Divided we party

In the year since PASOK returned to power, Greece has become another country. Its labor and social security systems have been changed, its economy is under the stewardship of foreign creditors and its inhabitants are contemplating an uncertain future and a present much worse than the recent past. And yet, those most responsible for getting Greece into this mess, the politicians, appear to be the ones most oblivious to the changes and the need for further change. The people, of course, have taken note. A recent poll found that a full 60 percent of respondents believe that neither PASOK nor New Democracy (who have alternated in power since 1974) is capable of governing the country. Only 27 percent of those polled consider PASOK the most capable of governing, while a mere 7 percent think ND could do a better job. Support for the smaller opposition parties is also weak – as all are deeply divided and devoid of ideas. These figures reflect the deep dissatisfaction that people feel both with the way in which Greece has been governed since the restoration of democracy in 1974 and the way in which the political parties are dealing with the situation. The time is ripe for new political forces and we have already witnessed some rumblings of change within our fossilized political system – most notably with former Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis leaving New Democracy shortly after losing the race to lead the party to Antonis Samaras. The leftist Synaspismos continues to subdivide, with the departure of its reformist wing now forming the core of the Democratic Left party. These, however, are minor fissures as the two main parties remain stuck in their ways. The government operates as if it has no need for broad consensus; the opposition opposes everything, even measures or policies that it was in favor of when in office. At present, PASOK, with its parliamentary majority, has New Democracy on the defensive, dominating parliamentary inquiries into the Siemens bribery scandal (in which former officials from both parties have been implicated), the Vatopedi Monastery land swap (in which ND ministers allegedly helped the monks get the better of the state), the damage caused to pension funds by their investment in structured bonds and the deceptive bookkeeping that hid the true extent of Greece’s debt and deficit. New Democracy, on the other hand, voted against the memorandum that the government agreed to with the International Monetary Fund and the European Union – not because ND would not want the 110-billion-euro rescue fund but, very cynically, it hopes to pick up votes from public dissatisfaction at the fact that Greece is now under foreign stewardship. This is not the consensus that a country undergoing such a revolution needs. Nor have we seen the emergence of any new political force that would inspire with its vision, with new ideas. This can be explained partly by the fact that the current parties get huge state subsidies (a total of 68.2 million euros in 2009 and 52.7 million in 2010), which gives them organizational and media clout that no upstart can hope for. This power allows the parties to sell influence to business and media interests – leading to scandals such as the Siemens one – and to peddle political favors, such as state contracts for their friends and state jobs for their voters. So, even though people are disillusioned with the political parties, they do not collapse – they have a life of their own. The local and regional elections in November will be our political system’s first great test since we entered the era of our dependence on the IMF and our EU partners. They will show how much leeway the government and opposition parties have to keep operating as they have until now: Will people vote according to their party allegiance or will they break ranks and vote for the candidates who have gained their trust, irrespective of their party? If change cannot come from the top, it will come from the bottom. And if the parties were to be stripped of their state subsidies, then change would come from both the bottom and the top.

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