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Sunday, February 15, 2004


Centering Greek Politics: A Comment on the March 7 Elections

The “Third Greek Republic” founded in 1974 has been dominated by a polarized two-party system. A comparison of the elections in the 1990s and afterward with those of the 1970s and 1980s, however, reveals a marked change — and an important difference — in party identification, which was much weaker in the last elections than at any prior time. According to the table below, 70 percent of Greek voters in 1985 identified with a political party. This percentage remained quite high by southern European standards even in 1989, during a period of economic and political scandals that should have caused disillusionment among partisan voters. Instead, huge rallies organized by PASOK and New Democracy were attended by hundreds of thousands, and the so-called “populist” (partisan) press (newspapers such as Exormêsê and Aurianê) remained highly popular.

Identification with political party (%)

The reasons underlying Greek society’s heavy politicization and polarization during the last 30 years are multiple and complex. Polarization had been an enduring characteristic of Greek politics since the emergence of the “national schism” (ethnikos dichasmos) between liberals and royalists in the beginning of the twentieth century. The Axis occupation of Greece during the Second World War, the Civil War (and subsequent segregation and oppression of “communist sympathizers”), the political turmoil of the 1960s, and the military dictatorship (1967-1974) prevented the smooth functioning of effective bureaucratic politics in the country. The result was the emergence of the two traditional ideological cleavages: left versus right and communists versus anticommunists. All these abnormalities in Greek civic life “forced” people into active political engagement during the post-authoritarian period (the metapoliteusê), as this was the only way they could defend their constitution and, by extension, themselves, from democracy’s numerous enemies inside and outside the country. Moreover, the metapoliteusê was the first time in the history of modern Greece that people freely expressed their political views, without fear of persecution. Naturally, they tended to be enthusiastic about these new freedoms, and politics became central to civic discourse.

In the1980s, polarization was triggered by different but equally strong forces. Andreas Papandreou’s charismatic personality united the Greek center and left behind his party, PASOK. The old Enôsê Kentrou (Center Union) found the leader it had been looking for since the loss of its founder, George Papandreou (grandfather and namesake of the current PASOK leader), in the person of his son (and father of today’s George). The left saw an opportunity to participate in public affairs for the first time since the end of the Second World War. Moreover, Andreas Papandreou’s successful populism guaranteed that he could deprive the smaller left-wing parties of most of their electorate and assimilate them into PASOK. Although an analysis of 1980s populism is beyond the scope of this article, one example will suffice. While the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) continued to address itself to the “industrial proletariat” — which formed only a small minority of the Greek electorate — during that time, Papandreou advertised PASOK as the party of the “unprivileged.” In the event, it would not be hyperbolic to suggest that most Greeks felt unprivileged then — and continue to do so now. Thus, populism’s appeal simplifies the political landscape, which becomes a battleground between two opposing groups: the people and its enemies. As such, populism enhances political polarization.

Something changed, however, during the 1990s. A significant segment of “median” voters now finds it much easier to switch sides, something mostly unthinkable in the past, because the right/anti-right populist discourse has been of limited effectiveness since 1996. The heavy polarization of the metapoliteusê (which, it could be argued, ended with Kôstas Sêmitês’s election in 1996) has given way to a more stable, consolidated democracy. The convergence of both party leaders (Sêmitês and Kôstas Karamanlês) toward the center has also made voting an issue of individual popularity, since the bulk of Greek voters identify themselves, more or less, as centrists. And not only has PASOK abandoned its socialist discourse, but it has also convinced many laissez-faire libertarians from New Democracy that it could — or, at least, that Sêmitês’s government did — administer their interests more effectively than their own party. On the other hand, many “patriots” within PASOK have become disillusioned by the liberal, Western-oriented policy of its post-Andreas leaders and have moved toward Greece’s “patriotic” party, New Democracy. Moreover, recent polls show that PASOK is losing its grip on its traditional electoral base of farmers and workers. In short, things are hardly as clear-cut as they were in the 1980s, when PASOK’s domination of the “unprivileged” was unquestionable and New Democracy’s political discourse targeted — and appealed to — the middle and upper classes. In part, this can be attributed to the changing nature of the aforementioned cleavages, for the communist/anti-communist divide has lost its salience, while the left/right divide has been purposefully undermined. Political behavior has become more fluid, and voting decisions more flexible. This “flexible” body of voters that emerged in the 1990s, and may determine the result of the forthcoming elections, faces a series of dilemmas on March 7.

