Tag Archives: Liberal Democratic Party

A third way

Illustration by Manos Symeonakia

A prime minister who’s abandoned his socialist roots, an opposition that doesn’t know how to profit from the failings of a beleaguered government, a terrifying deficit that will take years to tame, a staggering rate of borrowing, fear that the International Monetary Fund will have to be called in and a smaller opposition party that is threatening to shake up the established order: All of these apply to both Britain and Greece apart from the last one. Whereas the Liberal Democrats are set to capitalize on economic uncertainty and political fatigue by making a discernible impact on the May 6 general elections, Greek politics remains devoid of a credible third voice.

The way the Liberals, and particularly their leader Nick Clegg, have exploded into life during this election campaign has defied perceived political wisdom and will undoubtedly make other European parties that have struggled to make an impact sit up and take note. Before Britain’s first-ever televised leaders’ debate last Thursday, Clegg’s fieriest moment was when as a drunken 16-year-old exchange student, he set fire to a German professor’s collection of rare cacti. On Thursday, though, he lit the election campaign’s blue touch paper.

Confident, clear and coherent, Clegg captured the imagination of many of the 10 million viewers. Regardless of what questions members of the audience posed, Clegg had an underlying aim to connect with the frustration people feel about power ending up in the hands of the same two parties all the time – a sentiment Greek voters could sympathize with. “Nick Clegg possessed the great advantage of having a simple, clear message that fitted with his wider campaign,” wrote Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer. “That message is that Britain has been let down for decades by the other two. His most resonant line of the night was when he said: ‘The more they attack each other, the more they sound exactly the same.’”

Clegg brought something different to the table: Labour leader Gordon Brown was the full fat milk that has turned sour, Conservative leader David Cameron was the cappuccino froth that dissolves as soon as you touch it but the Liberal Democrat was the raw carrot juice that could inject new energy into the country. Clegg’s impact was not just down to his accomplished appearance though. The essence of his popularity – which could help his party become a partner in coalition government next month – derived from the fact that the electorate was being presented with a credible alternative, one that would allow them to act on their frustrations with the two main parties but not risk putting power in the hands of an incompetent or irrelevant one instead. “The Clegg bounce seems to me to speak of an electorate that wants to change the terms of the contest they are being offered and is simply looking for a means to do it,” wrote Martin Kettle in The Guardian. “They want to show two fingers to the main parties. They want to drag them down to size, knock them off their pedestal.”

The unaligned voter is a growing phenomenon in Greece but despite the country facing many similar political and economic challenges to Britain, there is no evidence of a third party emerging as a serious player here. The Communist Party (KKE), which received the third largest share of the vote in last year’s election, is content with engaging in spoiling tactics. Exercising control over unions that punch above their weight is the limit of the Communists’ political ambition, as was evident this week when a light sprinkling of PAME members obstructed hotels in central Athens and Piraeus port.

The nationalists of the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) have steadily improved their ratings in recent years but their message remains too populist, too lacking in substance and, in some instances, too hateful to carry any considerable credence. LAOS will continue to generate passionate support from a relatively small band of voters, as long as it prefers to devote itself to tittle-tattle rather than real policies.

The only party with the potential to break out of this perpetual cycle is the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA). At a time when jobs are at stake and quality of life is set to nosedive, a competent leftist party should be able to make itself heard. Die Linke, the emerging party of the left in Germany, has proven that the financial and economic crisis provides fertile ground for attracting supporters who are disillusioned with capitalism. Although a centrist party, the Liberal Democrats are further to left on some issues, such as taxation, than the Labour party.

So, why isn’t the formula working for SYRIZA? Because, unlike Clegg, leftist leader Alexis Tsipras chooses to ignore that in order to attract the skeptical voter, you have to go to him, not call him over to you. SYRIZA prefers to paint itself into a corner, to turn itself into an insurgent party conducting raids against the government, rather than to open its embrace and draw strength from greater numbers. A typical example came this week when, with the prospect of Greece borrowing from the IMF growing by the day, Tsipras demanded a referendum on the issue. Rather than the leader of a mature party, it made him look like a high school student calling for a vote on whether pupils should be made to sit exams. If Tsipras cannot understand that recourse to the IMF will not be a matter of choice, then he really should not be allowed anywhere near a political platform. And, if Greece were to hold this referendum, what next? Presumably, the majority of Greeks would say “no” to the IMF. Would we then hold another referendum to decide who we borrow from instead?

Tsipras’s suggestion looks like nothing more than a juvenile stunt. It ignores the fact that more than four in 10 Greeks voted PASOK into power to take decisions on their behalf. Yes, the economic situation has changed dramatically but part of a government’s mission is to adapt. What Greece’s smaller parties refuse to accept, unlike the Liberal Democrats, is that their real responsibility is to provide a credible alternative, not just channel bitterness and frustration. Political power lies in making decisions, not just in voicing your opinion. As long as KKE, LAOS and SYRIZA are content with being backseat drivers, Greek voters will not have a party with the potential to lead them along a different, third, way. And this, rather than the IMF or the public deficit, is what will make the country poorer.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and appeared in Athens Plus on April 23.

