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A few days ago, Greek public opinion was passionately discussing the new TV advertisement of a major toy-store chain. The protagonist is Panayiotis Psomiadis, a hard-core, veteran right-wing politician and singer, who was a leading personality in the political arena in the middle years of the preceding decade. Formerly an MP for the centre-right party of New Democracy (ND), at one time a candidate to lead the party, and at the height of his glory days the fourth most popular Greek politician. His political career ended ingloriously however, when he was removed from the office of district governor for breach of duty.

The effusive Psomiadis appears in the advertisement as the masked vigilante Zorro, to save the spirit of the Carnival before Greece celebrates it on February 8. The ad caused a great uproar, because the pianist (dressed as a pizza) plays the well-known party anthem of New Democracy, a reggae (!) jingle written by Robert Williams, a composer of soundtracks for Greek soap operas. Inspired by the situation in the 1980s, when New Democracy was being convincingly beaten by the populist Andreas Papandreou, the anthem is surprising for its lyricism, nostalgia, and defeatism:

I am waiting for you to come again / Together we will build a Greece that’s great.
Come like the spring to drive the snow away / So the nightingales sing again.

The leadership of ND did not at all like the advertisement with Zorro. They fear that the reappearance of Psomiadis, with a musical accompaniment calling nostalgically for the return of the great conservative party, operates as an indirect message of disapproval for the current ND leader, Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Psomiadis represents the traditional, populist right. But two years ago there was elected to the leadership of ND, contrary to all forecasts, the representative of the opposing party wing. The modern profile and centrist reforming views of Mitsotakis are anathema to the deeply entrenched, traditional, dominant faction of the populist right. His liberal outlook in issues of personal rights, his overtures to the centre-left, and his criticism of old-party politics, not excluding his own party, are hardly compatible with the conventional right-wing profile of previous ND leaders.

Lately, the leader of ND is facing acute pressure from the intransigent, nationalist wing of the party in the matter of neighbouring Macedonia, with which negotiations about the name of the country have recently restarted. Nationalism is prevalent in all Greek parties, but New Democracy has in its ranks the most prominent deniers of the neighbouring country’s right to be called Macedonia. An important detail: Psomiadis is a nationalist Greek Macedonian; indeed, he was formerly the governor of the Greek region also called Macedonia. This whole issue reawakens negative memories for Kyriakos, who does not share the passion of his comrades about the importance of the Macedonian issue.

Like father like son

The leader of ND is a scion of the liberal-centrist Mitsotakis family, which never belonged to the hard core of the party. On the contrary, in the 1960s Constantine Mitsotakis, the father of Kyriakos, was a prominent member of the Centre Union, a broad centre-left movement that was the right wing’s major rival.

After the dictatorship (1967-74), the Centre Union evolved into PASOK, the radical socialist party led by Andreas Papandreou. Mitsotakis, who had long before lost the struggle for succession to the leadership of the party to the tumultuous populist Papandreou, initially chose to go it alone, and was elected as an independent MP in the elections of 1974. He later joined the ranks of New Democracy to lead the liberal-centrist wing of the party, and was elected party leader in the mid-1980s. Andreas was once again his rival, but Mitsotakis prevailed, to win the elections of 1989. The absurd electoral law bequeathed by PASOK before it surrendered power amidst a wave of scandals, meant that Mitsotakis had a single MP majority in parliament, even though he had won 47% of the vote. The issue of Macedonia played a catalytic role in losing that slim majority.

In 1991, after Yugoslavia was dissolved, the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia became an independent state called “Republic of Macedonia”. Greece however, also has a Macedonia, a large geographical region in the north of the country, immediately to the south of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The Greeks reacted vociferously, considering that the new state had no right to a term also used by Greece. Monstrous demonstrations were held, while one could see restaurants and petrol stations along the national highways changing their names to “Macedonia” and using as their logo the Sun of Vergina, the symbol of ancient Macedonia.

The country was in a paroxysm, but conciliatory Mitsotakis responded by a saying that has become famous in Greek politics: he said that in 20 years the Greeks will have forgotten the issue of the name. His Minister of Foreign Affairs, the (then) intransigent Antonis Samaras, took up the Macedonian issue, used it as a vehicle to oppose his Prime Minister, and finally resigned.

Antonis Samaras later returned to New Democracy and became a candidate for the leadership of the party in 2009. In the internal struggle that followed his rival was Dora Bakoyanni, daughter of Mitsotakis senior and sister of the current leader. She was defeated, and followed her father’s example forming a short-lived liberal party, which however had no chance in the elections. Currently, she has returned to New Democracy.

