A factional story: When disunity came to visit New Democracy

Agora Contributor: Nick Malkoutzis
Photo by Myrto Papadopoulos [www.myrtopapadopoulos.com]
Photo by Myrto Papadopoulos [www.myrtopapadopoulos.com]

In the public relations battle between New Democracy and SYRIZA, which has rumbled on since 2012, the conservatives have consistently targeted what they believe is the leftists’ Achilles’ heel: A lack of unity.

Indeed, one of SYRIZA’s biggest weaknesses is that the party finds it difficult to overcome its past, when it was a loose association of left-wing political factions. Often party leader Alexis Tsipras will say one thing one day only for a member of his party to express a completely different opinion the next. Also, Tsipras may speak one way to a non-SYRIZA audience and then change his tone and substance substantially to address party members.

This double speak is one of the reasons that the Greek electorate has yet to place enough faith in SYRIZA so it could be regarded as undoubtedly being the next party of power. New Democracy’s decision to pick at its opposition’s wound has paid off so far, preying just enough on the doubt of wavering voters who feel they cannot make the leap of faith across to Tsipras’s side.

As we head towards possible early elections in March 2015, if Parliament fails to elect a new president, we can expect New Democracy – and its coalition partner PASOK – to exert pressure on the cracks in the united front SYRIZA has tried to portray since it morphed into a single party in the summer of 2013.

However, the stakes will be extremely high over the months to come and that means New Democracy, not just Tsipras and his team, will come under scrutiny. It might be the case that when the spotlight is turned on the party Prime Minister Antonis Samaras moulded over the last few years people begin to realise it is riddled with the same division and incompatibility as the party it accuses of factionalism.

The disparity between New Democracy’s different parts is gradually being uncovered as the conservatives seek to bolster their ranks for the upcoming confrontation with SYRIZA. The discussion that has begun about ultranationalist LAOS working with the conservatives and others who have quit the party, such as anti-austerity Independent Greeks leader Panos Kammenos, being welcomed back is already placing considerable stress on New Democracy’s creaking joints.

Administrative Reform Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis was the first to speak out last week against this attempt to create a broad right-wing alliance, fearing that moderate voices like his will get drowned out amid the bellicose cries from the Alpha Male right-wingers returning to their old hunting ground.

LAOS leader Giorgos Karatzaferis’s acrimonious departure from New Democracy and his subsequent constant sniping at the party have left plenty of ill feeling towards him, even though he was briefly part of the same government as Samaras in late 2011/early 2012. The same could be said of Kammenos, who has been vitriolic in his attacks on Samaras. Then there is the ragtag collection of right-wing politicians, also New Democracy outcasts, who formed the Union for the Homeland and the People earlier this year and who are being courted by the conservatives.

It seems there is a willingness within New Democracy to let bygones be bygones so the right can be reborn. Health Minister Makis Voridis and his predecessor Adonis Georgiadis, who were members of LAOS until early 2012, have been handing out invitations to the reunion with glee. The purpose of this campaign is not born of some new conservative vision for the future of Greece but from the very fundamental instinct for survival. Karatzaferis put it quite clearly and succinctly: “I will do everything I can to prevent Tsipras coming to power.” The desperation to stop SYRIZA’s rise is what is driving this realignment of forces on Greece’s right.

However, in its bid to stave off Tsipras and Co. New Democracy may end up undermining itself. It went virtually unnoticed or uncommented on that Mitsotakis essentially threatened to resign if Karatzaferis, Kammenos and others come on board. “A small loss,” some in the conservative party might say. But the problem for Samaras is that this would be just a minor manifestation of the disharmony being created within his party.

Mitsotakis’s protest points to the major cleavage in the party, which is between the reformists and the “popular right.” These two groups are now pulling in completely different directions: One is focussed on public sector reform and market liberalisation, while the other wants handouts and the protection of certain interests. But even beyond this major dividing line, Samaras’s New Democracy has become a collection of disparate factions.

Since taking over control of the party in late 2009, Samaras has sought to move New Democracy to the right and away from the centre ground that his predecessor Kostas Karamanlis went in search of. In doing so, he has created a party that has no common identity: The wilting reformists like Mitsotakis sit alongside the repentant fascists like Voridis; the technocrats like ex-Development Minister Kostis Hatzidakis compete with the political bear baiters like Georgiadis; and all the time Samaras’s entourage pretends it gets along with those still loyal to Karamanlis. Add to this the possible return of ex-party members and cooperation with the chameleon-like Karatzaferis and suddenly New Democracy begins to seem like an increasing liability.

In its despairing effort to block off SYRIZA and win back the hundreds of thousands of voters who have drifted towards Golden Dawn, New Democracy is shedding the last remnants of its existence as a political party and becoming instead a vehicle of opportunism. At a time when Greece is in desperate need of a coherent strategy for its post-bailout era, where vital questions regarding education, health, fiscal, economic and social policy need to be answered, Samaras is creating a political entity strictly for the short-term. In the months to come, as it turns up the heat on SYRIZA and accuses the opposition of disunity, a look in the mirror might reveal the bitter reality.

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