No time for heroes

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

“The defeats and victories of the fellows at the top aren’t always defeats and victories for the fellows at the bottom,” says one of the characters in German writer Bertolt Brecht’s landmark anti-war play “Mother Courage and her Children.” How fitting that comment seemed this week: As Greece battled to keep the dogs of default at bay and Greeks tried to come to terms with a new economic reality, New Democracy’s hierarchs sought to bicker and settle old scores, prompting the united response of “Who cares?” from the watching public.

At the end of last week, ex-Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis said she would not be attending New Democracy’s central committee meeting on the weekend, as she believed it inappropriate for the party to be debating internal issues when the country is hobbling through its worst post-war economic crisis. In other words, she was trying to put country before party. Her boycott, however, gave the impression of exactly the opposite. It suggested Bakoyannis was a sore loser still seeking the limelight that eluded her when she was defeated in last November’s leadership election and painted ND as a party that cares about little else than itself.

Bakoyannis’s argument that discussing policies or debating current issues with other party members would not be fitting because of the crisis is blatantly absurd. It’s not like Greece is about to be struck by a meteorite and the whole population has to be rooted to the spot, staring up at the sky for the signs of imminent catastrophe. Employees are not calling work saying they’re not coming in because the bond spread has passed 400 percentage points. So, why should politicians stop going about their normal business?

It appears that Bakoyannis’s decision was designed to make waves, to see how the Samaras leadership vessel, barely out of port, weathers the storm. There was no love lost between Samaras and Bakoyannis before their fractious leadership race but the former foreign minister clearly still feels aggrieved at her defeat by the ex-culture minister. There is even talk of Bakoyannis quitting the party and forming her own. Seasoned commentators feel that if she did walk out of the door, only a handful of conservative deputies would follow her. It’s unlikely to be the dramatic mass exodus she may dream or scheme of.

It’s virtually a golden rule of politics that defeat has a dizzying, disorientating effect on the parties that suffer it. So, consider the damaging impact that being kicked out with the rest of Costas Karamanlis’s government and then losing the party leadership from her grip had on Bakoyannis. Allegiance, tradition, obsequiousness – these all tend to evaporate when a party or a politician have been dumped on their backsides, as ND and Bakoyannis – both defeated by a 10-percent margin last year – were.

Even in Japan, where loyalty is pervasive, a small group of conservative rebels led by former Finance Minister Kaoru Yosano have just broken away from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The LDP was ousted from power last year after enjoying 54 years of almost uninterrupted rule. If New Democracy is plagued by self-doubt and loathing after just five years in power, imagine what sort of navel-gazing is going on at the LDP headquarters. In fact, some analysts think that after such a long time in power, the LDP does not know how to be an opposition party. On Saturday, five of its MPs announced the formation of Tachiagare Nippon (The Sunrise Party of Japan) with little hope of making an immediate impact on the political scene. It’s not just the party’s small size that will limit its impact; there are several other vital ingredients missing, as Bakoyannis and Samaras should note. “The party lacks the three most important aspects needed to become a genuine force, which are political vision, specific policy and a fresh face,” political analyst Minoru Morita told the Japan Times.

Neither New Democracy, nor Bakoyannis, posses these qualities. If the ex-foreign minister, who showed ability as a diplomat, is considering forming her own party, then at some point she will surely take time to think about the slew of failed go-it-alone projects, launched by Greek politicians with much less talent than her, that litter the political path to oblivion.

This is why it’s quite likely that Bakoyannis’s boycott, for which Samaras threatened to expel her, will end up being little more than a tiff. However, the damage to ND, which has yet to find its feet under new leadership, has already been done. Over the last few months, all the conservatives have offered is a mixture of stunned silence and shallow attacks on the government, which expose them as having no better ideas about how to tackle the crisis. One minute, ND is blaming PASOK for being too slow in taking action – this, coming from a party that spent five years doing little to build on the legacy of entry into the euro and the successful hosting of the Olympics and even less on tackling chronic structural problems. The next minute, ND is raging against the ills of the International Monetary Fund when it knows the only reason the government is considering accepting assistance from the IMF is that the towering deficit it inherited from the conservatives makes it impossible to borrow at reasonable rates on international markets.

Now, Samaras has begun calling on PASOK – which is still struggling to ensure Greece can pay its bills next month – to start stimulating growth in the economy. It’s like asking someone to run fast when you’ve put treacle in their shoes and chained their legs to a tree. It does little to help the ND leader gain credibility with voters, most of whom are highly skeptical about any theoretical pronouncements politicians have to make at the moment, since they know that only practical solutions to very real problems are going to be of any use.

This need for pragmatism seems to have eluded New Democracy. The Bakoyannis episode was typical of a party that, just as it was in government, is full of big — although not necessarily good — ideas but struggles to make an actual impact. If Samaras is going to change this –- with or without Bakoyannis on board -– he’s going have to accept that pompousness is no substitute for productivity. In Brecht’s play, Mother Courage explains that if a commander needs heroic soldiers, it’s proof he’s not doing his job properly: “Whenever there are great virtues, it’s a sure sign something’s wrong.” Greece doesn’t want heroes now, it just needs people that do their job.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and appeared in Athens Plus on April 16.