The latest temptation

The latest temptation

Greek political life has registered several achievements which could even be considered world records. The Communist Party of Greece (KKE), for instance, as I write in my latest book, “Under Stalin’s Shadow – A Global History of Greek Communism” (published in English by Ithaca: Northern Illinois University Press, and in Greek by Alexandria, 2023), claims the world record for dramatic changeovers in party leadership. From its founding until 1957, all of the party’s leaders, around a dozen in total, were dismissed and expelled. The last two, Andronikos Chaitas and Nikos Zachariadis, met with a tragic end. The former was a victim of Stalinist purges in the USSR, while the latter took his own life while in exile in Surgut, northwest Siberia.

Meanwhile, the New Democracy party can boast of another world record. It must be the only center-right party in Greece’s history, and perhaps the only party in the history of European parliamentary democracy, whose president was elected without initially having the support of hardly any party MPs. Rumors have it that during the process of electing the New Democracy president in 2015-16, Mitsotakis initially only had the support of one or two of the party’s 76 MPs. Even if that may be an exaggeration, it is unlikely that he enjoyed considerably more backing than that. In any case, the distance between the will of the parliamentary group and the diverse pool of voters that turned out in the ballot for the conservative party leader seemed to be significant. If we consider that MPs generally reflect the views of their voters, then it could be said that it was voters from other parties who decided who would sit at the helm of New Democracy.

To tell the truth, this gap between the electorate and the conservative parliamentary group had already become evident in the election of Antonis Samaras as leader of New Democracy in 2009. His main opponent, Dora Bakoyannis, had greater support among the party’s parliamentary group than her opponent.

However, what happened in the 2015 inner-party elections was unprecedented. It was such an extraordinary event that when I asked a former leading member of the Greek communists if something similar could ever happen in KKE, he immediately ruled it out. Even for a party like KKE, whose parliamentary group does not have the same leverage as in other parties, the idea that the party leader would not enjoy the prior support of the majority of the parliamentary group is outrageous.

So why is New Democracy turning its back on parliamentary traditions that have shaped the character of the center-right both at home and internationally? Why has a party that just a few decades ago saw the parliamentary group as the only body that could have a say in the selection of its leader, developed such a culture where parliamentarians are almost treated as irrelevant? Why has New Democracy made room for Bonapartist tendencies whereby power is concentrated under one person with popular acceptance and little meaningful opposition from within their inner circle?

The causes of this phenomenon are complex. New Democracy’s engagement with direct democratic procedures produced mixed results; the Bonapartist temptations were strengthened. Several factors contributed to this: the general denigration of the Parliament, the recruitment by the party of executives who came from the far-right who were allergic to the norms of parliamentarism, as well as the disdain of the new leadership for the structures of the party which they considered synonymous with old-style politics and patronage.

The so-called “executive state” ushered in by the Mitsotakis administration sums up the distance separating the New Democracy leader from the members of Parliament. It institutionally captures the Bonapartist temptations which appeal to the prime minister. The latest temptation of the prime minister is also of a Bonapartist slant: the desire to lead a one-party government. The mantra that without a parliamentary majority there can be no legitimate government clearly shows that the leadership of New Democracy is gradually moving away from the culture of parliamentarism, as well as the collaborations and consensus that it generates. It is the duty of parliamentarism to defend itself against attempts to unmake it.

On December 2, 1804, when Napoleon was crowned emperor, his mother Letizia, when congratulated on her son, is said to have responded sarcastically, “Pourvu que ca dure!” (Let’s hope it lasts!).

Nikos Marantzidis is a professor of political science at the University of Macedonia.

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