Greece’s em­bat­tled op­po­si­tion at a cross­roads

Lib­eral pro-Euro­pean par­ties will ei­ther try to sur­vive in­di­vid­u­ally or unite as a sin­gle po­lit­i­cal camp to de­fend shared val­ues

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY TAKIS S. PAP­PAS *

PE­RIPH­ERAL VI­SION It was the third public vote this year in Greece and, once again, not only did left-wing SYRIZA win big, but its vic­tory was a most ex­tra­or­di­nary one. De­fy­ing ev­ery prog­nos­ti­ca­tion, this party re­tained its pre­vi­ous elec­toral per­cent­age de­spite a ma­jor in­ter­nal split and a dis­as­trous record in gov­ern­ment, dur­ing which banks were closed, cap­i­tal con­trols were im­posed, Greece’s po­si­tion in the euro was put at se­ri­ous risk, and the coun­try ac­cepted a third bailout un­der oner­ous con­di­tions. In no time, and with no sec­ond thoughts, SYRIZA formed a new gov­ern­ment with its for­mer coali­tion part­ner, the pop­ulist right-wing In­de­pen­dent Greeks (ANEL) party, and in tan­dem they set out to con­sol­i­date their pop­ulist hege­mony in Greece.

Now, flip the coin, and what you see is Greece’s badly beaten lib­eral, pro­mar­ket and pro-EU op­po­si­tion par­ties, that is, those po­lit­i­cal forces stand­ing against both the non­demo­cratic ex­trem­ists on left and right (the Com­mu­nist Party and neo-Nazi Golden Dawn), as well as the left-plus-right pop­ulist coali­tion cur­rently in of­fice. The lib­eral camp ex­tends from the cen­ter-left Po­tami and PA­SOK to the Union of Cen­trists (EK) to the cen­ter­right New Democ­racy (ND). Put to­gether, in the last na­tional elec­tion these par­ties re­ceived al­most 42 per­cent of the votes cast, com­pared to a to­tal of 39.2 per­cent for the pop­ulist coali­tion gov­ern­ment par­ties and 12.6 per­cent for the non­demo­cratic and anti-EU far­away par­ties on both left and right.

As things stand, the lib­eral pro-Euro­pean par­ties are faced, in­di­vid­u­ally as well as col­lec­tively, with three haz­ards – iden­tity cri­sis, frag­men­ta­tion and as­phyx­i­a­tion. The first, iden­tity cri­sis, is caused by poor elec­toral re­sults (Po­tami), strate­gic con­fu­sion (PA­SOK), to­tal lack of strat­egy (EK), and in­ter­nal di­vi­sions (ND). Frag­men­ta­tion, se­condly, is ev­i­dent in a con­fined po­lit­i­cal and ide­o­log­i­cal space that con­tains no less than four par­ties. That as­phyx­i­a­tion, thirdly, presents a real dan­ger comes from the fact that the lib­eral op­po­si­tion is en­cir­cled by the pop­ulist SYRIZA-ANEL coali­tion, and thus left with very lit­tle room for ma­neu­ver.

For Greece’s par­ties stand­ing in lib­eral and un­de­servedly pro-Euro­pean op­po­si­tion to a pop­ulist gov­ern­ment, there are only two op­tions avail­able – ei­ther try to sur­vive in­di­vid­u­ally or unite as a sin­gle po­lit­i­cal camp to de­fend po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic lib­er­al­ism. The first op­tion is cer­tain to be detri­men­tal for all par­ties in op­po­si­tion, as in that case they will re­main small and frag­mented, and will re­ward the gov­ern­ment. PA­SOK, its old pop­ulist clothes now stolen by SYRIZA, gives the im­pres­sion of a his­tor­i­cal relic and seems un­able to mod­ern­ize. Po­tami has failed to present it­self as a real mass and or­ga­nized party, which makes its sur­vival un­cer­tain, while EK is most cer­tainly a flash party. As for ND, it may as well im­plode be­cause of the many fac­tions and an­tag­o­nisms that have de­vel­oped in­side it.

