Tsipras and the choice of the two PASOKs


Asking someone to predict the (mid-term) future of Greek politics is probably more a test of someone’s character than a true journalistic inquiry. Only someone really arrogant or foolish would claim to know what comes next in a country that is still undergoing fundamental economic, social and therefore political upheaval. Still, hiding behind the fact that I was invited to do so, I will take up the challenge, accepting fully well that I will probably be proven wrong within a matter of years (if not months).

There are only two real certainties in contemporary Greek politics. First, it will not return to the – bad or good, depending on your point of view – old days of the pre-crisis period. Not only is PASOK forever gone as a major party in Greece, but the era of two dominant parties is coming to an end across Europe – both in concentrated multiparty systems like Austria and Greece and in two-party systems like the United Kingdom (Malta being a notable exception). Second, the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) will remain a strong subcultural party with no real political relevance, hovering between 5 and 10 percent of the vote in national elections. No Popular Unity (LE) or other splinter of the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) can change anything about that. Besides these two points, all bets are off.

Golden Dawn (GD) has a fair chance at becoming the KKE of the (extreme) right, i.e. a strong subcultural party with little direct political power that is able to attract the same 5 to 10 percent of the electorate – its percentage mainly depending on the general turnout. The only thing that can really impact its future is the ongoing court case. If GD is ruled a criminal organization, it will probably push the electoral support under the 3 percent required for representation in Parliament. If the party is acquitted, or the case simply fails to come to any clear conclusion (as I expect), it will mainly further consolidate the already solid support of its current supporters.

Unlike the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK), New Democracy (ND) has been able to survive the political mayhem of the economic crisis, albeit at the cost of about a third of its electorate. While it will continue to constitute the main right-wing pillar of the Greek party system, ND will probably not grow much beyond one-third of the electorate. The main reason is that the party is internally divided between the dominant mainstream conservative camp and a smaller, but significant, radical nationalist faction. With the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) having disappeared into political oblivion, and Independent Greeks (ANEL) heading there, there is a sizable electorate up for grabs to the right of the ND, which GD will not be able to court. A new populist radical right party is only a matter of time and I would expect it to come from within ND, rather than from outside of it, perhaps from circles around former LAOS members like Makis Voridis.

Less predictable is the future of Potami. Centrist pro-EU parties have always struggled in Greece and the economic crisis has not helped. Even if individual elites could overcome their internal divisions, or a truly new political party – that is not related to the at times petty dispute between Potami and PASOK-DIMAR (and to a lesser extent the Union of Centrists, EK) – could be founded, the future of that new centrist party is largely dependent upon the course of the two major parties. If either ND or SYRIZA, let alone both, moves to a more centrist and pro-EU position, it will compete for a part of the electorate that the new party will desperately need to establish itself as a viable third party (and, thereby, kingmaker in the coalition game).

The obvious elephant in the room is SYRIZA and its now all-powerful leader, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. Calling for elections after just six months has given him all he wanted – i.e. a much more homogeneous party that is completely dominated by his inner circle – but he is living on borrowed political time. His victory was mainly a defeat of his opponents, most of which were still struggling to get themselves organized after fundamental internal changes (most notably ND and LE). They will be better organized come the next elections, even if they will be sooner rather than later, as many expect. Moreover, Tsipras called the elections before the Greek people had been confronted with the consequences of the third bailout, which meant that he could still get away with his ambivalent position toward the bailout in particular, and the EU in general – “I don’t really support them, but they are the best we could do.”

In the coming months Tsipras will have to choose what party he wants SYRIZA to become. Many in the EU are hoping for a modern social democratic party, pro-capitalism and pro-EU – what PASOK seemed to be transforming into before the economic crisis wiped it out. There are very few indications that this is his preferred option, however. In fact, the choice to continue the coalition with ANEL, rather than PASOK-DIMAR or Potami, seems to indicate that Tsipras is looking for another PASOK, the patriotic left populist party of Andreas Papandreou: fiery in rhetoric, pragmatic in policy. The problem is that the original PASOK was built not so much on rhetoric or policy but on clientelism. That is difficult to imitate within the current EU, let alone in a period of austerity and a sizably decreased public sector.

In short, the future of Greek politics is far from clear, beyond the plausible claims that ND will be the dominant right-wing pillar of a polarized multiparty system with two solid but small subcultural extremes, KKE on the left and GD on the right. Everything else is in the hands of Tspiras and his choice of which PASOK he wants to transform SYRIZA into.

* Cas Mudde is associate professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia in the United States. He is an expert on European politics, in particular issues of extremism and democracy. Two of his books have been published in Greek by Epikentro, “Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe” (2011) and, with Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser, “Populism in Europe and the Americas: Threat or Corrective for Democracy” (2013).