Parties seeking ‘air of victory’

Though you can never say never in politics, observers agree that 2002 will not be a year for political upheavals. But at some point one party will gain favor. So far, polls of voters’ intentions show New Democracy has established a significant edge of about 6 percent, without acquiring the air of victory that would enable it to take initiatives and create political events. This allows PASOK to remain in the game, as is evident from its recovery in recent months, but it will have great difficulty catching up with the opposition party as it did during crises such as the Ocalan affair in 1999 or the social insurance furor last June. But the government isn’t giving up. It has proved that it is not a weak opponent, that it has political reflexes and ample experience. The next few months will show whether the counterattack has been effective. Prime Minister Costas Simitis is chiefly addressing swing voters who cast their votes on practical rather than ideological criteria. Representing the other side of PASOK, General Secretary Costas Laliotis is trying to retain the party’s traditional left-wing voters, who are usually dissatisfied, by sharpening their anti-right-wing reflexes. PASOK’s narrow electoral victory in April 2000 was possible because the party managed both to retain its dissatisfied traditional voters, most of whom are from the working class, and to attract traditionally conservative middle- and upper- class voters by means of Simitis’s «modernization» policies. This convergence of social groups with divergent interests was contradictory and thus inherently unstable, though this does not mean that the miracle will not recur. In fact, ND leader Costas Karamanlis doesn’t have an easy task because ND’s voters are traditionally in a minority, so it requires special policies to turn dissatisfaction with government policy into a majority vote. So ND is endeavoring to keep a balance between opposition pressure and a low-key approach that will enable it to attract dissatisfied center-left voters. An MRB poll showed that in the 20 months since the last general election a negligible number of voters have moved from ND to PASOK (0.8 percent), while the reverse trend is significant (just under 6 percent). This figure includes traditional center-left voters who would never have considered abandoning PASOK, let alone voting for ND, just a few years ago. The low-key approach which dominated the political scene until recently has favored ND because it made such shifts possible. Laliotis’s approach is aimed at stemming this loss of voters. Though ND’s strategy is basically correct, the party has taken unsteady, unsure and often contradictory steps which have helped the ruling party. The opposition party clearly lacks experience and confidence, and so fails to present itself convincingly as a future government, even though PASOK suffers from corruption and the exhaustion of its long term in power. As the 2000 elections demonstrated, the opposition cannot count only on negative votes. Although ND has a confirmed edge in voting intentions, the experienced premier and party still offer a sense of security. But this unstable balance cannot last long. Local and prefectural elections next October will clarify the political stage and probably indicate which way the political balance will shift. All parties will have to adapt their line in view of the forthcoming election, which will be in the nature of a preliminary to the general election for the two major parties. Despite their rhetoric to the contrary, both parties see the local elections as a crucial showdown. ND headquarters is working on developing political alliances, which are favored by the following factors: Former ND Deputy and Minister Stefanos Manos, who left ND to form his own Liberal party – subsequently disbanded – may return. The attack by Costas Laliotis on ND’s honorary president, Constantine Mitsotakis, has weakened the latter’s position in ND, allowing Costas Karamanlis to deal more easily with the return of former ND deputy Antonis Samaras (who also left ND to form his own party, Political Spring). The most important factor is the diminished political influence of Athens Mayor Dimitris Avramopoulos. His Greek Citizens’ Center party has so little support that it will almost inevitably fail, as did Political Spring. The policy of alliances also extends to cultivating an atmosphere that allows cooperation with the Communist Party (KKE) or the Left Coalition in local and prefectural elections. Something similar occurred in 1998. Laliotis’s visits to the Left Coalition and KKE headquarters some time ago were designed to ward off this trend and encourage cooperation with PASOK instead. He was not aiming at a summit agreement with party leaders, but rather at projecting an image to their voters in order to influence them during the critical second round. Laliotis is trying to bridge the political and psychological gap separating his party from KKE and Left Coalition voters by means of his overtures and self-criticism. In 1998, the government lost control of many municipalities and prefectures, so it must collaborate as much as possible with the Left Coalition and KKE if it is to avoid a further defeat. It is vital no votes are lost to dissidents, which is why Laliotis has tried to ensure that there is only one PASOK candidate in each municipality or prefecture. Elections and expedience This will likely be the climate for PASOK’s June conference which will discuss any changes in the party’s charter. The conference is highly significant because it will address whether the party leader is to be chosen in future by all party members (as proposed by Foreign Minister George Papandreou) instead of by the party congress, as is the case now. This crucial vote will also decide, to a large extent, the question of succession to the party leadership. By then Simitis will have organized his counterattack, focused on retaining the initiative and persuading the public that only he can govern effectively. The balance of forces will be shaped chiefly by developments concerning the government’s main fronts. Following the government’s disorderly retreat on the issue of social security, the premier has avoided taking actions that might spark social unrest or incur a high political price. The government has six months in which it can produce real results. From June onward, political life will be determined by expediencies connected with the upcoming local elections. After October there will be little room to maneuver, as Greece will be chairing the European Union for the first half of 2003. The premier and ministers will be absorbed in preparing and carrying out that task, while also working on the final preparations for the Olympic Games. In other words, they will not be in a position to start new social fronts or risk any political cost. So any changes have to be made before the summer.

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