By Nick Malkoutzis
Commentary on current political situation in Greece by Nick Malkoutzis, Deputy editor of Greece’s daily English language newspaper, Kathimerini:
What a delicious irony that on Monday – the day that at least one paper carried a headline labeling SYRIZA “the new PASOK” – the leftists announced the results of a vote aimed at uniting the party behind a central vision just a few hours before former PASOK high flier Andreas Loverdos heralded the creation of a new political movement, or would-be party, that splits the Socialists even further.
As SYRIZA attempts to leave behind its days of myriad factions and to create greater cohesion behind a common set of policies, PASOK – the erstwhile epitome of the party coming before anything else – breaks up into ever smaller pieces.
Sunday’s vote was the next step in SYRIZA’s effort to speak with one voice. Since its inception, the party has been made up a variety of groupings from the left side of the political spectrum, such as Eurocommunists, anti-capitalists and ecologists. This has made for a rare polyphony, an attractive feature in times when the urgency of bailout bills means Parliament’s rules, regulations and even role are often steamrollered. The plurality of views created and ebb and flow that kept the party moving and provided a platform for all views, regardless of how controversial they may have been. Matthaios Tsimitakis, a freelance journalist who follows SYRIZA closely, refers to the process as “exhaustive democracy.”
Despite SYRIZA’s impressive rise over the last two years, this form of democracy has proved too exhausting for some Greeks who may have been considered supporting the party. The failure to pull the SYRIZA voices together into a harmonious left-wing chorus may have proved costly.
In his speech to launch the party’s congress on Friday, SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras made a direct appeal to the middle classes to drop their skepticism and embrace the party. But one of the reasons for this reluctance is that some voters who have traditionally backed PASOK and New Democracy are accustomed to hearing one view, seeing MPs unite behind a leader and the party hone its message in preparation for office. The fact they didn’t see this in SYRIZA is one of the reasons that the surge towards the leftists stopped at 26.9 percent in the June 17 elections, less than 3 percent short of victorious New Democracy.
The counter-argument from the SYRIZA camp would likely be that success came too quickly for the party and it would not have been in a position to handle coming to office. The latest efforts – “tectonic shifts” as Tsimitakis calls them – are an attempt to correct this, to make SYRIZA a party of power. “We either become a party of members or remain a party of groupings,” said MP Yiannis Dragasakis, emphasizing the need for the party to rid itself of factionalism and capitalize on its current lead in opinion polls.
However, as is often the case when tectonic plates shift, things don’t always fall into place straight away. At this weekend’s congress, party members overwhelmingly voted to back Tsipras’s drive to mould SYRIZA into one entity. Just under 75 percent voted for the formation of a central committee, backed by Tsipras, that would steer the party and take the key decisions until a spring conference, when SYRIZA could enter the final stage of its metamorphosis. But this meant that just over 25 percent of members voted for the party’s “Left Platform,” which maintains a much more radical stance on issues, including membership of the euro. One in four members being incredulous about the party’s direction is not a statistic that can be ignored.
Beyond that, there is the friction between what Tsimitakis terms “political SYRIZA” and “social SYRIZA,” in other words the arm of the party that tries to plot a strategy that has to do with policies, positions and communication and the section of the party that is focussed just on acting, on picking specific issues, such as immigration, and making an impact at a grassroots level. If the leftists are to be convincing about wanting to govern, these two segments will need to work in tandem. SYRIZA’s head cannot think one thing and its legs do something else.
The party has already hoovered up much of PASOK’s traditional supporter base – civil servants and small business owners – so the path to power could come by swaying the austerity-weary middle ground and the wavering Communists, both of whom are accustomed to more monolithic parties, to get that extra 5 to 10 percent support that will make the difference.
As a civil engineer, Tsipras should know what it takes to build a sturdy structure and he should be aware this will take time and require great care. At the moment, he is being aided by the capitulation of PASOK, where Evangelos Venizelos is the landlord trying to convince prospective buyers that his apartment is not “cramped” but “cosy”, that PASOK is “compact” and not on the verge of irrelevance.
Although vital to the survival of the government, PASOK has no life of its own outside the confines of the coalition. The public has turned its back on the Socialists both for their role in causing the crisis and their part in handling its fallout so disastrously. In this harsh environment, Venizelos is struggling to find somewhere to pitch his tent and form a base camp from which a revival could be launched. But he has seen his expedition team dwindle over the last few days, down from 33 MPs to 27 after the anguishing vote on the new austerity package.
On Monday, he was hoping to unveil an initiative to tackle Golden Dawn and the threat of fascism. Venizelos, with his skill as a constitutional expert, seems to believe he could lead a drive to get the far-right party outlawed. But this attempt at grabbing the public’s attention was undermined by his one-time close associate, Loverdos, who launched his own political initiative: the Radical Movement of Social Democratic Alliance (RIKSSY), moments before Venizelos’s news conference.
Loverdos says he would like to see RIKSSY become a party but it’s not clear where he will find supporters, given that as a member of the PASOK old guard he carries similar baggage to Venizelos. The ex-health and labor minister’s move whittled down PASOK’s parliamentary group even further as Venizelos immediately expelled him. This means New Democracy and PASOK combined have just 150 seats in Parliament and are totally dependant on backing from Democratic Left and the independent MPs that have departed from the two main parties over the last few weeks.
Greece’s center left is in desperate need of a new impetus but it is impossible to see how Loverdos could provide it. His move appears a knee-jerk when the circumstances demand synchronization. Former PASOK veteran Theodoros Pangalos described RIKSSY as an irrelevance, a “rickshaw” as he termed it. Time is pressing, though, if there is going to a significant change in the center left. PASOK heads for its congress in February, when challengers will have to decide whether they are going to try to unseat Venizelos.
Perhaps more significant for Social Democracy in Greece than RIKSSY’s arrival on the scene was the exchange of views between various center-left groups that met in Athens a few days ago. Several months in the planning, six groups – Social Pact (Koinonikos Syndesmos), Forward (Brosta), New Reformers (Neoi Metarithmistes), P80, State 2012 (Politeia 2012) and B Initiative (Protovoulia B) – got together for a discussion about the Greek economy and the state of center-left politics in Greece. Nikos Bistis of Democratic Left and Yiannis Maniatis of PASOK joined the debate, the first such event organized by the country’s Social Democrats.
By all accounts, there was a frank exchange of views that left the impression of future cooperation being possible based around a pro-European, reformist, continental Social Democratic model. The challenge will be to overcome differences and to decide whether to overhaul PASOK and use it as the vehicle to achieve a political impact or whether a new party will have to be formed. Perhaps in a few months, Tsipras might be in a position to pass on some advice.