A nice party

George Papandreou could not shake things much more than he did in his first week as PASOK’s new leader. Two of his ideas caused shocks of seismic proportions to the country’s political system. First, on Sunday, he got himself elected party leader by as close to a popular vote as you can get in Greece. It was, of course, no surprise that he was elected, as he was the only candidate. What no one expected was that just over a million people would get out to vote for him – considering that PASOK has 146,000 members. Suddenly, no one was laughing at Papandreou’s insistence on being elected by grassroots members and self-proclaimed «friends» of the party. Previous leaders – namely his father, Andreas Papandreou, and Costas Simitis – were elected by the party congress of some 5,000 delegates. Papandreou is now the undisputed king of the castle. Not only does he have the legitimacy of his name, but, for those who might claim that he got the job just because of his name, he can throw the one million votes onto the table of any friend or foe and ask them who elected them to their party position. And then, just as he seemed to have won his biggest bet, Papandreou raised the stakes, going double or nothing. He opened the door of PASOK to the two people who more than any other represented the liberal economics of the New Democracy government of 1990-93, something that PASOK and others had criticized as Greek Thatcherism. The agreement with Stefanos Manos, who had been Constantine Mitsotakis’s finance minister, and Andreas Andrianopoulos, who was commerce minister in the same government, created the biggest shock of these elections so far – appearing to overshadow even Simitis’s decision to bequeath PASOK’s leadership upon Papandreou. In fact the shock came close, in Greek terms, to rivaling the events of 1989, when the Berlin Wall’s collapse coincided with a Greek coalition government that brought together conservative New Democracy and the Communist Party, the heirs of the two camps that fought a civil war in 1946-49. While momentous, the two parties had maintained their distinct identities while setting aside their differences in order to achieve a specific purpose: The indictment by Parliament of Andreas Papandreou and – perhaps – the subsequent collapse of his PASOK. Andreas Papandreou, in the end, was cleared of charges of corruption and returned to power in 1993, after having taken part in an «ecumenical government» with his foes in 1990 when elections failed to bring forth a clear winner. In an added twist to this incredible saga, George Papandreou also announced that two former Communists, who had played a leading role in his father’s indictment, Maria Damanaki and Mimis Androulakis, would be joining PASOK. So, to counterbalance the shock that the party would be recruiting (albeit as fellow travelers and not as full members) the hard core of New Democracy’s ideology, Papandreou was bringing in two leftists who had conspired to destroy his party 15 years ago. This is a truly breathtaking endeavor. Because what George Papandreou has done, on his own, is destroy his party’s ideology. But did he really? Does the fact that PASOK is the Panhellenic Socialist Movement actually mean that it is a socialist party? After the Cold War, after Clinton’s Democrats and Blair’s New Labor showed the magical power of the middle ground, and after George W. Bush’s Republicans reminded the world of the ugly offspring of the marriage of ideology and power, any party can be forgiven for shifting toward the center. And PASOK had done this in 1993 already, when, under Andreas Papandreou, it set course for membership of the eurozone and began to contain spending in a way that would have done a conservative government proud. PASOK under Simitis, from 1996, had continued with this policy, so that Greece now shares in the benefits of the single European currency – which has brought unprecedented stability and low interest rates. Very responsibly, Simitis also tried to bring about structural changes that would make the country more productive and competitive. But then the «Socialist» in PASOK rose up and bit the hand that had kept it in power. The PASOK-affiliated unions were the chief agitators in the war against Simitis and his reformers, finding a way to look strident once more after years of being mocked as lapdogs of their political masters. Simitis’s retreat in the face of union opposition when the government presented its reform proposals in the spring of 2001 was the worst defeat his government faced. In a bizarre shifting of responsibility, Simitis began to blame the «Right» for the ills his own camp had caused him. The party leader circled the wagons against an imaginary enemy in order to deflect the shots and arrows coming from his own side. And it resurrected PASOK’s leftist ideology through the incessant vilification of New Democracy for the last time it was in power – 1990-93. Now those who chanted «the people will not forget the Right» less than two weeks ago will have to share the same electoral platform as the twins who personified that «Right» of the liberal economy. But that is one of the risks of playing with phantom ideologies – with ideas that, like a dismembered limb, still feel as if they are there. Because differences in economic ideology collapsed long ago. In fact, New Democracy had been trying hard to distance itself from the legacy of Manos and Andrianopoulos, reaching the absurd point that we mentioned last week where the conservatives tried to deny their own stated desire to reform the social security system. Also, New Democracy has always been strongly in favor of state involvement in the economy. In fact, in populist rhetoric, one might easily mistake ND’s message for that of the Communist Party, adding further confusion to our political soup. The only ideology valid today is that of progressive versus conservative in social and political policy. And this is the sphere where Greece needs a revolution. The Church still plays an inordinately great role in society, immigrants have to be integrated, nationalism, racism and conspiracy theories abound, and new, imaginative solutions must be found that will ease social problems, create jobs and make the country more competitive. And it would appear that Papandreou’s aim is to create a team of progressives from across the one-time political spectrum. Manos, Andrianopoulos, Damanaki and Androulakis have all more or less distinguished themselves for their common sense and inventive ideas. One might argue with Papandreou’s decision to put them on the State Deputy ticket, ensuring them election without having to campaign (at the expense of PASOK veterans), but the one thing all four share with the party leader is that they are political liberals who have often gone against the current of preconceived ideas. And anyone ridiculing PASOK for its alleged pollution of socialist ideals should look at New Democracy’s new recruits. They include Stelios Papathemelis, a former PASOK minister of a nationalistic and religious bent, and former Athens Mayor Dimitris Avramopoulos, who returns after failing to get anywhere with his own political party. Also, there was much joy in New Democracy at a statement of support from Antonis Samaras, a former ND foreign minister who brought down the Mitsotakis government in 1993 because he did not consider it patriotic enough on the Macedonia issue. These conscripts are all squarely on the side of conservative forces in Greece (Avramopoulos to a lesser extent). So George Papandreou, to the shock of all, has acted radically in his very first decision as PASOK’s leader. He has broken the party mold – and may even clear away the mould. He has created a pole for creative, progressive thinking. This could be a turning point for the country in the new century, or it could be a damp squib. Papandreou needs to explain that the country has very serious problems that require new ideas. Old ideologies will not do, he should say. He has to convince party supporters, and others, that he is putting together a dream team, not stretching the limits of eclecticism to the point that PASOK falls apart. He has to get the message out, to present a vision. And he has to organize. Too many good ideas in Greece go to waste because there is no central plan and too little strategic depth. When Philip II of Macedon got his troops into a tightly knit square formation, where their long spears could terrorize their enemies while their shields covered the group like a modern tank, he conquered all of Greece. His son, Alexander, took the phalanx and, with imagination, he conquered the world. All Papandreou needs to do right now is win the elections. But, he must display vision and organization as well as daring.