Coalition deal exposes ideological rift in ND

By Harry van Versendaal

A decision earlier this month by conservative leader Antonis Samaras to back a power-sharing deal with PASOK and the small far-right party LAOS has painfully exposed long-simmering ideological differences inside his New Democracy party.

ND’s agreement to back a provisional government under unelected technocrat Lucas Papademos who has the task of negotiating further loans for Greece has piqued party hardliners who have long opposed the debt-wracked country’s bailout deal with the EU and the IMF – also known as the memorandum – and ruled out any chance of forming a coalition with PASOK.

The move, which has pitted members of ND’s so-called liberal section against its “popular right” wing, came as Samaras appeared to be pulling his party to the right of the political spectrum – a realignment that has been criticized on both ideological and tactical levels.

Failos Kranidiotis, a member of the nationalist Diktyo 21 think tank and close associate of Samaras, last week suggested that liberals were a largely marginal force inside the party.

“These types of MPs are the remnants of a past era for New Democracy,” he said in reference to Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Sotiris Hatzigakis.

The latter, a veteran conservative deputy, was ousted from the party early last week for suggesting that “far right elements” were influencing ND’s decision-making. Kranidiotis, a lawyer who in the past defended Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan, was thought to be among the cadres targeted by Hatzigakis.

Mitsotakis hit back, accusing Kranidiotis of being a populist and an opportunist. He was backed by Mitliadis Varvitsiotis, also a member of ND’s moderate wing, who pointed to the party’s liberal and pro-European credentials.

Interestingly, Samaras decided to tolerate outspoken MP Panos Kammenos after he broke with party ranks to vote down the interim administration which he described as a “junta.”

On Monday Samaras said any further in-fighting would not be tolerated.

New religion, fewer followers?

Propelled by a mix of conviction and opportunism, Samaras has since his election as ND chairman two years ago ditched the middle ground stratagem of his predecessor Costas Karamanlis. This fuzzy, albeit more consensual, creed was credited with swaying a critical mass of centrist voters away from PASOK, earning Karamanlis two successive election victories.

Samaras — also wary of LAOS’s growing influence on the right — has not been shy about polarizing his party. Instead, he has proudly advertized ND’s new political religion that is dominated by love for the nation, traditional middle-class values, and an allergy to unfettered free market forces.

Analysts are divided over whether ND’s existential squabble will eat into the party’s support.

“The existence of conflicting tendencies within the party will, of course, not help boost New Democracy’s political and electoral power,” said Takis Pappas, a political scientist at the University of Macedonia, who claims that the party is not so much threatened by an ideological chasm but rather an “absolute ideological void.”

ND’s numbers are so far anything but impressive. According to an opinion poll held earlier this month, if snap polls were to be held now neither of the two main parties would emerge with enough of the popular vote to form a majority government.

The survey found that 28.5 percent would vote for ND, 19.5 percent for PASOK.

But other analysts insist that regardless of where Samaras choses to take the party, most protest voters, angered by the socialist government’s failures and belt-tightening measures, will go to ND.

“In fact, if the shift came under a nationalist mantle — always popular among voters across Greece’s political spectrum — then ND could well emerge largely unscathed from [the process],” said Dimitri Sotiropoulos, a political scientist at the University of Athens.

Samaras has recently dug in his heels over an EU demand to sign a written pledge to back austerity measures needed to unlock some 8 billion euros of aid that Greece needs next month to avoid defaulting on its debts.

Observers are divided on whether the Europeans are trying to humiliate Samaras following his previous reluctance to support the memorandum signed by the George Papandreou administration. But the pressure has allowed Samaras to play the patriotic card.

New parties, new habits

The recent brawls within ND have fueled speculation that liberal cadres will abandon the party. Some of them might be tempted to join forces with former ND politician Dora Bakoyannis who went on to establish her own centrist, yet so far underperforming, party after losing the 2009 race to Samaras.

For Sotiropoulos the short time until the next general election, tentatively scheduled for February 2012, should keep such defectionist tendencies at bay.

“For all mainstream parties, the impending rise to power provides that strong glue that keeps the party together,” he said.

But not everybody agrees.

Given ND’s ideological differences and the flux political landscape, “it’s natural to expect defections from ND,” said Pappas, adding that he would not be surprised to see a similar urge inside the socialist camp.

The instinct for survival will kick in, Pappas suggests. “Politicians from the two biggest parties will most likely form new parties or political groupings in a bid to save their political skin,” he said.

Since the fall of a military dictatorship in 1974, Greece has mostly been ruled by PASOK and ND governments – a twisted political diarchy that is commonly held responsible for Greece’s nepotist, corrupt and wasteful system of administration.

Political commentator Stavros Lygeros does not rule out a schism inside ND. Interestingly, however, he claims that losing some of his officials will not necessarily do Samaras any harm.

“In fact, they would do Samaras a big favor if they left [the party]. Although I am not sure Samaras sees it this way,” he added, suggesting that many key figures of the old order will no longer be relevant in the nascent political landscape.

We are about to see the end to Greece’s once-unshakeable two-party system, Lygeros suggests. But that does not mean everyone here is prepared for this.

“Many people still think in the old terms. But the fact is both mainstream parties have been discredited. If ND wins [the next election], that will only be because people want to see PASOK go.”

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