More interested in reaching a “new settlement” with the European Union than ancient Greece, British Prime Minister David Cameron on Thursday defended his belief that the Parthenon Marbles should not be returned to Athens, saying he does not subscribe to the idea of “returnism”. At PASOK headquarters, though, they have no reservations about returnism.
The return of four Socialist deputies who quit the party following a tense parliamentary vote in November to approve a new package of austerity measures and reforms that secured Greece’s latest loan tranche was confirmed on Thursday. The four – Costas Skandalidis, Angela Gerekou, Michalis Kassis and Yiannis Koutsoukos – failed to support the package and lost their place in PASOK’s parliamentary group.
Welcoming them back on Thursday, PASOK leader Evangelos Venizelos said that their time away from the fold was “part of the cost” the party had to pay for Greece getting its December loan installments and apparently reducing drastically the threat of a eurozone exit.
For Venizelos, their return is a boon, especially as it comes a week before PASOK’s national congress. At one stage, there were rumors Skandalidis would challenge Venizelos’s leadership but his return shows that ranks have closed ahead of the meeting. The only threat to Venizelos seems to be a small wing, in a shrinking party, that remains loyal to former leader and Prime Minister George Papandreou. In fact, members of the Venizelos and Papandreou factions almost came to blows this week over plans for the congress.
That this is the only real conflict within PASOK is confirmation that it is a party without a heartbeat. Its reason for existence is to form part of the tripod supporting the coalition government, which has the task of pleasing international lenders and leading Greece to recovery. This is an important role but in terms of ideology, policy or general direction, PASOK has little to offer.
Venizelos, who can now count on the support of 28 MPs (still short of the 33 he had following the June elections), made an abortive attempt to convince fellow coalition partner Fotis Kouvelis of Democratic Left to join PASOK’s four-day congress, which starts on February 28. Kouvelis correctly dismissed the approach as opportunistic and pointed out that PASOK might want to get its own house in order first before looking to bring in Democratic Left as an annex.
Venizelos has also approached several social democratic movements and think tanks to participate in the congress. But for there to be any ground for PASOK to engage with others in discussions about cooperation and evolution, it has to be motivated by more than just an instinct of self-preservation.
There is little to suggest that the Socialists and their leader have any thoughts at the moment beyond surviving for another day. Venizelos has been largely discredited over the last few months, particularly over the Lagarde list. His attempts to claw back respectability by appearing a responsible member of the coalition have not resonated with a public that seems by and large to have decided that it has had its fill of the former finance minister and a number of leading party officials that have lingered in public life for too long.
As long as the issue of PASOK’s leadership is not up for discussion, the party can aim no further than survival. As long as its direction is not being molded by new faces through a democratic process, the center-left party can live no more than a half-life, kept conscious by the life-support machine provided by its coalition partners.
The return of the four MPs this week does nothing to change this. Sure, it slightly strengthens PASOK’s presence in Parliament and gives the tripartite government a more comfortable cushion of 168 MPs, but there is nothing forward-looking about the deputies’ addition to the Socialist fold. They quit the party a few months ago because they could not bring themselves to vote for the measures Greece was being asked to implement by its lenders. A few months on, though, the government they have rejoined is applying the same policies they refused to support. This contradiction sums up PASOK’s ideological dead-end.
In Parliament this week, one of PASOK’s veterans, Apostolos Kaklamanis, went as far as to suggest that MPs should vote on a motion to censure Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras, who has been the target of criticism from some coalition MPs, including Socialists, for implementing the policies they all approved in November. Kaklamanis was upset that Stournaras had sent his deputy, Giorgos Mavragannis, to respond to questions in Parliament. “What is the minister doing that takes up so much time?” wondered Kaklamanis. The same could be asked of PASOK.
Languishing in opinion polls after the grievous bodily harm it suffered in last summer’s elections, PASOK faces an existential crisis. It must decide whether it has a reason to exist in the long term or whether a veil should be drawn over its significant but checkered past. At the moment, the Socialists seem to be looking for the answers by locking the party in a perpetual embrace with its past. The chances of their finding a solution there are as likely as David Cameron packing the Parthenon Marbles off to Athens tomorrow morning.