The debate has intensified about whether Greece’s centrist parties can come together in a new political project that could play a significant role in domestic politics. Can centrist politicians build a third political pole capable of challenging leftist SYRIZA and the conservative opposition New Democracy party, or will the new grouping simply be reduced to a political buffer zone between its biggest rivals in the country’s two-party system?
Political surveys to date indicate there is no clear answer. Democratic Alignment has been polling between 5 and 7 percent, while support for To Potami centrists has been in the range of 1.5 to 2.5 percent. Even if we were to assume that the new party does manage to absorb all these votes, support would still barely reach double digits. Such a prospect, of course, falls short of the expectations of centrist politicians, the most optimistic of whom have said they aim to replace SYRIZA as New Democracy’s main rival. At the same time, a more moderate ambition is that the new party will establish itself as Greece’s third biggest party, but not too far behind the main opposition.
Although it’s months since Fofi Gennimata, president of the once-dominant PASOK socialists, initiated the process for electing a leader for the nascent center-left party, the news initially failed to strike a chord with the public. Reports of endless negotiations involving officials from all sides naturally left voters mostly uninterested.
Everyone admits it was the candidacy of Athens Mayor Giorgos Kaminis that put some spark into a rather mundane procedure. The center is not exactly fashionable, but it has shown some signs of life. Several key candidacies (PASOK MEP Nikos Androulakis, To Potami chief Stavros Theodorakis, former ministers Yiannis Maniatis and Yiannis Ragousis) added to the suspense. At the moment, one cannot be certain about the outcome, even if there are some clear favorites out there. However, this uncertainty is vital for the new project as it is helping to draw public attention to it. After the race, any procedural hiccups will be mostly forgotten (remember the reactions to New Democracy’s botched leadership election); most will focus on the turnout and the political implications of the result.
Voter turnout will not just be a matter of arithmetic. It will to a large extent decide the momentum of the new party. A low turnout (particularly if the number fails to break the symbolic barrier of 100,000 ballots) will undermine the project from the start.
How strong could the appeal of the new party be? It’s hard to answer this question at the moment. In a recent poll, 14 percent of respondents said they would vote for the new party in the next election. That is good news for the champions of the project, but they would be advised to be patient. The figure may look good in newspaper headlines, but the fact is that it’s extremely hard to trust polls when a party doesn’t even have a leader or a charter yet.
We are at a crucial turning point. On the one hand, the center does seem to have the strength to make a comeback. On the other, there are too many procedural and political obstacles to make a safe prediction.
The most crucial question, however, lies elsewhere: Is there really demand for a new centrist party? In other words, are there enough voters to back a party that will occupy the political space between SYRIZA and New Democracy? Although there are indications that the voters are there in theory, in practice their behavior will also depend on the political contribution and character of party competition. For example, the shift of New Democracy and SYRIZA to the center – a sign of gradual political stabilization – poses a threat to the new party, which must persuade voters that it has something of its own to contribute to the political system.
For the time being, the discussion about the future of the center is theoretical – it is in other words related to random variables rather than specific strategies and moves that need to take place.
* Nikos Marantzidis is professor of political science at the University of Macedonia. He is also visiting professor at Charles University in Prague.