The middle ground, and the extremes

The deep internal rift that is dividing the main opposition PASOK continues to monopolize the news agenda, offering plenty of breathing space to ruling New Democracy, which emerged from recent general elections just as hard-hit as its main rival (even though it won the main challenge – to hold on to power). Nevertheless, the clear criticism of bipartisanism that emerged from last month’s poll has created an exceptionally fluid post-election landscape which both the government and the main opposition party are trying to tackle by modifying their approaches as necessary. In all general elections from 1996 onward, the main aim for both major parties was to secure a majority of the so-called «middle ground» – namely, the moderate voters. Former Prime Minister Costas Simitis – in 1996, and less so in 2000 – managed to woo a significant proportion of the electorate which had been alienated from ND during the party’s leadership by Miltiades Evert. Meanwhile in 2004, it was current Premier Costas Karamanlis who totally dominated the middle ground, achieving an impressive triumph, not only in parliamentary polls but also in elections for the European Parliament. In 2007, however, it was the parties at each end of the political spectrum that lent the elections their «color.» On the one hand, we saw the strengthening of the Greek Communist Party (KKE) and, even more so, the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) as well as the entrance into Parliament of far-right LAOS. We also a saw a drop in support for bipartisanship and an increased rate of abstentions in urban voting centers. According to experts, most of these abstentions were by moderate voters who decided to use this tactic to express their disgust with ongoing problems in public governance, the economy etc. The repercussions of «rewarding» the country’s extreme parties are already clear. PASOK has promised a shift to the left, irrespective of the results of next month’s leadership election. As for PASOK leader George Papandreou, he kissed the middle ground goodbye with unproductive criticism and polarization. Papandreou’s main challenger, former minister Evangelos Venizelos, is obliged to follow a similar path, despite coming from the political center ground. The government appears to be afraid of losing supporters to the right – this goes some way toward explaining the decision to withdraw a controversial school history book, criticized for playing down the suffering of the Greeks during Ottoman times. It is clear though that ruling ND has two roads to choose from: its entrenchment in the «hard core» right or an overture to society with bold initiatives that may have a certain political cost in the short-term but will finally secure it political hegemony.