Hard choices for the hard left

Much has been made recently of the rise of the so-called ?hard left? in Greek politics. The most recent poll by Public Issue for Kathimerini newspaper put the combined support for the three leftist parties at 42.5 percent. This is indeed impressive. It?s indicative of the growing resentment at the successive waves of austerity that have left most Greeks foundering, and of the hapless handling of an admittedly complicated situation by the government.

What it does not herald, though (at least for now), is a united front against the EU-IMF loan agreement, or memorandum. The Communist Party (KKE) will not cooperate with any of the other parties and whether it receives 8, 12 or 20 percent of the vote is almost irrelevant. Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) leader Alexis Tsipras has made some less-than-vigorous attempts to bridge the gaps between the three but his efforts appear dead in the water.

KKE is deaf to such overtures, while Democratic Left (the most moderate of the three) is the product of a clutch of MPs leaving SYRIZA in 2010 because they disagreed with the party?s stance on a range of issues, including economic policy and Greece?s relations with Europe. So the prospects of any cooperation between the three seem slim.

Realistically, the key player here is Democratic Left (or DIMAR), which has shot up in many people?s estimation since last summer to poll at 18 percent. DIMAR has profited from the collapse of PASOK. It?s a magnet for center-left voters who have watched aghast at PASOK?s handling of the crisis and its abandonment of purported Socialist roots, but who still want Greece to reform and remain in the euro. Democratic Left appears to be the voice for those who oppose austerity but not some degree of change.

DIMAR?s leader, Fotis Kouvelis, is Greece?s most popular politician according to current polls. He is a velvet-voiced moderate who appears to be an oasis of calm in the maelstrom of the crisis. Kouvelis, a former justice minister, might be the man to broker compromise but he is hardly the one to lead a revolution. If Greece is ever to enter an era of new politics, figures of the past — like Kouvelis — will have to fade into the background rather than play a starring role. The impetus for change will come from personalities who have not been compromised by being part of the system that led Greece to the brink.

For critics, Democratic Left and Kouvelis are PASOK?s poodles. They are simply there, the thinking goes, to mop up the electoral spill from the center-left and wring the lost votes back into PASOK?s bucket. Whether DIMAR is acting as an independent force or a PASOK franchise, its role could prove vital. Greece is going through a political transition that has left the country in limbo. While Greeks are clearly fed up with their current political system and the generation that produced false promises, an anemic economy and corruption, they have not yet decided what they want instead. This is mainly because there is little new blood flowing into the system. The uncertainty about Greece?s economic future is acting as a brake on political developments, forcing many to think twice before getting involved in public affairs.

This creates the rather ironic situation of PASOK and New Democracy — two parties that have been largely discredited in the eyes of Greek voters — assuming the guardianship of the country for the immediate future. If elections are held in April, there is little doubt that these two parties will return to power, albeit battered and bruised. Would-be PASOK leader Evangelos Venizelos has already let it be known that he would work with New Democracy to form a coalition government. What?s not clear is if the two parties would need a third partner or whether they would have enough seats for a narrow majority.

In either case, Democratic Left?s position becomes rather significant. Kouvelis and his MPs would either be potential members of the coalition or would possibly make up the main opposition party. The level of DIMAR?s resistance to the EU-IMF loan agreement could prove crucial in the government?s ability to execute the program it has just signed up to. A Democratic Left that would oppose in principle but stand aside in practice could make all the difference. In this respect, a comment by Kouvelis on Friday carried much significance.

Questioned by reporters, he made it clear there was no chance of him signing any guarantees demanded by the eurozone. This, he said, was a job for the government. ?The country has an official way of functioning, it has its democratic institutions and these institutions can be the only interlocutor with Europe and anyone else.?

To experienced observers of Greek politics, this signaled two things: 1) that Kouvelis will not attempt to cause trouble for this or the next government with respect to Greece?s lenders as long as he is in opposition, and 2) that he is prepared to take a measured position if he?s asked to join a coalition.

This is significant for another reason. In the months to come, the pressure on the Greek political system will grow. Fiscal numbers will get worse and the troika will return to demand more measures. At this point, there will be a growing number of voices calling for the government to tell the EU and IMF to get stuffed. There will be a clamor to default and return to the drachma. Cool heads will be in short supply. It could be that the withering political system?s final useful contribution will be to go against its nature and opt for long-term benefit against short-term gain. Some of those on the so-called hard left are likely to have some hard choices ahead.

[Kathimerini English Edition]