Mon Feb 25th, 2008 at 12:28:42 PM EST
Well I haven't been able to write much on events in Greece after the last elections, so here's a quick review of a very eventful past five months that has seen social protest, sex scandals, financial scandals, both mainstream parties struggling in opinion polls and the "hard"-left reaching unprecedented opinion poll ratings, while an international crisis is brewing concerning the name of Greece's "unspeakable" northern neighbor.
1. Post-election blues: A condition afflicting not surprisingly, the defeated socialists. Immediately after the elections and the socialists' (PASOK) second resounding defeat (managing to lose more votes in opposition than the governing party did, despite this summer's fire disasters and a host of significant scandals), George Papandreou's position at the helm of the party was challenged. The challenger was the party's best orator, a respected professor of constitutional law and quite obviously PASOK internal opposition leader, Evangelos Venizelos.
A party referendum was scheduled for November. Initially Venizelos seemed a sure bet, however the eagerness and hurriedness with which he declared his candidacy (before the final election results were even in) and his following imperial behavior and his quite obvious deep thirst for power, scared most of his would-be supporters, Venizelos lost by something close to 56-38 (6% went to a third candidate). Thus George Papandreou remained president of the Panhellenic Socialist Movement... Shades of political differentiation between the candidates were absent. In their place personal accusations and tactical posturing reigned. The Greek electorate was not impressed.
The socialists at that time were slipping at the polls at the same rate as the conservatives. Their voters were "leaking" towards the left parties and especially SYRIZA, a coalition of (a wide variety of) leftist parties, led by Synaspismos, the party of the anti-stalinist/former eurocommunist/alternative and green left, which had lept from 3% to 5% during the September elections, remaining the second largest leftist party after the monolithically traditionalist KKE, the "orthodox" communist party, with a massive working class organized base (they reached 8% in the September general elections). Together the two left parties had scored their highest total in national elections since 1989. (A few notes about the Greek political landscape can be found here).
Thus as social tensions rose and the socialists were busy hurling invectives at each other in what only charitably could be described as a party "debate", the left was polling stronger in the opinion polls (which started being published a month after the elections as the government had a razor thin majority of +2 in the parliament). However no one expected this shift to last for long. As soon as the socialists had a leader with a clear mandate, surely polls would start to look normal again, people were saying. However things haven't been developing as expected.
- Reforming Social security: This was happening, around the same time that the conservative government launched its Social Security Reform initiative, proposing higher retirement age, unification of disparate pension and social security/healthcare schemes etc. - proposals that led to massive union reaction. The reaction is still there, however PASOK can't seem to gain from it because of its own proposals and policies during their governmental tenure, which were not that different in philosophy with what the conservatives brought to the table. Recent attempts by the government to privatize the main cargo facilities in the ports of Piraeus and Salonika, have led to a series of strikes by Greek dockworkers, who (impressively) refused to be bribed to submission, when the government offered them an extensive package of early retirement benefits and guaranteed jobs and steady salaries (for the existing permanent workforce only). I note that three of the prospective buyers are state owned companies (from China, Singapore and Dubai).
- The church: Archbishop Christodoulos, head of the autonomous church of Greece, passed away early this month. His days in office were marked by a combination of right-wing populist rhetoric, closet fundamentalism and intolerance, church scandals and political posturing. His elected successor, Ieronymos, seems a much more tolerant and low-key spiritual leader, keeping a safe distance from politics and marking his first days in office by rejecting all of the creature comforts associated with it. He might be open to a true separation of church and state - this we will have to wait and see, although it isn't his decision to make by himself. This is a very good thing.
- Sex, lies, videotape: As the public raged over the social security reforms and a host of other ills (I note that the minister for social security and labor was sacked after it was revealed that illegal and uninsured Indian workers were employed in his - illegally built - summer home outside Athens), the Zachopoulos scandal broke. You can read about it (it is still developing fast), i.e. here and here, but the main picture is that it is a sex scandal, a corruption scandal, a scandal involving the personal decisions of an up to now "teflon"-prime minister, a scandal involving shady journalists, as money launderers and blackmailers, conservative politicians as deal bakers and facilitators of deals with these blackmailers - indeed most of the country's pathologies. As one might imagine, this is a feast for every tier of the media industry and indeed it remained the main news-story in the press and on TV for over two months. This hurt the prime-minister and his party, but surprisingly the socialists followed the government's fall in the opinion polls. The main beneficiary of all this was the (widely perceived as non-corrupt) left and especially SYRIZA, which by early January was (for the first time ever) polling ahead of the communists.
