Full steam ahead for both ND and PASOK

PASOK leader George Papandreou’s address to his party’s political council meeting in Lavrion last Thursday, and another by Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis to the New Democracy party’s Central Committee the day before yesterday, provided a mere foretaste of the climate of conflict expected to prevail as September approaches. Both major parties are gunning their engines for the first fall debate that traditionally begins with the two leaders’ keynote speeches at the Thessaloniki International Fair (TIF). At last year’s fair, the prime minister announced his policy of «moderate adjustment,» which in practice has degenerated into a somewhat shaky management of current issues. The pressing need to achieve fiscal equilibrium and deal with the problems of the real economy have forced Karamanlis to review his policy from several aspects. Critical tests Any attempt to capture the middle of the political spectrum and redefine the political map cannot be achieved with proclamations regarding the «social center» or declarations of sensitivity to social issues. Nor is the crisis of political representation that is still plaguing PASOK enough on its own. In order for ND to convert its electoral advantage into political hegemony, it will have to pass the critical test of government. In other words, if it is going to stay in power, the government will have to meet the expectations of the majority of the people who put it in power. Since the economic situation does not allow for generous handouts, the prime minister felt that the only solution is to make structural changes. Admittedly he has followed that path consistently and dynamically, projecting the image of a leader who knows what he wants and does not hesitate to go out and get it. His most recent policy speeches have displayed decisiveness, along with an attempt to take the focus off ideology. He passionately claims that this is the only way the country can overcome its problems and create momentum. Since he cannot dole handouts, he is providing what he calls «honesty and directness.» Like his counterparts around the world, he looks forward to a bright future. His speech this past week was much in the same vein, as will be – according to sources – his speech in Thessaloniki early next month. From the point of view of public relations, this tactic is usually effective, since it gives the public a sense of security and hope. Yet it has equally been known to boomerang. For the moment, however, there appears to be no danger of this happening to the government. The summer holidays have been a strong ally in the government’s attempt to pass controversial legislation without major opposition from the people. Greek society seems still to be behind Karamanlis and his policies, but it is also watching carefully. It is supporting him primarily because of the prevailing view that some necessary structural changes are needed to boost the economy’s competitiveness; and secondly, because the impression of the government has changed from that of a somewhat lackluster administration to one that has a definite plan. On the other hand, there is the fear that Karamanlis might imitate (former ND prime minister) Constantine Mitsotakis and try to do away with workers’ hard-won rights. As always, these battles do not determine the outcome of the war, which will be judged by the end result. According to opinion polls, ND is sitting on a diminishing lead, down to 2.7 percent according to the lastest poll by Kapa Research, which would be even more fragile if PASOK had begun to recover. The same polls show, however, that the latter still has some way to go before it can recover enough political credibility to present itself as an alternative. The crisis of political representation which continues to plague the main opposition has been in the government’s favor but on its own, this is not something to be depended on. Encouraged by the initial positive response, the prime minister is planning a second wave of structural reforms, hoping that it will create a new dynamic for growth. Challenge for PASOK PASOK’s leadership, on the other hand, believes the economy is the weak link in the government’s chain and even hopes it will upset the current correlation of forces. PASOK is planning what is being presented as a reconstruction of the prime ministerial profile, as the only hope of getting its revenge in the next elections. However, the problem is that within the party’s camp, strong doubts have been expressed regarding Papandreou’s ability to score opposition points. Under pressure from these quarters, Papandreou is trying to satisfy the party’s need to gain enough ground to bring it back into power. So his Thessaloniki speech is expected to be more polemical and less a presentation of party policies. There will be an emphasis on drawing dividing lines between PASOK’s positions and government policy, but that will not be easy. Memories of the Simitis government are still fresh and are undermining the effort to rehash the formula of a «socially sensitive, progressive force against the insensitive right.» PASOK’s leaders appear less concerned about problems with the party’s public relations than they are about reports that the balance in the media is shifting in the ruling party’s favor. They claim the prime minister’s office has responded to overtures from media barons and big business. Karamanlis may have declared war on entangled interests, but the view from the top tends to change one’s perspective. One wonders, however, if that perspective has changed so much so that those who were once seen as «pimps» are now viewed as useful interlocutors?