Posts Tagged 'bakoyannis'

Samaras: too small for his boots?

By Harry van Versendaal

“A foolish consistency may be the hobgoblin of little minds,” R.W. Emerson said, but — as Antonis Samaras has found out — too much inconsistency can be politically damaging.

In 2009, the 61-year-old conservative politician took over a broken New Democracy party promising to rebuild it around the idea of “social liberalism.” It was an exclusive concept that moved the party further to the right on Greece’s political spectrum by embracing such values as national pride, Orthodoxy and skepticism of the markets. Awkwardly echoing Bismarck, the Greek politician claimed he could hear the distant hoofbeats of history.

A few months later, ND came out against the bailout deal that George Papandreou’s Socialist government signed with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. Samaras went on to oust Dora Bakoyannis, the centrist former foreign minister who had earlier challenged him in the party leadership race, for backing the aid package in Parliament. Bakoyannis, in turn, formed her own pro-bailout splinter party, taking some of her ND colleagues with her. Strangely, Samaras had done the same in the early 1990s, as he left ND to form his own party, Political Spring, bringing down the government of Constantine Mitsotakis, Bakoyannis’s father, in the process.

As a result of his tactics, Samaras drove away the party’s middle-ground supporters who had been key in handing his predecessor, Costas Karamanlis, victory in two parliamentary elections.

His opposition to the memorandum was short-lived. Faced with bankruptcy, Greece earlier this year had to sign a second bailout deal worth 130 billion euros to keep the country afloat until 2014. In his most controversial U-turn, Samaras asked his MPs to support the aid package. The decision prompted a great deal of controversy in the right-wing anti-bailout camp inside and outside the party as epithets ranged from “flip-flopper” to “traitor.” Some 20 deputies refused to back the deal in the House and were as a result expelled from the party. One of the rebels, Panos Kammenos, went on to form the populist anti-bailout party Independent Greeks, sucking a great deal of support from ND on the right. After turning his back on the political center, Samaras had now disaffected a large portion of the right.

ND’s role in the power-sharing government that followed Papandreou’s clumsy exit from the driver’s seat only gave voice to Samaras’s critics. Although pledging to support the implementation of the bailout deal, he undermined it at every step of the way while constantly bleating for a snap election.

On May 6, Samaras finally got what he wished for. But, in yet another instance of political miscalculation, the outcome of the ballot was a far cry from what he had hoped for. His party came first in the vote, but the result was a Pyrrhic victory as Samaras had spent a good part of the campaign calling for a clear conservative majority. The numbers were painful. Samaras had inherited the worst support in the history of ND — Karamanlis’s 33.5 percent in 2009 — and managed to drive it even lower, scoring an embarrassing 18.8 percent. The party lost more than a million voters in less than three years, during which it was not even in government.

Like a pupil resitting exams again and again, the poor marks have prompted Samaras to rebrand his politics. Now he wants to build a “grand center-right front.” The results of his overture have been mixed. Most of the smaller liberal parties, including the pro-reform Drasi, turned down the offer. Ironically, it was his bitter political rival Bakoyannis that was this week duly welcomed back into the fold as the two announced they were joining forces in a “patriotic, pro-European front.” And as his acceptance of defectors from the disintegrating nationalist LAOS party into ND demonstrate, there is hardly any ideological or quality filter to Samaras’s attempts to broaden his party’s appeal.

As conservative ideologues would be the first to admit, the political horse-trading of the past few days smacks of unscrupulous opportunism. As it happens, cliches have their place. A true leader must be proactive, he must shape events and not just be blown about in different directions by them. But if the ability to inspire a unifying national vision is a safe measure of a politician’s greatness, then Samaras has proved to be a political pygmy.

ND may well recover by June 17. But Samaras will only have SYRIZA to thank as the leftist party’s fuzzy economics and pie-in-the-sky rhetoric is making many people afraid that Alexis Tsipras’s vision of a bailout-free utopia will lead the country out of the eurozone.

Unlike his new archrival, however, the ND boss lacks an ideal — and that may prove to be his undoing. Samaras may have changed his political tune one too many times for Greek voters to give him the mandate he so desires.

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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.”

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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