Posts Tagged 'avramopoulos'

Cynical SYRIZA puts its soul on the line

By Harry van Versendaal

If there’s one thing core SYRIZA voters were not prepared for before the January 25 ballot, it is the degree of cynicism that has come from the direction of the newly-installed administration.

Hours after winning a snap election that it triggered itself, the left-wing anti-bailout party of Alexis Tsipras went on to announce it would form a government with the populist right-wing party Independent Greeks (ANEL). The news broke so fast, mere hours after the conservative New Democracy party had conceded defeat, few out there had any doubts the deal had actually been sealed long beforehand.

Despite immense differences in overall ideology, the two parties have been united for nearly three years in their opposition to the country’s bailout agreements and the brutal austerity policies that came with them. Panos Kammenos, the ANEL chief who left New Democracy over the bailout program in 2012, stands for everything that makes a good old SYRIZA voter shudder: he is a nationalist, anti-immigrant, homophobic and devoutly Orthodox Christian. He was given the Defense Ministry portfolio, a dream job for the outspoken and short-tempered politician, while his appointment suited the leftist party, often accused of being soft on security and foreign policy. In one of his first acts in office, Kammenos caused Turkey to scramble fighter jets by flying in a helicopter over the uninhabited islet of Imia in the eastern Aegean over which Greece and Turkey came to the brink of war in 1996.

The alliance with ANEL left a bitter taste in the mouths of grassroots voters who have stuck up for SYRIZA from the time when it was still a miniscule political force (founded in 2004 as an umbrella party for several leftist groups, the Coalition of the Radical Left, SYRIZA’s full name, won just 241,539 votes, or 3.3 percent, in its first election later that year, just entering parliament). Many would have preferred to see an alliance with To Potami (The River) which ended up fourth in January’s election. Notwithstanding its fuzzy rhetoric and uncertain direction, the centrist newcomer sits closer to SYRIZA’s liberal, progressive values.

It did not take long before To Potami criticized SYRIZA’s hardline approach to debt negotiations that have now sparked warnings of a euro exit. Its reaction added voice to the more pragmatic folk within SYRIZA who had ruled out a collaboration with the party of Stavros Theodorakis on the grounds that bargaining for a better deal should be SYRIZA’s top priority and that an ambivalent, half-hearted To Potami would have no qualms about throwing SYRIZA under the bus. Once it has clinched a better deal, the argument goes, an empowered SYRIZA can win an absolute majority after calling a snap election.

The irony is that few SYRIZA voters really expected that the party would make true on its campaign pledge to clash with the nation’s foreign creditors. More, rather, had taken for granted that Tsipras would perform a “kolotoumba” (somersault, or about-face) the instant he took office. But they did not mind, as long as the despised New Democracy was swept from office.

Realpolitik was again at full play during this week’s presidential election – the political process that triggered Greece’s premature election in the first place. Once again, the party let down those who expected a leftist president – among them WWII resistance hero and SYRIZA MEP Manolis Glezos – to succeed Karolos Papoulias, a former PASOK minister. Despite rife speculation that he would nominate Dimitris Avramopoulos, a former conservative minister currently appointed at the European Commission, Tsipras picked Prokopis Pavlopoulos, a former interior minister and parliamentary spokesman for New Democracy.

Pavlopoulos, who was comfortably elected president earlier this week, has been accused of filling thousands of state sector jobs with conservative party cronies and acolytes during his stint as interior minister between 2004- 2009. He is as much a supporter of the bailout agreements voted in Parliament, as a symbol of the causes that forced Greece to sign them in the first place. He also was in charge during the massive riots that broke out in Athens following the police shooting of teenager Alexandros Grigoropoulos in December 2008.

During a speech to the party’s parliamentary group, Tsipras defended the decision to nominate Pavlopoulos saying it was aimed at forging “unity and consensus” in society at a difficult period. A better explanation might be that the nomination enabled SYRIZA to forge a split inside the traumatized New Democracy of ex-premier Antonis Samaras. At the same time, Tsipras made an overture (not the first one) to the conservative faction controlled by former Premier Costas Karamanlis, a moderate who won two consecutive elections in the 00’s by swaying Greece’s so-called middle ground.

All that could be forgiven (though hardly forgotten) if SYRIZA manages to come back with a meaningful result from tense negotiations in Brussels. If it clinches a deal, the party will gradually have to deliver on issues like police reform, immigration, justice and labor rights to reassure leftist voters. If it loses the bailout fight, the party may prove unable to win back its soul.

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The wrong mix that pushed ND to the right

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

By Harry van Versendaal

It was blurry and opportunistic but it anchored New Democracy at the center of Greece’s political spectrum. The once-hyped middle-ground policy, the brainchild of Costas Karamanlis’s spin doctors, successfully reeled in the pool of centrist voters previously attracted by the modernist-minded PASOK leader Costas Simitis, giving the conservative leader a victory in the 2004 elections.

ND has abruptly turned its back on that legacy, as new leader Antonis Samaras steers the party to the right on virtually every topic from the economy to foreign policy and immigration.

“Samaras stands for the most base nationalist, reactionary and xenophobic elements of society,” a former ND deputy who wished to remain anonymous told Kathimerini English Edition. “His political credo has nothing to do with the liberal and pro-European line that won elections past,” he said in reference to the legacy bequeathed by the late Constantine Karamanlis, the emblematic politician who established the party in 1974.

Samaras unveiled his political religion during the party’s race for a new president in 2009. Behind the obfuscatory fog of generalities, Samaras’s brand of “social liberalism” was basically a repackaging of the old-fashioned popular right built around patriotism, tradition and suspicion of an unfettered free market.

