Former prime minister Costas Karamanlis has become a point of reference for the conservative New Democracy party and for the right more generally. Karamanlis won the 2004 elections by calling for modernization, from private universities and the public sector to privatizations and the restructuring of state-owned companies. His was a classic center-right, liberal agenda. Some of the measures were adopted but others never materialized. What’s important, though, is that Karamanlis resonated with middle-ground voters.
That Karamanlis, however, has nothing to do with the so-called “Karamanlis philosophy” that certain politicians of the broader right-wing arena claim to express. To begin with, these people are gripped by a passionate hatred for certain centrist politicians who emerged during the Costas Simitis administration. They are clearly leaning much further to the right than any other center-right European party. They are not too comfortable with the agenda of the current government coalition partner, Independent Greeks (ANEL), a nationalist party, or the anti-systemic formations that have emerged in Europe and the US. The pro- vs anti-memorandum dilemma clearly played a role in this rift. One part of ND gravitated to the anti-memorandum hysteria even before this became the party’s official policy line. They were spurred on by the fear that the PASOK government at the time would seek to put the blame for the economy’s collapse on the conservatives, who were in government from 2004 to 2009.
When then ND leader Antonis Samaras suddenly ramped up the anti-memorandum rhetoric during the ensuing caretaker administration of Lucas Papademos, some – like ANEL leader Panos Kammenos – left the party and others remained only to exert pressure from within.
The real paradox, however, emerged with the rise of SYRIZA. ND lawmakers and officials provided the leftist party with support by lashing out against those who stressed the dangers of the leftists’ lack of experience. These same people find themselves in a tough spot today because they no longer know where they stand. They are obviously not attracted to a moderate ND making overtures to the center. Their opinion is that ND is simultaneously flirting with the far-right and Simitis-style reform.
The new leader of ND, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, will have his hands full in trying to maintain the fragile balance between an opening to the center and the alienation of core right-wing voters.
So, the challenge for the conservative party today is how to tailor the Karamanlis policy of 2004 to the present and find the way to implement all the measures that remained on ice.