Middle ground is the charm

A big part of the business of politics is imposing your own definition of yourself as against that given of you by your enemy. PASOK largely lost the last election, political analyst Yiannis Loulis claims in his latest book, because it failed to sell its own story of what New Democracy stands for. PASOK did not convince the public that New Democracy is an old-style right-wing party. Whenever the tumbling Socialists resorted to their so-called «hard-rock» right-bashing tactics, Costas Karamanlis did not pick up the gauntlet, projecting instead a calm, moderate posture that reinforced his party’s image as a force of the middle ground. The bogeyman that the Socialists had successfully used in the past, drawing on an awkward subtext of mistrust of the Right in Greece, proved to be a spent force, says Loulis, one of New Democracy’s spinmeisters in the last elections. PASOK was finally crowded out of that part of the political spectrum that now – in a pragmatic political landscape where ideologues no longer determine electoral outcomes – matters most: the center. To be sure, the ideological transformation of the conservative party under Karamanlis into a party of the center was not the only reason New Democracy won the national polls. It is often said, and Loulis rehashes the cliche, that opposition parties rarely win the elections; it is ruling parties that lose them. The Socialist administration of Costas Simitis was no exception to the rule. Loulis connects the dots. Government fatigue, corruption, arrogance, and failure to deal with the so-called everyday problems (unemployment, education, health) were topped by very specific policy errors. The stock market bubble, the social security reform fiasco, the confrontation with the Church over the identity card controversy, and the government reshuffle that never was all took their toll. The verdict on March 7 might have been unchanged even if the Socialists had avoided these blunders, but PASOK could at least have lost the vote by a narrower margin – crucial for its image and leverage as an opposition party. Important as these mistakes were in helping the conservatives force the pendulum their way, the battle over long-term political trends will be fought on the middle ground, contends Loulis, whose move-to-the-center recipe was bitterly opposed by many conservative cadres. Indeed, the author demonstrates (the book contains a large number of very illuminating tables and focus groups’ summaries) that the critical mass of voters now resides in the center and the longevity of New Democracy’s rule will depend on its ability to retain its grip on the middle ground – a concept that does not come without a confusing level of obscurity. Loulis does not say it, but listening to Karamanlis during the recent party congress left one with little doubt that the middle-ground policy is pro-blur. «We are meeting citizens in the political center. The modern social center… I want you to extend our overture to the rest of society. We are sticking to the middle ground strategy,» Karamanlis told delegates – hardly a clear-cut political blueprint. The premier declared that the old left-right dichotomy is now obsolete – but can the center really exist without the two poles? Does the elimination of the left-right divide not render the center meaningless? Pragmatism To detractors, the middle ground merely signifies a whatever-works approach that spares policymakers from categorizing decisions along the left-right spectrum but which by no means constitutes a genuine move to the center. To enthusiasts like Loulis, on the other hand, the middle ground is just another name for pragmatism. Unlike PASOK, whose overture to the right – i.e. the center in this case – was seen as a betrayal of Socialist principles, Loulis suggests, New Democracy has no guilt about moving to the left. Barring sporadic reaction from the right fringes of the party – who have been largely silenced after the party’s two consecutive landslide victories, but who nevertheless insist on treating the shift to the center as an ephemeral tactic – the public has mostly embraced New Democracy’s (ostensible, the Socialists say) transformation. On the other hand, Loulis stresses in his book, by recruiting two neoliberal cadres and former conservative ministers – a decision made by George Papandreou, the popular foreign minister who inherited the mantle of the party leadership from Simitis – PASOK effectively shot itself in the foot, as their defection appeared to do more harm than good to the Socialists. The leadership switch itself in the runup to the vote did not live up to Socialist expectations. Loulis writes that the swap could not have reversed long-term trends, a claim he also made before the elections. In fact, the situation became worse for PASOK as the early media frenzy about the newly crowned leader quickly gave place to skepticism over Papandreou’s ability to overhaul his moribund party. Papandreou’s rhetorical flourishes about «participatory democracy» were an ambiguous promise at best and the new leader eventually failed to communicate a sense of purpose to the public. Almost two months after its defeat in the European elections, PASOK is still on strategic vacation and many Socialist cadres appear to have fallen out of love with their leader. In the coming years, Loulis argues, New Democracy must take even more daring steps toward the center. He quotes Karamanlis’s famous claim in an interview with the Financial Times last year where he said that «New Democracy is not a party of the Right» – an unprecedented statement coming from his faction. The move to the center, Loulis says, must not be treated as a tactical maneuver but as a permanent shift. The final pages contain a warning for the New Democracy government. Loulis cautions that succumbing to pressure from the party apparatus to take care of its «own people» will seriously tarnish the party’s centrist profile. Recent government plans to reform the civil service and change the status of general directors and managers are decried by PASOK as introducing patron-clientele relations by the back door. Before the elections, Karamanlis promised «a government of all Greeks.» Perhaps others inside his party, like party baron Vyron Polydoras, who announced instant mass dismissals should New Democracy win the vote, were closer to the party’s base. Yiannis Loulis’s «The End of a Domination: How and why PASOK lost the elections» is published by Livanis (342 pages).