Bipolar politics

The year that has passed since George Papandreou and his PASOK party won elections has been the most manic, panic-stricken and altogether strange one in memory. More changes – fundamental ones, at that – have been adopted than at any other time since the restoration of democracy in 1974. And yet, the political landscape is strangely familiar: the government is trying to pass reforms over a wall of opposition from the left and the right, against a backdrop of the public’s general dislike for anything affecting the status quo. Until now, the only change that people accepted was the name of the party in power, as both main parties pandered to them and the country slid ever deeper into debt. Now the parties themselves are changing, though often they appear to change in order to stay the same. Papandreou’s PASOK is acting against its own deeply entrenched prejudices, having understood (albeit belatedly) that Greece was on the brink of destruction and the only way that it could stave off bankruptcy was by agreeing to a bailout with strict conditions set by its EU partners and the International Monetary Fund. And so, PASOK, the populist, nationalist party that based its appeal on the wild spending and rash promises which helped make Greece a chronic debt junkie, is now trying to tidy up the mess and squeeze as much money as it can out of the people to lighten the sinking ship of state. And New Democracy, the ostensibly conservative (formerly neoliberal) party on whose watch the public debt and deficit ballooned out of control, voted against the agreement with the IMF and the EU, claiming that it had a better way to wipe out debt within a year – painlessly – while blaming PASOK for allowing things to worsen after taking office. The neoliberal party is now the populist one. The local and regional elections in a month’s time will show whether PASOK has persuaded the public that its efforts to deny its own nature, carry out reforms and curb spending are sincere. They will also be a reflection of the public itself: Will people punish PASOK for having promised easy solutions (the way ND is doing now) without delivering? Or will they give PASOK more time? If PASOK is punished too severely, it will lose legitimacy and will have to call national elections. If ND falters, Samaras betting the farm on opposing the bailout will have dire consequences for him and his party. This, too, may prompt Papandreou to call new elections. Apart from the compulsively combative Communist Party’s affiliated unions, Greece’s working people appear uncharacteristically fatalistic about the need for change. The strikes that accompanied the changes are more subdued than expected – partly out of horror at the death of three bank workers in a firebomb attack during a demonstration in May, partly out of resignation that no amount of shouting will safeguard wages and pensions. And so, though all the players are still on the stage, they are in different roles, all waiting to see which way the economy and society will go. Above all, the past year has belonged to George Papandreou. It is almost as if the crisis was made for him. His leadership of PASOK is unquestioned: Not only is he the son of its founder, Andreas Papandreou, but he also stood down a strong challenge after losing the 2007 elections, thus cementing his legitimacy; his wide network of international contacts and his natural ability to engage foreign leaders and intellectuals has helped him sell his government’s efforts to the world; his impromptu, manic way of doing business – somewhere between constructive chaos and plain chaos – can just as well lead to inspired choices as to a waste of time. In any case, Papandreou has spent the past year running at breakneck speed. Not only has his government adopted more reforms than any other before it, but he has probably run up more air miles in one year than other prime ministers did in their entire tenure: a total of some 117,000 so far. For a Prius-driving, bicycle-pedaling, kayak-paddling, environmentally conscious liberal, a 55-ton carbon footprint from air travel alone is a strange contradiction. But this was a year in which anything could happen. And much did.

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