In the illustrious history of one-horse races, Evangelos Venizelos’s victory in the PASOK leadership contest will retain a special place. For a party that is essentially politically and financially bankrupt to get almost 250,000 people to spend part of a sunny Sunday, as well as 2 euros each, to vote in an election that was decided a week earlier is quite a feat.
If the participation figures issued by PASOK are accurate and have not been massaged for election purposes then Venizelos will have only one regret this week: that he didn’t charge PASOK members more to vote in Sunday’s contest. The party raised about 500,000 euros, which will go a little way towards paying off some 120 million euros of debt and providing its staff — who have not been paid for several months — with a salary.
Given the negative political mood and that sources close to Venizelos were suggesting that anything over 100,000 votes would be a success, there was an unlikely number of PASOK supporters willing to anoint the outgoing finance minister. The higher-than-expected turnout is a reminder that despite the battering it has taken, PASOK is not yet a spent force. It’s a party that ruled Greece for two thirds of the last three decades. It was born out of the historic changes in Greece since the end of the military dictatorship in 1974 and to a large extent it has driven the major change in Greek society since then. It has taken serious knocks and recovered along the way. A party like that does not disappear overnight.
However, opinion polls have consistently shown over the last year that support for PASOK is draining away. It is more or less down to the dregs, the faithful that are prepared to go down with the ship. The Socialists nurtured Greece’s middle class over the last four decades before launching a brutal fiscal assault on this same group over the past two years. Venizelos, who had the task of imposing some of the harshest austerity measures, is going to find it near-impossible to rebuild this relationship.
It would be a mistake, though, to write him off just yet. Venizelos has proved over the last few years and months that he is an irresistible political force. Virtually humiliated in his bid to beat George Papandreou to the PASOK leadership in 2007, he did what does not come naturally to him and stepped out of the spotlight. His return to the big time came when he was handed the white-hot seat of finance minister last summer. During his term, he has been bruised by the troika, battered by his European counterparts, lambasted by the public, hounded by the media and harangued by his colleagues. Yet, at the end of his error-strewn time as finance minister, he is not just standing but standing as lord of all he surveys.
Venizelos’s ability to cling to the ropes and survive is remarkable but his irresistible force may be about to come up against an immovable object. For all his durability, Venizelos’s timing has often been a problem. His 2007 leadership push was misjudged and his propensity to make seemingly bold predictions often backfires, such as stating last summer that electricity bills should not be used to levy taxes a few weeks before using electricity bills to levy a new property tax. His timing may also be letting him down this time as well. Venizelos has taken over the party at a time when the political system that it supported, along with the structure’s other pillar, New Democracy, is collapsing.
The economic crisis has changed the fundamentals in Greek politics. PASOK, which defined itself according to its relationship with the right and left, has lost its bearings. Following the economic policies it implemented in 2010 and 2011, in the eyes of most voters it cannot claim to be an opponent of neo-liberalism or a genuine part of the left, which is now represented by four parties if you count Social Pact, formed by PASOK outcasts Louka Katseli and Haris Kastanidis last week. But the crisis has not just taken a toll on PASOK. New Democracy, which has competed with PASOK for the decisive middle ground voters since the 1980s, has also hit a brick wall. Despite its opposition to austerity over the last two years, it made absolutely no progress. Over the last couple of months, polls have shown the conservatives’ support slipping.
In the past, PASOK and New Democracy would be able to give themselves a shot in the arm with a change of leadership or a cranking up of the partisan rhetoric but this won’t work anymore. The system has become too fragmented for them to draw new energy. Polls project that as many as nine parties, as opposed to the usual five or six, will make it into Parliament. But the reality is that nine parties are already represented in Parliament as a result of splits and oustings. The recent creation of Social Pact and Independent Greeks by ND rebel Panos Kammenos are confirmation that the established political system is eating itself. The proliferation of new parties is undermining New Democracy and PASOK, which in the past could always count on the unflinching support of the masses. The presence of Social Pact, Independent Greeks, the centrist Democratic Alliance and the Democratic Left at these elections will spread the support out much more thinly.
This won’t be the death knell for PASOK and ND just yet because between them, the big two should get enough support to form the next government. But in what would be a supreme irony, the coming together of the architects of Greece’s post-junta political edifice is also likely to signal its destruction. This coalition government will have to impose further austerity measures (some 12 billion euros of savings are needed in 2013 and 2014) and will have to manage the deepening of the recession as well as the growing skepticism of Europeans who are starting to face their own growing economic problems. In this fraught atmosphere, two parties and two leaders — Venizelos and Antonis Samaras — that have no appetite for cooperation will be called on to work together. It is likely to break them. While Venizelos might be able to call on the experience of the last few months to weather the storm, the much more brittle Samaras will find it more difficult to keep his party together. The right-wing of ND is likely to feel great discomfort at having to put its name to new rounds of austerity, especially when Kammenos and Giorgos Karatzaferis, the leader of the nationalist Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS), will be on the responsibility-free outside, aiming populist vitriol at those in the government tent.
If this is the case, then Venizelos could find himself as the last man standing again. Only by this time, it’s likely that Greece will begin to see the rise of new, non-partisan political movements that will represent the break with the past which many Greeks want. Such a development could consign PASOK and ND to history’s scrapheap as this will be a powerful, momentum-gaining force to contend with. It will be a huge task for Venizelos’s PASOK to regain its relevance in this environment. However things play out over the months to come, one thing’s for certain: Venizelos won’t ever run unopposed in an election again so he may as well enjoy Sunday’s victory — as hollow as it may be.