It all became clearer when Samaras addressed the Thessaloniki International Fair last month. The 60-year-old politician made references to Bismarck’s “horses of history.” He invoked the “dream of 1821,” a reference to Greece’s War of Independence against the Ottoman occupation. He promised to make education more ethnically aware and to scrap PASOK’s more liberal citizenship law should ND be voted into power. And, finally, he promised increased scrutiny for asylum seekers and a tougher line on crime and drugs.

All that was topped with an appeal to God. “This is a battle for survival. In the trenches there are no atheists, everyone prays,” he said, receiving a nod from a teary-eyed Thessaloniki Bishop Anthimos.

The new profile is reflected in Samaras’s narrow circle of advisers — most prominently Chrysanthos Lazaridis, a member of the nationalist Diktyo 21 think tank (interestingly also a former member of the Communist Party of the Interior). The transformation has naturally drawn vitriol from pundits on the left, but also raised eyebrows from ND’s more liberal cadres, who “feel totally estranged within the party,” in the words of the former MP.

ND’s two vice presidents, respected former European Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas and fuzzy centrist Dimitris Avramopoulos, are reportedly uncomfortable with the reactionary yen of their new leader. Deputies Costis Hatzidakis and Kyriakos Mitsotakis also appear to feel out of place in the nascent formation. ND has found itself alienated inside the European People’s Party, which brings together all center-right parties in the European Parliament.

Analysts say the penchant is more ideological than cynical.

“Samaras’s political record shows he is a true believer in this type of ideology,” George Pagoulatos, a professor of European political economy at Athens University of Economics and Business, said in a recent interview with Kathimerini.

Vassiliki Georgiadou, a political science professor at Panteion University in Athens, agrees that Samaras’s ND is, at least in part, propelled by doctrinaire conviction, rather than necessity. “It’s about who ‘we’ are, ‘our’ ideological principles,” she said.

Samaras, an economics graduate of Amherst College, Massachusetts, where he famously shared digs with George Papandreou, was eventually beaten by his roommate in the race for Greece’s top post. Samaras’s political journey has been less straightforward than that of his old friend.

As ND’s foreign minister, in 1993 Samaras helped bring down the government of Constantine Mitsotakis, accusing him of adopting a soft stance on the still-unresolved Macedonia issue. He went on to establish his own short-lived Political Spring party before his spectacular comeback into the fold that saw him climb all the way to the highest echelon of ND. In a major blow to ND’s liberal faction, he beat Dora Bakoyannis, Mitsotakis’s daughter, in the leadership contest.

Pragmatism

The repositioning orchestrated by ND’s apparatchiks since that day has also been dictated by pragmatism.

As Greece’s disillusioned voters turn their backs on the political system and institutions that have failed them, Georgiadou says, politicians are turning to ideas and values that have not been discredited in the popular mind. “The conservatives are falling back on tried-and-tested recipes. The nation, as such, is a timeless value,” she said.

For Pagoulatos, ND is trying to depoliticize its public language in a bid to attract those parts of society that have grown skeptical of globalization or even the European Union project. “By sticking to traditional values, ND is betting on that parochial sentiment that runs across all societies. There’s an element of nostalgia in all this,” he said.

ND has played the nostalgia card with a good dose of economic populism.

“The conservatives deem they can capitalize on the decline of the ruling party and voter frustration with the Memorandum,” Pagoulatos said in reference to the bailout deal signed between the Socialist administration and the European Union and International Monetary Fund.

Samaras, who on Wednesday turned down a proposal to travel with Papandreou to a key European summit in Brussels on Sunday, opposes PASOK’s economic policy mix, promoting instead a pleasant-sounding cocktail of lower taxes and more incentives for business. Meanwhile, ND has voiced opposition to layoffs in the state sector. In a move that smacked of 1980s-style populism, the conservatives vowed to ditch government plans to place some 30,000 state workers in a special labor reserve force as soon as they return to power.

“It’s a return to the old-style popular right, the paternalistic right, which is using the public sector as a social and political reservoir,” Pagoulatos said.

Losing the middle

In unmaking Karamanlis’s overture to the political center, Samaras seems to be hurting the electability of his party. On the other hand, some commentators say, ND is faced with a growing threat on its right, as recent polls show the ultranationalist LAOS party going from strength to strength.

A smarter strategy, Georgiadou says, would allow the conservatives to undermine support for LAOS without breaking ties with centrist voters. Instead, she says, Samaras made a “tactical blunder.”

“He did the very last thing he should have done; that is to shout out loud that ND is a very right-wing party, a party of God and the nation,” Georgiadou said. “Samaras did not have to pull his party so much to the right. After all, he alone as a politician symbolizes a shift in that direction,” she explained.

Others insist centrist voters were beyond Samaras’s reach anyway. “He does not run the risk of losing the middle ground — simply because the middle ground would never vote for someone like him,” the former MP said.

Samaras evidently believes that ideological purity is strength. Such purity may indeed galvanize the grass roots who have grown allergic to consensual centrism. But it will not necessarily translate into winning numbers. According to an opinion poll conducted this month, ND’s approval rating is an anemic 31.5 percent — not enough to govern on its own, although it does lead the Socialists by a comfortable margin. With an approval rating of 35 percent, Samaras’s own popularity is lagging behind that of two minor party leaders.

“The party’s catchment will shrink. ND is perhaps more consistent on an ideological level, but it will come to express a rather stagnant slice of the electorate,” the ex-MP said.

“With the things he has said and done, Samaras has tied his hands behind his own back.”

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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