The right answer is no

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

By Harry van Versendaal

Fancy rhetoric is no mask for a banal idea. New Democracy’s three-day party congress in Athens certified Antonis Samaras as the top dog but offered woefully little in the way of concrete ideas or actual policy.

Nine months since the general elections that saw the scandal-ridden conservatives of Costas Karamanlis crash out of power, and despite the severe belt-tightening measures imposed by the socialist government in return for an EU/IMF aid package, ND’s approval ratings remain deep in negative territory.

Once a persona non grata among the conservatives – after all, he defected from ND before going on to bring down the conservative government in 1993 – the 59-year-old Samaras is now charged with the task of dragging the damaged and directionless party back to electability.

First he took care of the internal competition. A few months after his stunning election as party leader by the party base, Samaras went on to expel Dora Bakoyannis – daughter of former premier and his own political nemesis, Constantine Mitsotakis – deeming that her political ego was too big to accommodate under the same roof. ND’s third pole, the fuzzy centrist Dimitris Avramopoulos is slated for the new position of vice-president after throwing his weight behind Samaras in the party leadership race.

Having debunked talk of the “middle ground,” the once-hyped, post-ideological catch-all theorem that propelled Karamanlis into power, Samaras has sought a credo to galvanize an electorate put off by consensual centrism. This may satisfy party ideologues but it’s hard to see how it will prevent potential leaks on the right and the left of ND. Giorgos Karatzaferis’s ultranationalist Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) is a magnet for voters on ND’s boundaries on the right, while Bakoyannis is preparing to launch her own centrist party.

Standing on an Obama-style low-level circular podium surrounded by young party supporters, Samaras repeated his commitment to “social liberalism” while expressing his aversion to chameleon tactics. “Our political beliefs are not a beach umbrella that we can move more to the left or right to account for those who desert PASOK or any other,” he said as an overhead panel flashed slogans on a backdrop of changing colors. Ideological purity is strength, Samaras appears to suggest, but so far his dogma has been dogged by a suspicious level of generalization.

In fact, talk of “social liberalism” seems to be rhetorical camouflage for the old-fashioned popular right which has historically come with an emphasis on patriotism, respect for traditional values and suspicion of the “unfettered” free market. Whatever Samaras’s “social liberalism” is, it smacks of populism articulated in the form of blanket rejectionism. Despite early assurances that ND would adopt the constructive, consensual policy warranted by the country’s fiscal misery, Samaras has already said “no” to Kallikratis, an ambitious plan to redraw administrative boundaries and overhaul local government; he has said “no” to the country’s bailout plan signed with the EU and the IMF; and he has signalled that ND will vote against pending labor and pension reforms – not a lot there separating his agenda from the nihilist yens of the “disobedient” KKE communists of Aleka Papariga.

Defeating even the most moderate expectations, Samaras has already pulled ND into a political safe zone. That does not necessarily mean that he will pay a price for it. After all, nay-saying in this part of the world has proved a safe bet for many an opposition party that set their sights on power.

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