The wrong mix that pushed ND to the right
Personal conviction and pragmatism pull Samaras away from the middle ground
By Harry van Versendaal
October 20, 2011
It was blurry and opportunistic but it anchored New Democracy at the center of Greece's political spectrum. The once-hyped middle-ground policy, the brainchild of Costas Karamanlis's spin doctors, successfully reeled in the pool of centrist voters previously attracted by the modernist-minded PASOK leader Costas Simitis, giving the conservative leader a victory in the 2004 elections.
ND has abruptly turned its back on that legacy, as new leader Antonis Samaras steers the party to the right on virtually every topic from the economy to foreign policy and immigration.
“Samaras stands for the most base nationalist, reactionary and xenophobic elements of society,” a former ND deputy who wished to remain anonymous told Kathimerini English Edition. “His political credo has nothing to do with the liberal and pro-European line that won elections past,” he said in reference to the legacy bequeathed by the late Constantine Karamanlis, the emblematic politician who established the party in 1974.
Samaras unveiled his political religion during the party's race for a new president in 2009. Behind the obfuscatory fog of generalities, Samaras's brand of “social liberalism” was basically a repackaging of the old-fashioned popular right built around patriotism, tradition and suspicion of an unfettered free market.
It all became clearer when Samaras addressed the Thessaloniki International Fair last month. The 60-year-old politician made references to Bismarck's “horses of history.” He invoked the “dream of 1821,” a reference to Greece’s War of Independence against the Ottoman occupation. He promised to make education more ethnically aware and to scrap PASOK's more liberal citizenship law should ND be voted into power. And, finally, he promised increased scrutiny for asylum seekers and a tougher line on crime and drugs.
All that was topped with an appeal to God. “This is a battle for survival. In the trenches there are no atheists, everyone prays,” he said, receiving a nod from a teary-eyed Thessaloniki Bishop Anthimos.
The new profile is reflected in Samaras's narrow circle of advisers -- most prominently Chrysanthos Lazaridis, a member of the nationalist Diktyo 21 think tank (interestingly also a former member of the Communist Party of the Interior). The transformation has naturally drawn vitriol from pundits on the left, but also raised eyebrows from ND's more liberal cadres, who “feel totally estranged within the party,” in the words of the former MP.
ND's two vice presidents, respected former European Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas and fuzzy centrist Dimitris Avramopoulos, are reportedly uncomfortable with the reactionary yen of their new leader. Deputies Costis Hatzidakis and Kyriakos Mitsotakis also appear to feel out of place in the nascent formation. ND has found itself alienated inside the European People's Party, which brings together all center-right parties in the European Parliament.
Analysts say the penchant is more ideological than cynical.
“Samaras's political record shows he is a true believer in this type of ideology,” George Pagoulatos, a professor of European political economy at Athens University of Economics and Business, said in a recent interview with Kathimerini.
Vassiliki Georgiadou, a political science professor at Panteion University in Athens, agrees that Samaras's ND is, at least in part, propelled by doctrinaire conviction, rather than necessity. “It’s about who 'we' are, 'our' ideological principles,” she said.
Samaras, an economics graduate of Amherst College, Massachusetts, where he famously shared digs with George Papandreou, was eventually beaten by his roommate in the race for Greece's top post. Samaras's political journey has been less straightforward than that of his old friend.
As ND's foreign minister, in 1993 Samaras helped bring down the government of Constantine Mitsotakis, accusing him of adopting a soft stance on the still-unresolved Macedonia issue. He went on to establish his own short-lived Political Spring party before his spectacular comeback into the fold that saw him climb all the way to the highest echelon of ND. In a major blow to ND's liberal faction, he beat Dora Bakoyannis, Mitsotakis's daughter, in the leadership contest.
The repositioning orchestrated by ND's apparatchiks since that day has also been dictated by pragmatism.
As Greece’s disillusioned voters turn their backs on the political system and institutions that have failed them, Georgiadou says, politicians are turning to ideas and values that have not been discredited in the popular mind. “The conservatives are falling back on tried-and-tested recipes. The nation, as such, is a timeless value,” she said.
For Pagoulatos, ND is trying to depoliticize its public language in a bid to attract those parts of society that have grown skeptical of globalization or even the European Union project. “By sticking to traditional values, ND is betting on that parochial sentiment that runs across all societies. There's an element of nostalgia in all this,” he said.
ND has played the nostalgia card with a good dose of economic populism.
“The conservatives deem they can capitalize on the decline of the ruling party and voter frustration with the Memorandum,” Pagoulatos said in reference to the bailout deal signed between the Socialist administration and the European Union and International Monetary Fund.
Samaras, who on Wednesday turned down a proposal to travel with Papandreou to a key European summit in Brussels on Sunday, opposes PASOK's economic policy mix, promoting instead a pleasant-sounding cocktail of lower taxes and more incentives for business. Meanwhile, ND has voiced opposition to layoffs in the state sector. In a move that smacked of 1980s-style populism, the conservatives vowed to ditch government plans to place some 30,000 state workers in a special labor reserve force as soon as they return to power.
“It’s a return to the old-style popular right, the paternalistic right, which is using the public sector as a social and political reservoir,” Pagoulatos said.
Losing the middle
In unmaking Karamanlis's overture to the political center, Samaras seems to be hurting the electability of his party. On the other hand, some commentators say, ND is faced with a growing threat on its right, as recent polls show the ultranationalist LAOS party going from strength to strength.
A smarter strategy, Georgiadou says, would allow the conservatives to undermine support for LAOS without breaking ties with centrist voters. Instead, she says, Samaras made a “tactical blunder.”
“He did the very last thing he should have done; that is to shout out loud that ND is a very right-wing party, a party of God and the nation,” Georgiadou said. “Samaras did not have to pull his party so much to the right. After all, he alone as a politician symbolizes a shift in that direction,” she explained.
Others insist centrist voters were beyond Samaras's reach anyway. “He does not run the risk of losing the middle ground -- simply because the middle ground would never vote for someone like him,” the former MP said.
Samaras evidently believes that ideological purity is strength. Such purity may indeed galvanize the grass roots who have grown allergic to consensual centrism. But it will not necessarily translate into winning numbers. According to an opinion poll conducted this month, ND’s approval rating is an anemic 31.5 percent -- not enough to govern on its own, although it does lead the Socialists by a comfortable margin. With an approval rating of 35 percent, Samaras's own popularity is lagging behind that of two minor party leaders.
“The party’s catchment will shrink. ND is perhaps more consistent on an ideological level, but it will come to express a rather stagnant slice of the electorate,” the ex-MP said.
“With the things he has said and done, Samaras has tied his hands behind his own back.”
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