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John Kolesidis (Reuters)

Pasok and the five stages of grief

Paris Aslanidis

8 mins - 7 de Julio de 2022, 11:15

The sovereign debt crisis upended the Greek party system, sending the once powerful Socialists of Pasok into a tailspin that ended up with the surrender of their dominant position on the left to their nemesis, the Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza) under Alexis Tsipras. More than ten years later, Pasok and Syriza are still locking their horns in a struggle for survival and conquest, but the damage for the deposed hegemon seems hardly revocable. Pasok's sad fall from grace can indeed be likened to a passage through the five stages of grief.

Soon after their electoral landslide of October 2009, the Socialists divulged that the annual deficit, initially projected at 3.7% by the European Commission, would actually soar to 12.5%, a severe violation of the EU's Stability and Growth Pact. A bewildered George Papandreou, who had campaigned on promises of public investments instead of cuts, decided against seeking a fresh popular mandate for the difficult and ideologically incongruent decisions that lied ahead. Instead, he chose denial: the Socialists would remain in power, sign a draconian bailout agreement with the creditors, and then use their comfortable parliamentary majority to frontload austerity and swiftly ram it through a disillusioned populace, hoping that by the end of the electoral cycle the economy would have turned a corner and Greeks would reward Pasok with reelection.

Not too many Fitch downgrades, Eurogroup meetings, and austerity bills later, denial had given way to anger at the unwillingness of European leaders to assist a peer in continuing distress. Mid-way through his tenure, Papandreou had already expended his considerable political capital and both his constituency and parliamentary caucus were disintegrating rapidly. Faced with the awful specter of a second bailout that could doom the Socialist legacy, an indignant Papandreou decided to seek recourse to a popular referendum. When Merkozy ignominiously shot this plan down in early November 2011, Pasok entered the bargaining stage. Papandreou gave up his premiership but only after securing that no elections would be held for a while. A technocratic coalition government with New Democracy and the radical right Laos was hastily concocted. For Pasok strategists, the humiliation of voluntarily ceding power to the right-wing archenemy was counterbalanced by the opportunity to diffuse blame for austerity and buy time to recuperate for the next electoral contest whose timing was anyone's guess. The technocratic government did indeed secure a second bailout and a haircut on Greek debt in February 2012 and promptly called a snap election.

Leading on toward this election, pollsters started reporting the unthinkable: Syriza, the once electorally marginal party of the radical left, was in the process of overtaking Pasok, gnawing deeply into the Socialist support base. The sorpasso was only a matter of time. Desperate to minimize their losses, the Socialists dumped Papandreou for Evangelos Venizelos in March, but to no avail. The barren but epoch-making election of May 2012 confirmed the premonition: Pasok shed thirty percentage points while Syriza more than tripled its numbers.

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depression for the Socialists fully set in only after the June election, when their electoral spread with Syriza exceeded the fifteen percentage point mark. Pasok clung onto power as New Democracy's junior coalition partner, licking its wounds but still refusing to accept total capitulation, despite the continuing hemorrhage of cadres and voters toward Syriza.

Acceptance, the final stage of grief, took root after the January 2015 snap election. Pasok hit its all time low of 4.7% just as Syriza scored a historic high of 36.3% of the national vote. The Socialist brand name had become so toxic that the party attempted to dilute it by mixing it within electoral coalitions of the broader center-left. The rebranding effort of the Democratic Alliance (September 2015) and the formation of the Movement for Change (Kinal) in mid-2017 did not do much by way of reviving Pasok's electoral fortunes, despite an uptick to 8.1% in the 2019 election that ushered in a New Democracy government under Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Having passed through the five stages of grief, the Socialists have now languished in opposition for a stretch of more than seven consecutive years, exceeding any other time in their history. Office-seeking par excellence, it is a question whether Pasok can sustain itself away from power for much longer. 

Currently, there exist two governing scenarios for Pasok as a junior partner. They both render it kingmaker but they also come with serious long-term disadvantages that threaten to suffocate it. The first one, a coalition with New Democracy in an anti-Syriza political bloc, relegates the Socialists to a permanent appendage to New Democracy. The second one, an anti-right coalition with Syriza, is an admission that political autonomy within the left will never be regained. However, Pasok's new leader (the fourth in ten years), is claiming that that he can carve out adequate breathing room for the party.

Beating George Papandreou in the primaries, the 43-year-old Nikos Androulakis took over in the winter of 2021 after the untimely death of President Fofi Gennimata. A party apparatchik since his college years and Pasok MEP since 2014, Androulakis lacks a strong ideological mindset. Many analysts discern strategic considerations behind his unremarkable political worldview while others simply diagnose mediocrity. Be that as it may, the ambitious Cretan based his successful campaign on a triptych of renewal, unity, and political autonomy, offering opportunities to a new cohort of career politicians while emphasizing his centrist, non-ideological demeanor as a guarantee against further splintering. In many ways, Androulakis personifies the political machine that is Pasok.

As with any post-2012 Pasok leader, Androulakis's objective is to overturn the 'sorpasso'. Public opinion polls are lately reporting a significant decrease in the spread with Syriza, however, the initial boost that Androulakis's ascendance effected seems to have petered out. The next election is officially slated for July 2023 and the one-off fully proportional electoral system that Syriza installed in 2016 will render a single-party government impossible. To achieve long-term political autonomy, Pasok is thus aiming for an electoral outcome that will, at the minimum, confirm the pollsters. A near doubling of its previous score, i.e. a share of the vote ideally exceeding 15%, coupled with a marked deterioration for Syriza to close the spread near or below the 10% mark would demoralize Syriza, leading to Tsipras's resignation and opening the floodgates for the return of the center-left vote to its original home. If this materializes, Pasok will seek an independent trajectory, remaining in opposition until the subsequent election that hopefully restores the Socialists to the left’s pole position. 

On the other hand, an electoral outcome that affirms Pasok's inability to close the spread with Syriza will probably plunge the party back into grief and force it to internalize the role of New Democracy's appendage. In need of procuring jobs for its army of apparatchiks, Pasok would once more coalesce with the Conservatives. That is, if the latter do not opt for a second, back-to-back election, given that the electoral system will revert to rewarding the winner with a bonus of up to 50 seats (the Greek Vouli has 300 seats), most likely allowing New Democracy to govern alone, albeit with a fragile majority. A third scenario, a Portuguese-style coalition government of the left incorporating Syriza and Pasok, perhaps along with Mera25 (Yanis Varoufakis's vehicle) and/or the Communist Party, does not currently seem realistic. However, Syriza will strategically insist on the necessity of an anti-right alliance in order to apply ideological pressure on Pasok and isolate New Democracy.

Androulakis will play his cards close to his chest. Until the election he will struggle to keep both Syriza and New Democracy at bay, branding the former as populists and the latter as elitists. The momentum for social democracy seems positive at the European level in light of recent victories in Germany and Portugal, while the opposite is true for the radical left. Pasok will try to ride that wave. Nevertheless, Androulakis must keep a low profile; ideological polarization is bound to favor the two major parties, squeezing out everyone else. Hence, we should not expect Pasok to contribute any novel and exciting ideas to the cause of Greek or European social democracy. With such high stakes, strategic risk aversion and empty sloganeering will reign supreme. Besides, if Androulakis's gambit fails to pay off, Syriza may finally manage to secure the coveted endorsement of the European Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), thus severing the last thread that links Pasok to its former glory.
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