Just a face in the crowd?

As the no-confidence motion was being debated in Parliament until late last night, Greeks ventured out into the rain on one of the few days in recent weeks that streets were not blocked and public services not inaccessible as a result of strikes and protests against the controversial pensions reform bill. The bill and the widespread dissatisfaction it has caused – a recent Public Issue poll shows that 73 percent of Greeks believe the changes will «probably harm» them – has provided an opportunity for the leader of the main opposition PASOK party George Papandreou to call into the question Parliament’s confidence in the government’s ability to carry through with the rest of its term. This also comes as the government is preparing the next phase of reforms, which include further controversial moves, most notably the privatization of key public enterprises. «Enough is enough,» said Papandreou on Wednesday, using rhetoric more characteristic of his fiery father Andreas than his predecessor and former ally Costas Simitis. New Democracy has accused PASOK of throwing down the gauntlet simply to make an impression in its battle for support with the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), which last week proposed a referendum on the reform bill. Though the time is ripe for an opposition comeback, Papandreou has taken a great political risk at a time when his leadership abilities are in question, and when many wonder whether he and his party would be capable of running the country in the unlikely event that the government lost the vote. The government seems totally at ease. It does not view PASOK as posing any serious threat. «Whatever PASOK does, it simply cannot win,» was the mood among New Democracy MPs coming out of Parliament on Thursday. On the one hand, Papandreou faces the challenge of the past and, on the other, that of the present. He finds himself in a position where he has to appeal to the old PASOK, the voter base that kept the party in power for more than 20 years, mostly on the strength of Andreas Papandreou’s charisma and an understanding that the Socialists had been pivotal in reconstructing Greece’s political and social structures in the post-dictatorship era. This is the old hard core of PASOK, those who say, «May my hand be cut off if I ever vote for the right.» On the other hand, a new face in Greek politics, Alexis Tsipras, the new leader of the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), is seen to be wooing younger left-minded voters away from PASOK’s camp. This bloc of society wants to see a leader who is in touch with the grass roots and in tune with the macro- rather than the micro-political atmosphere. Tsipras’s inexperience, which seasoned politicians and pundits see as his greatest disadvantage, may well work for voters who are equally green on the machinations of Greek politics. There is little doubt that PASOK voters, old and young, want to see Papandreou building a strong opposition platform rather than resorting almost exclusively to making attacks against the government. They want to see him displaying the leadership qualities of his father in combination with the diplomatic prowess he showed as foreign minister – a difficult task by any means. His break with the past at the PASOK conference earlier this month, when he announced that he would prevent previous ministers or deputy ministers from serving on his party’s political council, was met with support by many delegates. But it also raised the question of whether Papandreou would be able to effectively lead his party to an election victory if he sidelines many of its most veteran and popular politicians. Meanwhile, as some hoped that this would mean the introduction of new blood into what has become a rather rusty party, even critics from within the PASOK ranks were surprised to see Papandreou picking for his council members of the party who are a bit worn around the edges or who have little chance of making a difference. Then, in a conciliatory move, he also suggested that PASOK might be interested in a cooperation with SYRIZA. «We are not interested,» is the response he got from Tsipras. The chief of the country’s main opposition was snubbed by the new kid on the block and this no doubt rankled PASOK’s hard-core voter base. Papandreou has shown the potential to be a skilled politician and diplomat. The challenge facing him right now is to prove that he is also a leader and, to do this, he will have to decide whether he will try to emulate his father and win back the PASOK loyalists or will put his ear to the (middle) ground and listen to the messages coming from a new generation of voters who want to put their faith in PASOK, but who also want assurances that the party will be free of the in-fighting and clientelist relationships of the past. «A wise prince should establish himself on that which is his own control,» as Machiavelli said, and now it is up to Papandreou to clearly define what is within his control, but in his own voice.

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