Friday, 10 April 2009

Green development could drive the next coalition

A small clutch of pro-reform fringe parties over the past two years suggests that the progressive, non-ideological centre is emerging as the new growth sector in Greek politics. Their common theme is building on Greece's natural strengths: its culture and natural environment.

Chief among them are the Ecogreens, who stem from the European Green movement. They first registered in the September 2007 parliamentary election with 1.05 percent. Last month, former finance minister Stefanos Manos launched his second party - Drasi (Action).

Both are examples of a wider phenomenon - that of an educated, urban middle class fleeing from the socialist and conservative power parties on the perception that they are incapable of delivering change.

An opinion poll aired on Mega channel's Anatropi on March 30 showed New Democracy bleeding 16.8 percent of its 2007 voters to the 'undetermined' vote and Pasok 11.3 percent. Statistically, that means they are thinking of voting for parties not yet in parliament.

Since the last election, the Ecogreens have gradually risen to a consistent approval rating of about three percent. Their entry into parliament as a sixth party in the next election is a real possibility. Drasi has yet to be tested in opinion polls, but Manos' first broad thesis, expressed in articles and interviews, including to this newspaper, has been for education, culture and green development.

The green idea, particularly, is catching on. Bank of Greece governor Yiorgos Provopoulos espoused green energy as a development lever for the next decade (see article on page 8). Even New Democracy seems to be smelling the flowers. Shortly after assuming office in January, Development Minister Kostis Hatzidakis announced a geothermal and wind power blueprint to render Aegean island groups self-sufficient.
Given that Pasok is likely to beat New Democracy in the next election (it has produced three- to five-point leads since last September) but may fall short of the 41.5 percent majority needed to win an outright majority, it could do worse than to scope out the possibilities of a coalition with the Ecogreens and Drasi. The common ground already exists. Socialist leader Yiorgos Papandreou laid out his vision for a green development future on March 5. And Manos has already crossed over to Pasok once before, serving as as statewide MP in 2004.

To make sure they are in pole position for such an invitation, though, the Ecogreens and Drasi need to make sure they get into parliament first. The best way of doing that is to go to the people on a joint ticket. Some of their agenda may not chime. For instance, the Ecogreens are committed to public higher education, while Manos is a free-marketeer. Still, both can agree on higher spending on education and research. The Ecogreens are European federalists who favour a defence initiative separate from Nato, whereas Manos is more of an Atlanticist. But the European Union is committed to both.

The Ecogreens are pragmatic when it comes to taxes. Manos would agree with their increased tax on dirtier cars. Keen to promote entrepreneurship, he could also agree with their idea of a tax incentive for companies that share profits with employees. Manos is also a strong advocate of more e-government and internet-inspired transparency. He could easily harmonise with the Ecogreens' commitment to participatory democracy.

The Ecogreens' plan to employ more people in agrotourism, organic farming, recycling and cultural heritage would find Manos in agreement. After all, he thinks that culture is what the Greeks have to sell.

Environmentalism is their most obvious common point. The Ecogreens are in favour of clean, renewable energy and the abolition of lignite. Manos, a liberaliser par excellence, would be all too keen to see the Public Power Corporation lose its stranglehold on power generation and private operators come in with gas, solar and wind power plants. He is a staunch proponent of micro-generation by households, which would be a litmus test of any government's ability to break PPC union power.
Once allied, these reformists could attract greater numbers of voters together than they can separately on the perception that they are a critical enough mass to form a parliamentary force outside the power parties.

The question is why should Pasok turn to a marginal Drasi-Ecogreens bloc for support, when all the indications are that leftwing Syriza will garner about seven percent of the vote?

Pasok needn't necessarily choose. If it indeed comes in as the first party, it will be the first to receive the president's command to form a government. It can then begin talking to both the leftists and the reformists. Its ultimate aim, of course, will always be to absorb the minority partner's voter base in a not-too-distant election. Aware of this, Syriza, whose paranoia about losing itself to Pasok has produced the populist wing represented by Alekos Alavanos and Alexis Tsipras, will make the more recalcitrant partner. It will put its foot down on any Pasok attempt to harmonise higher education with European directives, ask for the reversal of New Democracy's social security reforms and demand an end to fiscal discipline - none of which Pasok can afford to comply with. Syriza may be relied upon to stomp out of the coalition and ride the notoriety of bringing down the government to garner more populist votes.

Drasi and the Ecogreens, who aren't former communists and haven't an ideological ancestor to feed, would colour a Pasok coalition entirely differently. They would nudge the party in a progressive direction. It would still be a marriage of convenience destined to fail, but until it did so it could produce wonderful legislative offspring.

There is also an ideological reason for Pasok to reject Syriza. The parties of the left are condemned because they produce no ideas that can realistically be implemented. Their humanism is attractive, but their existence is based on the limited basis of populist opposition. The power parties suffer from a similar malaise. Bereft of their founders and lacking visionary heirs who might take them in new directions, they have spent their time plucking their clovers rather than their weeds. It was their way of refusing to move forward.

Now, structural economic reform, environmentalism, competitiveness, transparency, meritocracy and a service-based economy are ideas for which much of Greece is ready. The political forces espousing these things may still be weak, but they are the future. They are the startups for parties with a brand name and experience but no pizzazz to invest in.

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