Dispatch from Athens #4: The ruins of the centre Left
The ruins of the centre Left
With Syriza still firmly ahead in the opinion polls (there are a lot of them) some attention is falling on the parties of the centre and centre Left (there are a lot of them, too).
It’s not because they are important in themselves. They are significant only insofar as Syriza falls short of an outright majority.
For the Greek oligarchy, they may fulfil a white knight role — charging in at the last moment to avert disaster by cutting a deal with Syriza designed to exert undue influence in pulling the incoming government to the centre.
There is the scenario of Syriza seeking to govern alone as a minority government. That is constitutionally possible, and politically too, should the small parties of the centre or the Communist Party — set to win 15 seats — feel forced not to vote against a Syriza government.
Let’s leave aside the speculation, for now. And I’ll come back in the coming days to the unique phenomenon that is the Greek Communist Party.
Who are these centrists who, I venture a prediction, are likely to be featured in the serious European papers in the not too distant future?
In no particular order…
If it is possible to have tragedy and farce rolled into one, then the Democratic Left, Dimar, is its political manifestation.
The party was founded in the summer of 2010. In one of the first of many party realignments arising from the period of austerity memorandums and national humiliation, Fotis Kouvelis led a breakaway to the Right from the left-wing Synaspismos party.
Synaspismos was the organisation which launched the Syriza coalition and was the largest organised component in it. It’s true that Syriza is a recent phenomenon. But the party which created it is not. Synaspismos hails from the Eurocommunist wing of the Greek Communist Party.
Leading figures can still trace their activity back to being Communist cadres in the 1970s and 1980s. Kouvelis was one.
He was part of a tendency which identified a lack of “modernity” in Greek politics and society as the fundamental obstacle to the advance of socialism.
The crisis which hit in 2009 struck right at what was — for Kouvelis and many others of the Left and Right — the umbilical cord ensuring that Greece remained on a modernising trajectory: membership of the European Union and the euro currency.
The dominant position in Synaspismos was to not go along with the austerity measures imposed by the Pasok government of George Papandreou, just recently elected in 2009.
Kouvelis disagreed and split. He managed to pick up six MPs who split from Pasok in 2012 and it entered the two elections that year with 10 MPs. It emerged with 17 and joined the grand coalition of New Democracy and Pasok, united principally in ensuring that a Left, anti-memorandum government led by Syriza was kept out.
Job done. Responsible, modernising current of the Left does the nationally responsible thing and joins an ecumenical government to ensure it truly follows the national interest. (The great irony that was lost on Kouvelis was that such formulations about national unity and “responsible Communist tactics” were straight out of the Popular Front period of the Orthodox Communist lexicon, which he and the modernisers said they abhorred.)
From then on it became truly farcical. The closure of the state broadcaster ERT was cited as the final straw for Dimar pulling out of the coalition in 2013. Frankly, it could have been anything as Kouvelis looked at the polls and saw political annihilation beckoning.
It helped that the ERT issue — which brought terrifically militant occupations and actions by its staff — could also be presented as a “national issue” and not narrow “workerism”.
By now Syriza (incorporating Synaspismos) was riding high in the polls. So what else to do for the principled moderniser than to seek an electoral pact with the party he split from on the grounds that it was recklessly Leftist?
He was rebuffed. MPs had already defected in the outgoing parliament and Dimar polled just 1.2 per cent at last year’s European parliament elections.
Kouvelis is failing miserably to reach the 3 per cent threshold on a common list with a particularly right-wing “modernising” wing of the Greens.
Why waste time with this potted history, then? Well, first, Kouvelis remains a figure of some importance. And it would be the worst form of psephological purblindness to imagine that the political drama after 25 January will be played out only by those who are returned to parliament.
Secondly, Kouvelis is an old hand and not without skill. If his effort to build a stable, pro-market, pro-euro centre foundered, then younger would-be kingmakers should take note.
The European parliament elections last year saw the creation overnight of centrist political party called The River.
Very much a media confection, it is the creation of TV presenter Stavros Theodorakis (no relation to the left-wing composer).
In so doing, Theodorakis was merely following a venerable tradition — in Greece and elsewhere — of charismatic figures founding their own political vehicles.
But whereas the Papandreou and Karamanlis clans could draw on great reserves of social capital in launching their political projects (Pasok and New Democracy) in the 1970s, The River is somewhat shallow.
Theodorakis made his name with a TV show called the “Protagonists”. It took up sympathetically the stories of the “marginalised” — prisoners, Roma, and so on.
Nothing wrong with that. Far from it, especially given the vicious social policies of every Greek government in this crisis.
But for Theodorakis these scandals were aberrations from the civilised European norm. So the political logic was already clear before he launched the party.
Greece needed more moderating influence from Brussels, Berlin and Paris to trim the old national-traditionalists, of Left and Right, who revelled in chauvinism rather than euro-cosmopolitanism.
The problem — as Theodorakis and others who are much more important are going to find out — is that flaying Muslims, persecuting Roma, suspending human rights provisions, and just being downright nasty are not the preserve of the benighted Balkans.
They are the policy, programme and political response of the whole of the European establishment.
In these elections, where The River is on around 6 per cent in the polls, it has allied with the pro-business, liberal party Drasi. And the thrust of Theodorakis’s centrism has become more apparent.
The universal truth is that there is no such thing as a centre which preserves pristine equidistance between the poles of Left and Right. The centre has beliefs. The Liberal Democrats in Britain showed theirs by staying a solid five years in coalition with the most vicious of Tory governments.
The TV presenter’s cut is against the Left. He refused to join the social democratic Left in the European Parliament. Some confused commentators imputed a principled and radical stance to that decision: that he was against all the old crooks.