- Shift to the left. The Greek version of the Siemens scandal, which we know implicates high ranking official in both the pre-2004 socialist government and the current conservative party, only makes things worse for the two-party system. So does the resurgence of mass trade union rallies and successful 24 hour general strikes. SYRIZA has beeen registering a 1% per fortnight increase in successive polls an unprecedented rate of increase in support which leaves pundits divided on whether it is just a temporary freak of politics or the beginning of a new era.
The latest poll published, yesterday, was nothing sort of amazing: The conservatives are at 31% (~-11% from the last elections), the socialists at 28 (~ - 10%) SYRIZA at 16% (+11%), the Communists at 7% (-1%) the extreme right at 3,8 (0%) while undecided/abstentions are around 11%. Moreover in the age category 18-34 SYRIZA is leading all parties.
This incredible shift was helped (although it was apparent even before) by the decision of Alekos Alavanos, the SYRIZA and Synaspismos leader (who led the party from bare survival near the 3% margin needed for parliament entry to an embrace of social opposition movements and wider popularity), to leave the presidency of Synaspismos in order to make way for a younger generation of activists (of the Seattle-Genoa generation), personified by the boy-wonder of the Greek left, Alexis Tsipras, a 34 year old Athens city council, who led a coalition of city activists to an impressive 11% of the mayoral vote in 2006. The fact alone that Alavanos was willing to leave his position for the greater good of the party, in a country were people in positions of power no matter how insignificant, are loathe to leave their seats no matter what their record, was seen as something refreshing, honest and brave (and was favorably compared to Papandreou's refusal to accept any blame for his party's poor performance). That Tsipras (see picture below), who was elected president of Synaspismos a few weeks ago in his party's scheduled congress, with 70% of the electors votes, is young, good looking and quite competent in handling his media presence doesn't hurt either. The looming problem, however, is that organizationally and in terms of mentality, a coalition party that drew 3% of the vote until a few months ago is utterly unprepared to play major league ball. Tsipras' first and foremost test is whether he can lead the transformation of Synaspismos from a protest party to a party that offers a realistic and radical left alternative. The Overton window has not just shifted, it has been teleported half a mile to the left; however whether the opinion poll numbers will become vote tallies and whether a party to the left of the German Linke can create a new reality-based agenda and preserve this momentum, remains to be seen.
6. The Republic of [insert term here] Macedonia Newer developments may test the robustness of the opinion poll numbers much sooner than one expected. UN mediated discussions regarding the official name of the country known in Greece as "the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia", are under way. If no agreed solution is reached, Greece threatens to veto Macedonia's NATO bid. The Greek position has shifted from the utterly untenable "no name that includes the word Macedonia or its derivatives" of the 1990s, to acceptance of a geographic determinant in the official name of the country (such as "Upper Macedonia"), for a host of reasons, the most rational of which have to do with trade names (as Greece has a province named Macedonia) and possible irredentist aspirations of Macedonian Slav ultranationalists regarding the tiny minority of their conationals that lives nowadays in Greece. Should (as is quite possible), the Greek government insist on its veto, creating problems for NATO's expansion (and of course jeopardizing the Republic of Macedonia's stability in the aftermath of Kosovo, given its substantial, locally concentrated Albanian minority), then Karamanlis might decide to call early elections because of this issue (a national crisis clause for early elections in the Greek constitution makes this possible). In that case, the conservatives might ride on the crisis, cut their losses, drain back most of the extreme right's voters and secure some sort of a majority - or so they hope.
However, regardless of short term results, I sense that the shift we're seeing is deeper and more structural. It is a crisis of representation. Social groups that were safe and comfortable within the two party system have now been shifted to a new reality where, after a series of scandals and disasters (i.e the latest forest fires), they see their interests not being represented by anyone. This involves both a mass of younger Greeks working in precarious and poorly paid jobs, some despite their (often substantial) studies, as older people to whom no one can even promise some sort of state-mediated favor, as the state has been divesting itself of (good) jobs and authority, to people who can't see anyone representing the side of labor anymore among the two parties. Thus (the pan-european) depoliticalization of political discourse due to the convergence of conservatives and socialists on market primacy, combined with home grown thriving clientism, nepotism and all-around corruption of institutions (and high personal debt, and high inflation etc) are leading to a development where existing parties would have to transform or dissolve and regroup on much more explicit political and social terms - and on the basis of new social agendas and alliances. In a sense, the special circumstances and backwardness of Greek capitalism and society have created a situation in which the neoliberal consensus is being (for the first time in Europe I think) contested by the hard left - if only just because the only party that seems to hold any promise is beyond the current consensus (and the fact that the existence of the Communists make them seem like enlightened moderates - but that's another story) and refuses to cut any deals with the Socialists unless they are based upon a clearly antineoliberal (and green) programme.
If the left loses this chance to make animpact, the next chance will come God knows when. And yes, this could be an omen for the whole of Europe - for better or for worse.