Can Europe Make It?

The balkanisation of Greece’s centre-left politics

Greece’s centre-left Pasok, one of the most prominent parties in post-1980 Europe, is now a pale shadow of itself and a marginal presence in the continent’s social democracy. 

Othon Anastasakis
4 February 2015
Pasok's last pre-election rally, January 2015

Pasok's last pre-election rally, January 2015.Aggeliki Koronaiou/Demotix. All rights reserved.The victory of Syriza in the January 2015 elections was a big blow for the right wing New Democracy, but it was an even bigger blow to Greece’s centre-left.

During the pre-electoral period, it was becoming increasingly obvious that the centre-left was unable to organise itself around a common leadership and a clear, credible and unified discourse, squeezed as it was between austerity and anti-austerity, memorandum and anti-memorandum, pro-Troika and anti-Troika alternatives.

This climate was particularly unfavourable for centre-left forces, which aimed at a discourse of moderation and middle way which proved highly irrelevant at this particular historical moment. In a polarised climate between right and left, voters were asked to take a clear position either for or against these options and there was limited space for a view in between. The centre-left became the observer of a fierce debate between New Democracy’s campaign of fear, on the one side, and Syriza’s campaign of hope and resistance to the German hegemon, on the other.

What made matters worse for the centre-left space were the infighting and splits. In the January 2015 national elections, the centre-left was represented by PASOK, Papandreou’s new Movement of Democrats Socialists (KIDISO), To Potami (The River) and, to some degree, the Democratic Left (DEMAR). This fragmented state of Greece’s social democracy is the outcome of PASOK’s “balkanisation”, a steady process of disintegration caused by its handling of the economic crisis during the last six years.

Pasok’s fall

While socialist incumbents in many countries in Europe during the period of the Eurozone crisis were defeated in the elections, in Greece PASOK was not just defeated electorally but devastated - seeing its power decrease at a dramatic rate from a powerful 44% in 2009, to 13% in 2012, down to 4.7% in 2015.

Pasok’s balkanisation took the form of party cadres’ defections, the creation of splinter groups or a massive emigration of voters towards all directions of the political spectrum, the most significant being towards Syriza. In the midst of the Greek crisis, when reforms were starting to bite, a strong wave of migration of mostly party hard-liners and trade unionists - the ones that had dominated Pasok for many years and had received impressive benefits and privileges through clientelist state-party linkages - went to Syriza. The latter also benefited from some Pasok politicians who disagreed ideologically with its unpopular austerity measures, or were pressed by disaffected voters in their respective constituencies.

There were other politicians who disagreed with Pasok strategies and leadership fights and created their own independent political movements and factions; others were more opportunistic and left the party to create their personal ephemeral political formations. In the 2015 elections, a clearly bruised Pasok was fighting for its survival in the Greek parliament, Kidiso was fighting for Papandreou’s tarnished legacy as former Prime Minister, while some of the independent politicians either abandoned the race or went back to fight with Pasok.

In this centre-left confusion and fluidity, To Potami emerged as a new force aiming at an electoral audience that was refusing to identify with the Syriza left, the Samaras right and the old Pasok habits, presenting a firm pro-European orientation and a pro-reform, more technocratic agenda.

To Potami and Anel

Yet, all these parties put together totalled a paltry 13%. To Potami did well as this was its debut in national elections and managed to get a 6% of the national vote, although its initial intention to come third was beaten by Golden Dawn which got a slightly higher percentage. PASOK with 4.7% came last to pass the 3% threshold, below the communist party and the ultra-nationalistic anti-austerity party of the Independent Greeks (ANEL).

Papandreou did not convince the voters that he was worthy of getting into the parliament, viewed, some unjustly might argue, as the leader who led PASOK to its fragmentation and having mishandled the economic crisis as Prime Minister; the electoral verdict put a stop to a continuous presence of the Papandreou family name in parliament for 92 years.

The moderate left-wing party of the Democratic Left got a humiliating 0.5% itself paying a price for its wavering between the memorandum and the anti-memorandum agenda, for having cooperated with the 2012 coalition government and having left the coalition half way in 2013. Notwithstanding the “relative” success of To Potami, the voices of the centre-left moderates were the real losers in this electoral fight. Moderation in the context of the 2015 January elections was seen as subservience to the German hegemon and the Troika, or, at best, a muddling through prospect that was not leading to any kind of recovery.

