Hard and fast rules rarely apply in the nebulous art of politics. That didn’t stop acclaimed British historian Robert Conquest from developing his “Three Laws of Politics.” His third rule states that: “The simplest way to explain the behavior of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.”
Given the schizophrenic nature of New Democracy’s reaction to its election defeat, this law clearly applies to political parties as well.
The last couple of weeks have seen the conservatives not so much “flip out” after their heavy loss to PASOK but “flip in” as they seek to blame each other for the rapid decline from government to opposition. First there was the beating at the ballot box, now we have the navel gazing in TV studios.
Conservatives have been parading across our screens claiming they know what went wrong, how it went wrong and what’s needed to put it right. Some say that repeated scandals were to blame, others the lack of coordination, some put the emphasis on last December’s riots, others point to the shrinking economy, some put it down to an absence of ideology, others to an absent leader.
All of these factors played some part in ND’s landslide defeat. The party’s declining opinion poll ratings can be traced back to September 2008, when rather than grab an opportunity at the Thessaloniki International Fair to admonish or banish officials linked to corrupt or unethical activities, Costas Karamanlis defended them.
The dying days of his government will forever be associated with the phrase uttered by ex-Merchant Marine Minister Giorgos Voulgarakis: “Whatever is legal is also ethical.” The Vatopedi Monastery land swap, the dodgy structured bonds and the questionable public sector apprenticeships all eroded the legs supporting the platform from where ND claimed the higher moral ground. Voulgarakis’s comment, and the behavior that accompanied it, sawed straight through the same rickety legs and precipitated the collapse.
There was also a lack of coordination within the government. It was obvious that after the long struggle to get into power, many of the conservatives who were appointed to government jettisoned the party apparatus that had helped them get elected in favor of creating their own fiefdoms. Within government, personal agendas soon replaced a common goal.
By the time that last December’s riots came around, New Democracy gave the impression of a government that did not have the stomach for a fight. Its abject capitulation in the face of both a physical and social challenge was confirmation to the outside world, not just Greeks, that things had begun to unravel.
Some billed the riots as the first popular revolt against the economic crisis. This theory is open to debate but what’s certain is that ND’s inability to harness the strength of the Greek economy, which had seen years of consecutive growth in previous years, created less visible but even more damaging disquiet among the middle and lower classes.
The lack of a coherent economic policy meant that ND spent its 5.5 years in power wavering between cozying up to the private sector and flirting with state intervention. This ambiguity was symptomatic of wider failure to develop an overarching ideology. The complications that can arise from not planting your beliefs in specific political territory are tackled in Conquest’s second law of politics: “Any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing.”
New Democracy could by no means be described as a right-wing party even though that’s where its historical roots lay. Its rise to power was based not on a bold philosophy but on a promise to do things differently than PASOK. This was not enough to hold the party together and as time went by, the dissenting voices within the conservative ranks grew.
That’s why it relied so much on the profile and stubbornly high ratings of its leader Costas Karamanlis. But Karamanlis’s strengths – his broad appeal, his seriousness, his ability to carry a crowd – were soon overtaken by debilitating weaknesses: an inability to convince right-wing voters, a failure to stay on top of his ministers and an indecisiveness that let opportunities for change slip away.
Karamanlis has accepted his part in New Democracy’s downfall but even this has not dispelled the impression that, like most Greeks who have taken over a family business, his motivation was never particularly high to start with and began to dissipate once he realized he was out of his depth.
The four candidates vying for his position – Dora Bakoyannis, Antonis Samaras, Dimitris Avramopoulos and Panayiotis Psomiadis – are attempting to offer something different. But they all join the race handicapped by some inherent weaknesses that make them far from ideal candidates. Bakoyannis is burdened by the ill feeling within some sections of the party that has festered since her father Constantine Mitsotakis was ND president; Samaras too has enemies in ND because of his acrimonious falling out with Mitsotakis; Avramopoulos plays on his popular appeal but struggles to convince that there is any gravitas behind his aviator sunglasses; Psomiadis joined the election contest as an apparent stalking horse candidate but instead is playing the role of crazy horse, chief of the forgotten northern tribe.
The bitter truth for New Democracy is that its salvation does not lie just in electing a new leader. Nor will the reason for the party’s defeat be found in a catalogue of errors and a long list of badly handled situations. Three weeks after their crushing defeat, the conservatives have failed to realize what triggered their capitulation.
Conquest’s first law of politics points to the answer. “Everyone is conservative about what he knows best,” claimed the historian. But New Democracy was conservative without knowing best. In fact, the crux of its problem and the root cause of its demise is that it was not sure of anything at all. As a government, it did not pin down the key problems that troubled Greece nor did it come up with any convincing way of dealing with them.
Today, it’s difficult to identify a sector where substantial progress has been made since 2004: the economy, public service, education, health, foreign policy, the environment, public order and justice all appear to be at a standstill at best.
In power, and now in opposition, ND has consistently failed to realize that governments around the world are elected first and foremost to identify problems and to find solutions to them. It’s perhaps the only hard and fast rule in politics and in more than five years, New Democracy failed to follow it. If it continues to do so, it may as well get a cabal of its enemies to run the party – unless they are too busy running the country properly.
This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on October 23, 2009