At the moment, several opinion polls, which are published on an almost daily basis in Greece, show that people have had enough of PASOK. The “socialists” have remained in government, almost without interruption, for over 20 years. If PASOK wins the upcoming elections, it will be its fourth consecutive term in office, and, given the sublime spell the Papandreou name casts over the Greek people, even a fifth term doesn’t seem unlikely. The “flexible” voters worry that PASOK is mutating from a government into a “regime.” How many more times can they watch the same people — who seem to have been there forever, appointed for life instead of being elected for a finite period — presiding over opening ceremonies for new public works? PASOK’s new leader, George Papandreou, promises changes, but no one can fail to notice that the election campaign is being carried out by the same people who have dominated the Greek political scene since 1981. Moreover, various scandals and rumors circulate daily, in the media or by word of mouth, to further undermine PASOK’s victory prospects.

Voting for New Democracy is not without its own problems for our “flexible” voters, however. PASOK might look like a regime, but, at least, it has been a good one. It helped Cyprus gain entry into the European Union, resolved the “terrorism” issue that plagued the country for years, led Greece into the European Monetary Union, and presided over annual economic growth twice the EU average. After a successful EU presidency last year, Greece seems ready to host a respectable Olympiad this summer, while Greek-Turkish rapprochement is not only going relatively well, but has led to tangible changes in daily life, as cuts in the defense budget have been used to fund public projects and military service has been reduced to twelve months. Meanwhile, massive public investment has made Greece look a lot more European than it did in the past, with a new Athens metro, a new airport, impressive bridges, decent motorways, and sports stadiums. In short, a PASOK administration is seen as a reliable electoral option. Furthermore, New Democracy isn’t short on old, familiar faces itself; and most of its parliamentary “barons” express extreme right-wing, populist views, which accord neither with the party’s new, centrist image nor seem helpful in a time of conservative radicalization of large parts of Greek society. The recent example of the Outlook exhibition — which scandalized the Church and its followers because of supposedly blasphemous imagery — illustrates the point. Miltiadês Evert, the former head of New Democracy and the party’s candidate for prime minister, not only protested against the “blasphemous” art in the exhibit, but also threatened to take one of the pieces down himself (!) if the organizers didn’t do so. Still, New Democracy’s cohesion (syspeirôsê) is well above 90 percent, while, according to the latest polls, PASOK is struggling to reach 80 percent.

Obviously, one of the two parties will lose the forthcoming elections. My contention is that whoever loses will benefit in the long run. Both parties suffer from chronic identity conflict, and defeat might help the loser contemplate its future. PASOK has yet to recover from the loss of its founder, and a number of competing visions coexists (not always peacefully) within it. Much of the party’s youth and some old-school backbenchers still dream of the “socialization of the basic means of production” promised in PASOK’s 1974 founding charter. Others, now well into their fifties and sixties, represent the remnants of the Enôsê Kentrou, while PASOK also still includes some “socialist patriots,” who will not abandon the party if it will jeopardize their parliamentary careers. Finally, a strong faction within PASOK preaches modernization, in line with either Sêmitês’s European model or George Papandreou’s liberal American model. A defeat in next month’s elections might force PASOK to decide now where it’s going. Despite Papandreou’s conciliatory image, it seems doubtful (although not impossible) that a “velvet revolution” — which will change both personnel and policies — can take place within the party without a significant turmoil. What is even more worrying for PASOK is that internal turmoil may be unavoidable even with a victory. George Papandreou has promised changes, and people will demand he keep his word. Furthermore, it appears that many of his political stands (on semi-private universities, legalizing light drugs, deliberative democracy) do not conform to established political ideas, or practice, in Greece. This is all to say that Papandreou’s surname can only open the door to the Maximou Mansion for him; he’ll have to fight his way through in order to implement his policies.

