Parties without a political credo

It’s almost incredible what PASOK and New Democracy, Greece’s two biggest political parties, had managed to accommodate inside their ranks before the outbreak of the financial crisis.

The Socialist and the conservative parties were both like huge melting pots that were able to take in a motley crew of voters united by opportunism. They had no clear ideological identity or shared value system. They built a patron-client system based on political favors and appointments of relatives and cronies in exchange for votes and political support. It was enough to dampen any voter interest in ideas or debate.

For almost three decades, PASOK and New Democracy gradually grew into big organizations that catered to their members, unionists and politicians. Inside their ranks, deeply reactionary or even intolerant groups coexisted with leftist formations. Any tension or differences however were comfortably disguised under the big party umbrella. The only people who knew of what was really hiding under the surface were those who hung around the party-affiliated cafes.

After the crisis hit, the delivery service, as it were, came to a halt. There were no more political favors, no more appointments, no nothing. People were fuming at their patrons, especially after it became clear that the old times would never come back. At the same time the crisis exposed the parties’ lack of substance, the army of populists burst into the fore.

Some people verged to the right, or the far right, falling for explain-all conspiracy theories and hatred. Others shifted to the left and, often, into the zone of unfettered populism.

In their view, it was not they that changed, but the party – a party that could no longer provide what it had promised to provide, for ever.

Interestingly, the signs were always there. Reading a statement by New Democracy unionists felt like reading a statement from the Communist Party (KKE) or some other extreme group. It was written in the same vocabulary, and had the same populist air and conspiracy talk.

Any parties that wish to have a role in the future will have to build a more solid ideological identity. Also, they will have to educate their members. New Democracy and PASOK seem to forget that drawing voters from across the political spectrum is OK, but you also need a set of clear ideas and and a value system.

Otherwise we are bound to see a repeat of the nasty scenario. When the next crisis strikes, disaffected citizens will be swayed by the sirens of populist extremism.

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