Is the amal­ga­ma­tion of all these par­ties fea­si­ble so they can form a com­mon lib­eral and fully EU-com­mit­ted camp? At least the­o­ret­i­cally, and, at first sight, para­dox­i­cally, this is not an en­tirely un­likely pos­si­bil­ity. For one thing, Po­tami and PA­SOK share quite sim­i­lar ideas and pol­icy posi- tions, which are not nec­es­sar­ily op­posed by ND; each and all of these par­ties can field ex­cel­lent cadres, which comes into sharp con­trast with the unattrac­tive­ness of their re­spec­tive, of­ten vain­glo­ri­ous, lead­ers. For another thing, PA­SOK and ND, past dif­fer­ences largely for­got­ten, have al­ready gov­erned to­gether, un­der po­lit­i­cal strain and yet with con­sid­er­able una­nim­ity and not neg­li­gi­ble re­sults; there is real po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal formed be­tween the two par­ties, which is to be used in the fu­ture. Fi­nally, and per­haps most im­por­tantly, ND, the big­gest of the op­po­si­tion par­ties – and one that dis­plays more prag­ma­tism than ide­o­log­i­cal clar­ity – can­not top­ple the pop­ulist coali­tion by it­self; it is in­stead re­quired that it moves to­ward the cen­ter and col­lab­o­rate with all pos­si­ble al­lies that are avail­able to re­con­sti­tute a solid lib­eral camp.

At the mo­ment, ND has too many can­di­dates for the party lead­er­ship but only one real choice: to do what­ever it takes to give the coun­try a po­tent lib­eral cen­ter. The cross­ing to the right is al­to­gether blocked. At least as long as it re­mains in power as ju­nior coali­tion part­ner, ANEL is un­likely to suf­fer sig­nif­i­cant voter loss; in­stead, it could try eat­ing into ND’s more con­ser­va­tive and na­tion­al­is­tic flanks. It would also be folly if ND at­tempted to pen­e­trate Golden Dawn; this party seems to have con­sol­i­dated its dis­turb­ing pres­ence on the far-right of the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum, and any move in­di­cat­ing rap­proche­ment is cer­tain to cost ND sig­nif­i­cant losses of mod­er­ate and lib­eral vot­ers.

It is there­fore patently clear that ND has to take the ini­tia­tive and move de­ci­sively to­ward the lib­eral cen­ter, also de­lib­er­a­tively seek­ing to merge with the other cen­ter and cen­ter-left forces. That is the only way open to it. And that is also the surest way to of­fer an at­trac­tive al­ter­na­tive to the peo­ple who in­creas­ingly pre­fer to ab­stain from elec­tions due to their dis­taste for pop­ulism, their dis­en­chant­ment with lib­er­al­ism, or both to­gether. Any other choice will sim­ply – and most surely – in­ten­sify the lib­eral par­ties’ prob­lems of iden­tity, frag­men­ta­tion and ex­is­tence. It will also be a stroke of luck for Greece’s cur­rently hege­monic pop­ulist coali­tion. * Takis S. Pap­pas is the au­thor of “Pop­ulism and Cri­sis Pol­i­tics in Greece” (Macmil­lan 2014) and co-editor of “Euro­pean Pop­ulism in the Shadow of the Great Re­ces­sion” (ECPR Press 2015). An afi­cionado of Greek pol­i­tics, he cur­rently lives in Stras­bourg, France, work­ing on a new book pro­ject un­der the ti­tle “Demo­cratic Il­lib­er­al­ism: How Pop­ulism Grows.”

A New Democ­racy sup­porter looks on dur­ing the an­nounce­ment of the first exit polls in Athens on Septem­ber 20. De­feat has thrown the party into an ex­is­ten­tial mode.

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