Strange alliances

The Socialists’ long-lived political hegemony and the ideological transformation of the one-time social democratic Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) through the adoption of liberal economic policies (an evolution which culminated in the controversial recruitment of neoliberal cadres in the runup to the last election) has deflected attention from stranger alliances elsewhere. Nowhere is ideological tension stronger than within New Democracy’s government. Despite the mantle of institutional continuity, the gap between the traditional conservatism and the liberal platform of the party that was finally installed in power after a long period on political vacation is too big to miss. It is usually overlooked that New Democracy’s embrace of market liberalism is in logical opposition to the main tenets of conservatism – a conundrum that has produced uneasy alliances inside the party. While in opposition, New Democracy was never a stranger to division. But two voices are one too many when you are in the driver’s seat. Historically, the old conservative creed meant respect for social order, traditional institutions, and evolutionary change. The neoliberal policies that were embraced by virtually all modern conservative parties, including New Democracy in Greece, are in fundamental opposition to these values. Constantine Mitsotakis, who became prime minister in the early 1990s, left his Neo-Liberals to join New Democracy in 1978. He was the first to inject neoliberal doctrines in the body of the conservative party and his tenure was only short-lived (three years), partially as a result of reaction to this. For all its economic benefits, market liberalism has proved insensitive to settled communities, local traditions, and cultural differences – a symptom epitomized in the process of globalization. As the British scholar John Gray maintains, the fundamental inconsistency that dogged the parties of the New Right was to be expected as liberalism is a child of the Enlightenment, whereas conservatism grew in opposition to it. Classical liberals, he says, aspire to overcome historical contingency and cultural diversity. They wish to see a global convergence of key liberal values – freedom, progress, secularization. Conservatives, on the other hand, have always been suspicious of the Enlightenment’s optimistic rationalism. They stress the organic unity of society and state and seek to protect social hierarchies. Contrary to the liberal deification of the free market, conservatives are suspicious of economic activity. New Democracy is itself a victim of the same paradox. That is in theory. For in practice the political cost of severing patron-client ties in Greece would be too dear for any party – and in this case New Democracy – to ever dare to turn its back on statism and evolve into a fully fledged liberal party. Governments in Greece have traditionally depended on a big clientele – a pool of votes large enough to sway electoral results. In the last poll, New Democracy won a considerable number of votes by promising to take care of 230,000 contract workers, giving them permanent status. If it fails to meet its campaign pledge, this could prove a very important card in the hands of PASOK in the future. In truth, New Democracy’s current inconsistency is less a case of split personality and more of doublespeak. To be sure, blurriness is not something Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis has tried to avoid. His ambition of capturing the center (in response to PASOK’s «third-way» ambitions) without betraying the right means that he has had to embrace some degree of ambiguity and contradiction. Conservative cadres are capable of voicing conflicting points of view on basic points. Some may favor market deregulation and trade liberalization, while others may hark back to a more statist past. Some may want to restrict the State’s economic and social role, while others want to endow it with a more active function. Some want a secular society through and through, while others want to give the Greek Church a stronger say in public affairs. Although all say they want to strengthen Greece’s ties with the European Union and NATO, many express wariness of suspected machinations of foreign powers. Some treasure the opportunities and benefits deriving from global integration while others demonize globalization, portraying it as a vehicle for the enforcement of an American-dominated world order. Contradiction is something you can get away with so long as you stay at the level of rhetoric. But things get much more complicated when the time for action comes. The more disparate the audience, the harder it is to please. In this case, government inertia, already evident on several issues, may be a strategy rather than the result of idleness or inexperience. Pragmatism becomes a recipe for ducking tough dilemmas. Inevitably, policy has often been paralyzed to the point of non-existence. After keeping an uncomfortably laconic stance during the Buergenstock talks on the UN reunification plan for Cyprus, Karamanlis was the last leader to take a stand on the proposed solution. When he finally took one, this was ambiguous. Karamanlis said that «in the context of the European Union the good points could outweigh the bad ones,» while New Democracy’s naysayers were parading on television windows lambasting the peace plan. Although the UN blueprint was later turned down in a Greek-Cypriot referendum, Karamanlis’s veteran foreign minister, Petros Molyviatis, claimed that the government had managed to «square the circle» – that is to keep everyone happy, or at least not to irk anyone too much: the Greek Cypriots, the Europeans, and the Americans. But Karamanlis’s Cyprus-decides-and-we-stand-by-it mantra looked like a pretext for keeping his dog out of the fight. On the economy, the government has appeared more preoccupied with exposing the mismanagement and accounting tricks of its predecessor than with leaving its own mark on policy. One is led to believe that the government practically invited Brussels’ supervision only to prove its pre-election allegations of creative accounting by the Socialist policymakers. To be sure, the conservatives were eager to prove their own bona fides on the issue of corruption through a rhetorical din about modesty and humility that has bordered on self-contradiction. Meanwhile, much-needed structural reforms appear to have been put on the back burner. Despite early claims that the new government was ready for work and did not want to be granted a grace period, Parliament has just begun discussing bills. And despite past scorn for PASOK’s communication exercises, the conservatives have gone down the same path. Hence we are told that Olympic Games projects – purportedly in the red when New Democracy took over – are now nearly complete thanks to an accelerated pace and a new work ethic. But claiming to have changed the world overnight merely invites doubts about one’s credibility. Doing nothing seems to pay off – at least for the time being. New Democracy’s popularity ahead of the European elections of June 13 is on the rise. But it is not clear to what extent this is a result of disillusionment with the feeble opposition of PASOK’s new leader that has helped to further unravel the party. More effective opposition from the Socialist party – which unlike New Democracy does not have to meet its campaign pledges – in the future could mean that the conservative leader will have to take a clearer stand on controversial issues. Karamanlis has so far tried to reach out to voters across the left-right spectrum. As time goes by and as opposition intensifies, his flexibility will be challenged as he continues standing with his feet in the two different boats of conservatism and liberalism in a really fluid situation. Prepare for some serious acrobatics.

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