The catch-all party

Trying to pin down PASOK’s nascent political identity looks increasingly like grappling with an inflatable man, as the effort to describe the now-forgotten Third Way was so aptly described. If you get your hands on one side, all the hot air rushes to another. The surprise announcement this week that two of Greece’s leading neoliberals would join forces with George Papandreou’s new PASOK further blurred the dividing lines between the ruling Socialists and New Democracy, which they served as ministers of finance and commerce in the 1990-1993 government. More than signifying Papandreou’s willingness to transcend the country’s historically bitter dichotomies, the transfer of the neoliberal duo suggested he is, in fact, pro-blur. What Papandreou might seem to be implying is that PASOK can now get on with free-market reforms without surrendering to private capital. It can introduce social security reforms without losing its social face. It can enhance individual freedom without compromising equality. In short, PASOK can be neoliberal and social democratic at the same time. Or so Papandreou thinks. Accommodating disparate voices under the same political roof may broaden a party’s catchment area. But accommodating too many disparate voices can be an awful strain – particularly if they are incompatible ones. Notably, as Stefanos Manos and Andreas Andrianopoulos were crossing the Rubicon, PASOK was also welcoming Maria Damanaki and Mimis Androulakis, who defected from the left side of the political spectrum. Creative synthesis or veritable mishmash? Only time will tell. To be sure, the various trends inside PASOK are not pulling in exactly the same direction and Papandreou will find it very hard to avoid finger-pointing and keep the lid on internal tensions should his motley party lose the election on March 7. Unlike most political undertakings, Papandreou’s began not with a vision but with an unhappy predicament: PASOK’s failure to trim New Democracy’s persistent lead in opinion polls, which hovered up to eight percentage points. Indeed, the pre-scripted power transfer to a pre-anointed chairman, confirmed in a well-promoted – if somewhat dubious – election hoopla involving the open participation of both members and friends of the party, appears to fit a broader pattern. Closing our ears to the hurrahs accompanying PASOK’s messiah-like leader, we can see a man who is not exactly a visionary but may be, in fact, something closer to his predecessor: a pragmatist. For how else can one describe a politician who tries to move beyond PASOK’s traditional appeal, encroaching deeper into right-wing territories than the reformist Costas Simitis ever thought of – all in a bid to maximize electoral support? Papandreou seems to be the rational vote maximizer. PASOK’s metamorphosis under his wand is reminiscent of what Otto Kirchheimer described back in the 1960s as the rise of the «catch-all party.» Faced with the abatement of class conflict and the delusion of parties’ social base, Kirchheimer noted, the postwar socialist and social-democratic parties abandoned their ideological roots and moved beyond their sectional or class appeal in order to broaden their catch in the electoral market. Shedding the populist and one-dimensional rhetoric of Andreas Papandreou, the late founder of the Panhellenic Socialist Movement, and retiring the bogeyman of the right (spasmodically and artlessly resurrected by Simitis in more recent years), Papandreou tries to complete the unfinished business of his predecessor, advancing PASOK’s belated transformation into a «catch-all party.» The aim is to sway one-time class enemies without severing the party’s ties with those who perceive themselves as disadvantaged, its traditional pool of supporters. For certain, the son uses the same package as his father: the promise of «change.» Notably, Papandreou has the advantage of his party’s nominal association with socialism, given that the word still grips many a Greek political psyche or, at least, the sound of it comforts much of the grassroots. On top of a drastic reduction of modern parties’ ideological baggage, Kirchheimer saw the top leaderships strengthening their hand over other sections of the party – a trend also evident in Sunday’s election procedure that snubbed PASOK’s internal organization (convention, central committee, executive bureau, and cabinet), and the downgrading of the role of the individual party member – a common characteristic of all modern parties. Despite Papandreou’s rhetorical flourishes about «participatory democracy,» his putting the newcomers in prime electoral lists (where candidates are elected according to the party’s total number of votes and not through their personal campaigning), highlights the waning significance of the party base and also of its notables, who might have expected that they be given the free ride. Worse, the burgeoning arrogance of ruling Socialist cadres, occasional outbursts of establishment mentality, and signs of cronyism and corruption raise suspicion that PASOK has actually gone a step further, turning itself into an electoral-professional party. It appears to be more a quasi-autonomous organization animated by the will of survival and prosperity than a vehicle for political change. It may be that Papandreou and his postmodern PASOK are a product of his age. Socialist MP Theodoros Pangalos offered perhaps the best defense of the ex-conservatives’ recruitment when he said that they could offer precious help on issues which are not of a strictly right-left agenda anymore. He is right. A wide range of issues today – aspects of globalization, the environment, and personal identity – do not belong to left or right. But the question is not only whether Greece’s political system and the public are ready for such a radical transformation of the domestic political landscape – whatever Papandreou’s motives are. It is also whether Papandreou himself has the political caliber to be able to succeed in this unprecedented endeavor.