The death of a party

By Nikos Marantzidis *

PASOK is holding a party congress before moving on to pick a new leader to replace Evangelos Venizelos this weekend, starting Friday. Interest in this is evidently limited. The in-party issues of the once-dominant Socialists have long ceased to engage the broader public. PASOK’s appeal has followed the party’s electoral decline since 2012.

In a Kathimerini article published a couple of years ago, I argued that PASOK had come full circle as a political force. There were several reasons for this: The party had become poor in ideological substance while its demographic appeal was problematic and its political credibility in tatters. Despite any positive aspects of its legacy, PASOK became identified with Greece’s slide toward bankruptcy, the growth of corruption, the rise of patron-client relations, and the creation of an oversized underproductive state apparatus.

Back then, I also claimed that PASOK was clinically dead and, like every other dead organization, it deserved a dignified burial by its own people. The conditions, I claimed, were ripe for that, but the party leadership would also have to live up to the role. “As long as PASOK stays unburied, it will continue to poison the political environment and prevent alternatives from growing in its place,” I argued.

The above claim was contested by critics, who argued that PASOK would be able to stage a political and electoral comeback. The two elections that followed – the 2014 European Parliament elections and, more importantly, the national elections the following year – eventually dashed their expectations.

Life is full of surprises. PASOK’s burial was eventually undertaken by the most suitable candidate: the son of its founder. Breaking a taboo, former Prime Minister George Papandreou left the party and went on to establish his own political movement. The new party held little promise, but it was strong enough to kill PASOK’s last chances of survival and accelerate its downfall.

Papandreou’s defection was an absolution for those who were considering putting PASOK to death. Today, virtually everyone realizes that the party has come full circle. On top of its devastatingly low popularity, the party faces a mountain of debt.

That said, what is the future of Greece’s center-left? In light of recent developments, there seem to be three alternative options: One is that its traditional pole – the one that has the closest ties to the unions and interest groups that depend on the state – will move toward SYRIZA and forge an alliance if and when the radical leftist party completes its switch to pragmatism. A second alternative is migrating to the center-right of the political spectrum, an option attractive to those ex-ruling PASOK officials who deem that they can survive in a transformed political environment. That would mark an expansion reminiscent of the late Constantine Karamanlis’s overture to the old Center Union in the 1970s. Finally, a third option lies with To Potami, which could host those officials who feel more comfortable with the radical center of Stavros Theodorakis. Despite its young age, lack of social roots and occasional fuzziness, To Potami has proved more durable than Democratic Left (DIMAR) and PASOK because it expresses a very real demand for renewal. It is what is often described as the new center and it occupies the political space of modern (social) liberalism while appealing to educated young and middle-aged voters from the middle and upper classes. The future of this venture is not certain as many challenges lie ahead.

Here is my estimation of what will not happen: PASOK will not be able to carry out a successful bid to rebuild the center-left with itself in the driver’s seat. Like DIMAR, PASOK had an opportunity in 2012-13 but blew it. Whether because of petty politicking or arrogance and ineptness, PASOK and DIMAR made all the mistakes they possibly could.

At the end of the day, Darwin’s theory of the survival of the fittest seems to find its perfect application in the competitive, ruthless and unpredictable political arena. The biggest or strongest do not always make it. On the contrary, it is the most adaptable and flexible who often survive.

For years I believed that this was the lesson to be drawn from PASOK’s history.


* Nikos Marantzidis is professor at the University of Macedonia and visiting professor at Charles University in Prague and Warsaw University.