The initiative of the 58: A good idea, but what’s it all about?

The Acropol Theater was jam-packed for the official unveiling of the new movement of center-left politicians on Monday. In theater parlance, it was so full, they had to turn people away. There was a good smattering of big names and a pervading sense of optimism. I heard Nikos Alivizatos, one of the pioneers of the movement that has been dubbed the “Initiative of the 58” and “Olive Tree,” among other names, saying that it had been a while since he’d seen so many smiling faces, most of them belonging to longtime acquaintances, I presume. Everyone appeared to share the belief that Greek politics needs a “democratic progressive movement,” its own Olive Tree, a reference to the Italian alliance formed under the leadership of Romano Prodi in 1995.

What are the political components of this movement? Yiannis Voulgaris, one of the speakers at the inauguration event, outlined them in an op-ed in daily newspaper Ta Nea on Tuesday. He described the movement as an amalgam of social democracy, the democratic left, the liberal center, political ecology and progressive Europeanism. In short, it is a composition so ambitious that it could hardly go unnoticed in a political arena where ambition has been reduced to a struggle for survival. It is a good thing that there are people among us who aspire to take political action; it can only inspire optimism.

However, that is where the optimism ends, because so many questions remain unanswered. For example, how is social democracy defined in Greece today, when it has already proven hard to define in so many other European countries? The rebirth of the French Socialist Party with the election of Francois Hollande has proven short-lived, and not because of its lack of popularity but because of its inability to carve out clear policy. And what precisely does “political ecology” entail? How does it differ from the nonpolitical kind? And as far as “progressive Europeanism” goes, while I understand “Europeanism” I cannot grasp the importance of the “progressive” aspect. Does it mean rebuilding the ruined welfare state or revamping Europe on globalization terms? Or does it refer to a “people’s Europe,” the one that Alivizatos invoked on Tuesday in an interview on Athens 98.4 FM and which is constantly called for by opposition SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras, a term that sends us back to the 1970s whenever we hear it.

I imagine that if PASOK had not thrown itself into the process, the crowd at the Acropol on Monday would have been composed mainly of academics in their 60s looking for someone to represent them, serious people with exemplary careers, good intentions and skills, who have, however, developed a set of “progressive” ideas based on a clear dichotomy between the left and the right. They believe in this dichotomy, which feeds the age-old theories about the extremes and drives those in New Democracy who envision the rebirth of the popular right, as well as Independent Greeks and SYRIZA. This dichotomy has only served to benefit Golden Dawn. Let us not neglect the fact that opinion polls are only showing a rise for SYRIZA and Golden Dawn. The other parties are being kept alive only by the “devil you know” theory.

Other questions remain. On what social groups does this center-left movement plan to depend? On the middle class that has been decimated by the statism of both conservative and Socialist administrations? On the miserable civil service, which suffers both from depression and fear of responsibility? Or on the proud farmers who are being taxed on land they haven’t worked in 20-odd years?

And what will make this movement stand out from the so-called center-right?

That said, there is no doubt Greek politics needs a large centrist movement that will be able to stand up to conservatism from both the right and the left, that can redefine the country’s role within Europe and that can interpret the concept of progressiveness in terms suitable to 2013.

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