It was fitting that a debate about the late British Prime Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was being held on Monday night in Athens at the same time as Greece’s three coalition leaders were trying to reach a compromise over an anti-racism bill. Since Thatcher was a self-professed opponent of consensus and saw herself as a “conviction politician,” she may have been smiling down as the heads of the tripartite government failed to find common ground.
Prime Minister Antonis Samaras certainly presented himself as a leader with convictions when he took over New Democracy following the party’s disastrous showing in the 2009 general elections. Although less than four years have passed since then, it seems like light years away. Samaras has since had to shed many of his convictions, going from anti-memorandum crusader, to peacemaker with the troika and now standard bearer for fiscal adjustment. Greece’s economic plight and the endless capacity for the country’s substandard political system to tie itself into knots led the conservative leader down the path of compromise. Here, perhaps Thatcher’s statement that compromise “seems to be the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies” is particularly apt.
There is, however, one thing that Samaras did not abandon, which is his apparent persuasion that New Democracy, and perhaps Greece, can be revived by appealing to the conservative streak that runs through the country. Faithfulness to tradition, religion, the nation and the armed forces are notions that can rally Greeks and unite enough of the population behind a cause to follow, Samaras seems to believe.
This, to some extent, explains his reluctance to accept a new law that will sit uncomfortably with the right wing of his party and will test its relatively good relations with institutions like the army and the church. Both of these bodies currently enjoy an impunity that some fear would be compromised by the new law. The thinking goes that priests could be sued for ranting at other religions or ethnicities, as happens occasionally, while soldiers could find themselves dragged before courts for nationalistic chants.
However, there is a less ideological and more practical concern for Samaras as well. European Parliament elections next May are going to be a litmus test for his premiership and his government’s prospects. Greeks traditionally vote a little more unpredictably in these ballots and there is genuine worry within the coalition that all three of the parties – New Democracy, PASOK and Democratic Left (DIMAR) – could suffer considerable blows. A surge for far-right Golden Dawn is of particular concern to government officials.
One of the ideas being considered is to hold local elections at the same time as the euro ballot to concentrate voters’ minds and limit defections. In either case, a poor showing for ND and its partners in May could leave the coalition somewhat of a limp duck, stumbling toward general elections with an emboldened opposition constantly reminding it that its devotion to the EU-IMF program does not have popular support.
In this rather fragile environment, there is little chance of Samaras taking chances with the sensitivities of the right. He cannot be seen to be giving ground to a bill drawn up by the DIMAR-appointed Justice Minister Antonis Roupakiotis. Equally, stepping back from the xenophobic, rabble-rousing language he has used about migrants, such as calling for city centers to be “reclaimed” during last summer’s election campaign, is also not an option. After all, his was the government that moved with lightning speed – like it has for nothing else – to repeal the law granting second-generation migrants Greek citizenship when the Council of State ruled it was unconstitutional. Samaras seems to believe that the more profitable strategy is to wait for Greece’s economic situation to improve in the hope that this will bring voters back to ND from Golden Dawn, Independent Greeks and elsewhere rather than to back the anti-racism law now in an effort to disperse the far right and strengthen the bond with his coalition partners.
Perhaps the Iron Lady would not have been that impressed after all. One of the reasons she despised consensus was because she viewed it as “the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved, merely because you cannot get agreement on the way ahead.” It seems failing to reach a compromise can have exactly the same results.