The family eventually gained its revenge with the unexpected elevation to the leadership of ND of Kyriakos in 2015, contrary to the wishes of the other great clan within the party: the Karamanlis family. Just as PASOK was founded as an evolution of the Centre Union, so Constantine Karamanlis, who had been the leader of the right-wing before the dictatorship, founded in 1974 the party of New Democracy.

Karamanlis is a symbolic figure for Greek conservatives: they call him Leader of the Nation and regard him as god-like. He was also a Greek Macedonian. The older generations remember him as a visionary, a tough and effective statesman who brought the country into the EEC (European Economic Community). Younger generations, as an elderly man who had trouble speaking and shed tears when he heard the name “Macedonia”. In 1997, one year before his death, the party elected his nephew Kostas Karamanlis as its leader.

As you have no doubt realised by now, New Democracy, the party of the free market, is also very prone to nepotism. The conflict between Karamanlis and Mitsotakis, which begun in the 1960s when one was the leader of the right and the other the dauphin of the centre-left, is continuing to this day by their descendants, within the same party.

In 2015, Mitsotakis, before being elected leader of the party, was the only right-wing MP who voted against the candidate for President of the Republic, Prokopis Pavlopoulos, who had been a Minister and a close associate of the younger Karamanlis, who governed from 2004 to 2009.

In his brief statement explaining why he rejected Pavlopoulos, Mitsotakis summarised the differences between populist and reforming right. The current leader of ND invoked the clientelist practices in which Pavlopoulos had been so proficient, hiring thousands of seasonal workers when he was a Minister in the Karamanlis cabinet, as well as his populist Euro-scepticism.

The SYRIZA factor

Pavlopoulos had not even been the choice of ND for the highest, if only decorative, office in the land; he was the choice of SYRIZA, a party of the radical left that has governed Greece since 2015. The choice of a close associate of Karamanlis by the leftist Alexis Tsipras was not accidental. Prime Minister Tsipras followed tradition, whereby the party in power selects a presidential candidate from the opposing political camp so as to obtain the needed parliamentary majority. In 2005 it had been Karamanlis who chose Karolos Papoulias, a top Minister and friend of Andreas Papandreou, for the office of President of the Republic.

The populist factions in ND and SYRIZA have engaged in an on-going and easy-going political discourse, extending also to the subject of the financial crisis. Karamanlis himself said in 2015 to people in his intimate circle that the “youngster is doing very well in the negotiations”, referring to Tsipras. Correspondingly, Karamanlis, who despite dire warnings allowed the national debt to balloon while he was Prime Minister, is excluded from the deliberations of the committee set up by Tsipras to investigate the political responsibilities for the dramatic financial crisis that ensued.

In Psomiadis’ TV spot, Greek public opinion is watching a conflict of existential dimensions that encompasses the entire Greek political reality and ranges across conventional party lines. On the one side stand the traditional, populist factions of the parties, which in the main accuse the foreigners for the problems that Greece is facing. According to their narrative, the modernisers are elitists, weak-willed agents of the directory in Brussels, who do not deserve the trust of the people.

Psomiadis impersonates Zorro and, supposedly, saves the spirit of the Carnival; many however, saw in the advertisement another symbolism: that he is saving a traditional party from the new-fangled ideas of Mitsotakis, a politician who talks comfortably with centre-left reformers but is hardly able to connect with the core of his own party. It was not surprising that just a few hours after the advertisement aired on TV, the secretary of New Democracy called a press conference, hastening to explain to right-wing voters that “Psomiadis, with these ridiculous antics, does not belong to the party”.

The answer to the inability of Greek society to embrace the plans for a restructuring of the Greek economy lies in this inability of the political elites to converse with their traditional party base – especially at a time when the crisis has eliminated the preeminent field for discourse and conciliation: the Greek clientelist state. Reformers in all parties recognise the need to apply the programs, but come up against the dominant narrative which devalues them. It is exactly the same with Macedonia. Everyone, including Mitsotakis, knows that this affair must be terminated once and for all, since Greece has no right to choose the name of a third country. But they come up against the emotive responses of Greek society, which are kindled by the populists.

It is the point at which we shall encounter the limits of every government that dares to advance bold reforms in Greece. And of course, it is the point on which the electoral reach of Kyriakos Mitsotakis will be tested in 2019, when Greece will be holding its next elections.

Thimios Tzallas is a writer and specialises in British and Greek politcs.