance with polarisation. We need no more evidence than Golden Dawn’s continuing rise to appreciate this.

Greece finds itself in a remarkably similar situation to the one Thucydides describes in The Peloponnesian War:

Society had become divided into two ideologically hostile camps, and each side viewed the other with suspicion. As for ending this state of affairs, no guarantee could be given that would be trusted, no oath sworn that people would fear to break; everyone had come to the conclusion that it was hopeless to expect a permanent settlement and so, instead of being able to feel confident in others, they devoted their energies to providing against being injured themselves.”

For Greece, the danger is that the longer this transition goes on the more people will come to accept a daily diet of inertia and parochial antagonism. The challenge is there for someone to give the country the decisive jolt it needs to escape this limbo.

2 Comment(s)

  • Posted by: Still_Another_Greekboy

    A very perceptive analysis of the current political situation.

    The question is who has the most to gain from the current status quo? The answer is fairly evident: the parties in the current governing coalition. Not only are they beholden to various economic and business interests, but regardless how much they twist and turn in the wind they cannot evade the simple truth that they - and no one else - are responsible for where the country is at after 40 years of failed government. This is a fact that cannot be ignored no matter how much Venizelos, Samaras and co. try to obfuscate the issue.

    My disappoint, such as it is, with SYRIZA, is that it doesn't have the political courage to be even more radical. There is, in my opinion and as you underscore, a desire amongst many of us for new solutions, new answers, new beginnings. These solutions, these answers, these beginnings cannot be provided by people who belong to the past (Samaras, Venizelos and co.). Nor can it be provided by yet more years of an ideology - neoliberalism - that has spectacularly failed.

    Young, dynamic, forward-looking politicians who forcefully represent the electorate and not corporate interests and who implement ethical, just and environmentally responsible solutions will be the future of the country.

    While Tsipras might be such a person (at least I'm wiling to give him a chance), the old dinosaurs of ND and PASOK have definitely been tested and failed. Time to move on.

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  • Posted by: Philip Ammerman, Navigator Consulting Group

    Excellent article.

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