A further rebuff to the centre-left came with Tsipras’ refusal to form a coalition government with To Potami: yet he struck a deal with Anel, with which he shares the anti-austerity fervour but not much else. This was a clear indication that the government did not want to proceed in negotiations with the creditors with a party that had declared its pro-europeanism at any cost, as a basic precondition for any governmental cooperation.

The new parliament

The new parliament has a strong anti-austerity orientation, and includes forces which are ideologically disparate: Syriza, the dominant campaigner of anti-austerity and debt reduction, Anel a minor coalition partner of a nationalistic orientation, KKE a consistently anti-European force, and the Golden Dawn, a classic case of far right extremism; the latter should rejoice at having come third in the elections despite the fact that most of its campaign was fought from the edges and its leadership is in jail. This is a total of 194 anti-austerity MPs out of 300.

For its part, New Democracy, with 76 MPs, will try to preserve its status as the other credible pole in a new SYRIZA-ND bipartisan environment; it will have to go through a process of introspection as to why it became so unpopular and unconvincing during the election campaign, confronted by its own moderate centre which is very critical of the right turn before the elections. The centre-left space is represented by 30 MPs and from such a low point it is hard to see how Greece’s social democracy will pick up its pieces and reboot as a unified force any time soon. Greece’s Pasok centre-left, one of the most prominent parties in post-1980 Europe is now a pale shadow of itself and a marginal presence in the continent’s social democracy.

It seems that the period that will follow will involve a lot of soul searching for the centre-left fragmented space, especially within Pasok. Venizelos will continue to lead the party until the next party conference where all issues will be put on the table, including that of leadership. The party is so bruised by its pro-Troika policy during the period 2009-15, that it will take some time to recover and regain its legitimacy.

The wider centre-left space which was in the shadow of New Democracy in the period 2012-15, may now move under the shadow of Syriza, the new kingmaker and moderator of the national discourse. To Potami or Pasok remain alternative options as coalition partners with Syriza, should the governmental coalition with Anel break up.

A wider European phenomenon?

While the weakening of Greece’s social democracy has significant impact for the country, it has important implications for Europe as well. The fading of the centre-left space in Greek politics is the outcome of a very dramatic process of domestic delegitimation, but it reflects an overall social democratic weakness in austerity-led Europe. Europe’s social democrats have a dilemma at present in how they perceive Greece’s centre-left balkanisation. They can either consider Greece’s social democratic decline as an exceptional case, particular to Greece’s idiosyncrasies, or as a wider European phenomenon.

At present, all eyes are turned to Francois Holland, Matteo Renzi or Martin Schulz as potential external allies in Syriza’s negotiation with Merkel’s Germany. For the time being, with the exception of Spain’s Podemos, the far left has limited appeal in the western European environment, as potential Syriza allies in Europe. So it is towards Europe’s social democrats that Tsipras has to look for support because they are ideologically closer and they are able to understand better the social repercussions of the austerity policy in Greece, while they, themselves, are hostages to austerity programmes in their respective countries.

European social democracy, following the negative example of Greece, will have to reconsider its relationship with Christian democracy in Europe and its ideological allegiance to the discourse of austerity. There is a fear among many social democratic parties in Europe of so-called “pasokification”, defined as capitulation of a powerful social democratic party in times of austerity and the rise of the far left. In that sense, the victory of Syriza is an alarm bell but one which also provides a great opportunity for easing the pressure towards extreme austerity.

After the 2012 Greek national elections, the European Union feared a contagion for the weak economies of the European periphery and the denouement of the Eurozone, which prompted Mario Draghi to declare his “whatever it takes” edict. In 2015, there is a sense of a political contagion that austerity may lead to the weakening of social democracy not only in the countries of the southern periphery but also in the more developed countries of northern Europe. Pasok’s balkanisation is a precedent of what might happen in Italy, France or elsewhere when their governments are caught in an austerity trap. 

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