In reality, he wants nothing whatsoever to do with the Left. And, whether he knows it or not, every meddlesome intervention he makes to frustrate and domesticate a Left government will strengthen the hands of the Roma-bashers and corrupt prison guards which he turned into admirable, campaigning TV.
My Greek is far from perfect. But I was not the only one who would listen to a speech by George Papandreou and ask my friends, “What did he just say?”
Son of the towering figure Andreas, founder of the Panhellenic Socialist Movement — Pasok — George was educated in the US. It was a poor choice for a future Greek political leader. He was never to have the popular touch.
Nor did he really have the politics of his parents. For sure he is to the Left of the camarilla of Blaritie modernisers who, like their counterparts in Britain, France, the US and Germany, seized the conjuncture of the early 1990s to wrest control of the party and — in the Greek case in the shape of Costas Simitis — embark on a “third way”: New Pasok.
That lasted five minutes. Little George hasn’t lasted much longer. Not a moderniser, but nor a charismatic national reformer and non-aligned movement star like his father, George was kind of a placeholder.
Perhaps that’s too kind. For the place he held galloped to the Right throughout his tenure as Pasok leader from 2004 to 2012.
To take an example less central to Greece than the economic crisis: Palestine. Andreas opened the first Palestinian embassy in any Western country.
I once met Madame Papandreou (for that is how she is addressed) at a Middle Eastern function and her commitment to Palestine was of the kind that cannot be faked. The first PLO leader I ever met was in Athens in 1983 on a school trip (mine, not his).
George ended up not only in shifting Athens towards Tel Aviv, but with the personal dishonour of holidaying on the Aegean with Binyamin Netanyahu, who, it should be remembered, neither Barack Obama nor Nicolas Sarkozy can bear to lay eyes on.
Belatedly, and with cries of infamy (as in Carry on Cleo — everyone else “’ad it in for ’im”) he left Pasok, letting go of the inheritance and founding a Movement of Democratic Socialists.
If precision in choosing a name for a party were matched with power of attraction then he’d be on to a good thing. It is not.
Working class voters in Greece have had pretty much their fill of “Democratic Socialists”, “Social Democrats”, “Democratic Lefts” and all manner of portmanteaus which seem only to deny a simple socialist intent.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Evangelos Venizelos is the leader of Pasok (sans Papandreou). The professor of constitutional law hopes to get over 3 per cent and fulfil what seems to be his destiny — frittering away his voter base and political capital as sturdy prop (for sturdy he is) to some prime minister or other.
He’s been the ballast for the banker government of Papademos and the hard Right government of Samaras.
If politics worked to the logic of the exquisitely fine distinctions which constitutional law thrives upon, then Venizelos would be a figure as towering as his namesake — Eleftherios, the national liberal leader of the interwar years.
But it does not work like that. And as for the appeals to social liberalism, from Pasok these days they wear very thin indeed.
One could go through the litany. But what’s the point? The voters see to have done that already.
One example will suffice. Andreas Loverdos was a Greek health minister.
In the run-up to the 2012 elections he decided that he and his party were not going to be outflanked by Golden Dawn or the Right over racism and xenophobia. He declared that “foreign prostitutes” in Athens constituted a “sanitary bomb”. They were deliberately spreading HIV to upstanding, healthy Greek men.
Just to take this intervention down into the ninth circle of hell, he mentioned that some of the prostitutes were Bulgarian, thus drawing on an old chauvinist trope which was reheated during the Cold War when many Greek Communists were exiled in Bulgaria.
He went on to jail the women and to charge them with deliberately spreading HIV. It seems pretty shoddy to point out that there was no evidence, as if that were ever the point.
Loverdos left his mother party temporarily in late 2012. Nothing to do with outrage at his Goebbelsite foray. For last summer he was welcomed back to the fold of Pasok — the Panhellenic Socialist Movement, the monstrosity which seeks now to live on as the undead by sucking on the vitality of the living forces which are set to win this coming election.
Here is a link to a terrific documentary — The Ruins — which tells the story of the Loverdos scandal.
I let the pen run a little bit today. Perhaps because it’s been a long day and I’m tired. Maybe because I feel a particular personal investment. Hopefully it’s for the same reason you’re reading this — these things matter, and they should be not be forgotten as the old crooks wash their faces and put on new suits.
- Left Flank exclusive: Daily reports on Greece’s election
- Dispatch from Athens #1: Rules of the game
- Dispatch from Athens #2: The Right cornered, but fighting
- Dispatch from Athens #3: Fear meets a movement of hope
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These articles are fantastic Kevin. Just ordered my T-shirt. Are you going to live blog election night?
Thank you for these writings. It is a very educational and clear analysis of Greek mainstream politics. Hopefully, we will hear from the working class soon. It is difficult to understand your approach to political perspectives for Greece without understanding your analysis of working class politics. Obviously, all political forces would be affected by the struggle and resistance of the unions and level of political consciousness among the workers movement, their political questions and debates. I would think that the political movements of workers have a clearer analysis of the world than these non-socialist political forces??? It’s not that I don’t agree with you that we need to understand the entire political spectrum, but context would help, and part of the context is the movement from below.
Thanks, Judy. I will have a lot to say about the workers movement and the movement from below in the coming days. That strategy I’ve adopted is to try to get across first a socialist perspective on the mainstream political forces. These are the ones you are likely to hear about in mainstream coverage.
I’m also trying to get across some kind of feel for Greek political culture and history. In that way, what might be confusing features of the workers movement and the socialist Left might make more sense.
So please keep reading and commenting. I hope what’s produced does justice to the attention you and others are kindly paying to efforts so far.