Things are not so complicated for New Democracy. The major opposition party comprises only two major ideological factions — “united in their difference” — that await the morning of March 8 to govern the country. The party’s populist right, under the thumb of Kôstas Karamanlês for the moment, is quiet. The libertarian right has also conformed to the centrist image that Karamanlês is trying to establish, and it hopes it will be given the opportunity to implement its political program when it takes over the finance ministry. Some argue that the coexistence of these two opposing wings within New Democracy has been positive for Greece, since it has constrained extremist elements and prevented the emergence of a large and extremist right-wing party. However, New Democracy must decide how it wants to govern, if it wants to govern; it needs to adopt a clear-cut ideological position, for the “cold war” that has been going on for years within the party has repeatedly undermined its electoral chances. A defeat will almost definitely cause a chain reaction in the party, and heads might roll from one side or the other. If worse comes to worst for New Democracy, a defeat may even split it, leaving it an even easier opponent for PASOK, and ruining the promising political career of Kôstas Karamanlês.

At this point, it’s necessary to make some brief comments regarding the Greek left. To start with, it appears that the KKE’s “unreformed” discourse has ensured it steady support as well as the hope of winning some protest votes from disillusioned PASOK voters and culling others from the remaining, small, leftist parties. The KKE is probably the only party not in search of a political identity, since its political doctrines remain unconcernedly solid and unchangeable. It might seem surprising that such hardcore, outdated political discourse still appeals to anyone, anywhere, but Greece is not unique. Extremist parties on both right and left are gaining ground throughout Europe (Jean-Marie Le Pen’s remarkable performance in the last French presidential elections was accompanied by a simultaneous rise in the Trotskyist and Maoist candidates’ vote totals). The loser in all this is mainstream social democracy; and the phenomenon underscores the dangers both of consensus politics as well as party convergence toward the center. As Chantal Mouffe astutely argues in her Democratic Paradox, the attempt to suppress political antagonisms in favor of consensual politics leaves the field of contestation open to extremists. Since the left has deserted the left of the political spectrum, it is inevitable that political movements will arise to express existing but unsatisfied political demands. In this light, the KKE’s success may be explained, in part, by PASOK’s center-right turn.

On the other hand, things look a lot grimmer for what was once called the “Eurocommunist” left. Nothing is going well for its Greek advocate, the Coalition of the Radical Left (Synaspismos). When the party tried to position itself slightly to the left of PASOK, it stayed out of parliament. Now that its leaders have assumed a much more radical stance and allied themselves with extreme leftist parties, the party is again on the brink of parliamentary extinction. Perhaps the problem with Synaspismos is that it hasn’t convinced anyone (not even its own members) of what it actually is, let alone what it stands for. The party’s leader comes from the “radical center” of the old Enôsê Kentrou, some of its members come from the KKE, but the majority of its supporters are committed to a reformist and democratic left. Synaspismos is now participating in an electoral alliance with Trotskyists and Maoists. Worst of all, Synaspismos has never been a workers’ party, which means that its intellectualizing discourse appeals solely to academics and progressive, middle-class intellectuals. The problem is that no leftist party can ever succeed by appealing solely to the middle class, in which there will always be other contestants to oppose its influence; Synaspismos’s natural electoral base is the “unprivileged” (to use PASOK’s vocabulary), since its doctrines are more relevant to that admittedly nebulous group’s social demands.

Despite Synaspismos’s severe schizophrenia, it will be a shame for a modern democracy not to have parliamentary representation from the democratic left. It will be one more step toward the Americanization of Greece’s political system, in which the left will end up represented only in labor unions and academic circles. Perhaps the Greek left’s biggest, most persistent problem is that it has long been fragmented between the backbenches of PASOK, the KKE, Synaspismos, and extra-parliamentary radicals. When it was united in the1960s, it managed to become a formidable force in the Greek parliament. Now, its voice is barely heard.

With the exception of the KKE, the majority of the Greek parliamentary parties are, in fact, formations in search of political and ideological identities. The election results, which will depend largely on the decisions of a flexible group of indecisive voters, might solve some of these problems, one way or another. Whether the results will resolve the issues faced by Greek voters, or by the country, however, remains to be seen. Still, the politicized nature of Greek society guarantees that Greek voters are, if nothing else, aware of these issues.

Nikos Chrysoloras ( is a doctoral researcher in the department of government and the Hellenic Observatory of the London School of Economics and Political Science who specializes in nationalism studies and political theory.
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