The internal division within PASOK has escalated into open warfare between the center-left party’s leader and Deputy Prime Minister, Evangelos Venizelos, and the former Prime Minister, George Papandreou.
After several months of simmering tensions between the two men and their supporters, yesterday George Papandreou passed the point of no return, demanding an emergency party conference and the initiation of processes that would allow the election of a new party leader. This, according to the former Prime Minister’s announcement, would provide the ‘democratic and political shock’ needed by the party which he says has lost its way.
In making his announcement Papandreou effectively provided political cover to the party’s MPs who have requested that party procedures be activated that would lead to the election of a new leadership. Papandreou also made clear that he would not stand for election as part of the Democratic Party – the new umbrella group that Evangelos Venizelos is seeking to establish – if the emergency party meeting was not held.
Effectively Papandreou has drawn a line in the sand, putting himself at the forefront of the group within PASOK that is unhappy with Venizelos’s leadership of the party.
Evangelos Venizelos immediately rejected Papandreou's call in an announcement issued by PASOK party headquarters which describes the proposal as ‘miserable introverted moves’ which trigger ‘uncertainty and instability’. PASOK, according to the statement, ‘is and will be the guarantor of national stability which is also progressive.’ The statement also refers to the critical issues of the ongoing negotiations with the troika and the government’s effort to build a supermajority of MPs to elect a new President of the Republic and avoid snap elections in March. ‘We will not let anyone disrupt that,’ the statement said in a clear reference to Papandreou.
However following Papandreou’s public bombshell, the turbulence within PASOK is unlikely to die down and the idea of the Venizelos’s new Democratic Party being a ‘unifying force’ for the center-left is effectively dead in the water.
According to sources close to Papandreou, already a number of party officials have rallied around the former Prime Minister’s move with support for a leadership challenge expected to grow in the coming days. This weekend in 14 cities around the country meetings are being organized of PASOK members under the age of 35 who are aligned with Papandreou’s positions.
The same sources state that the move was also hailed by a large number of former party members and officials who are concerned about PASOK’s future and disagree with Venizelos’s leadership.
Circles loyal to Papandreou also note that the proposal by Papandreou for a party conference and leadership election and its subsequent rejection by Venizelos has granted the former his first political win – at least on the basis of first impressions - over his long-time rival in the party in years. Papandreou is taking on the image of the noble defender of PASOK’s principles, while Venizelos is seen as an autocrat leading his party to disaster.
It is also likely that a number of PASOK MPs loyal to Papandreou will follow his lead and refuse to run in the next elections on the Democratic Party ticket in the absence of a PASOK party conference and leadership election. This would threaten the very electoral survival of PASOK/ the Democratic Party which can little afford to lose additional support.
There is little shortage of rancour between the two camps. While Papandreou is being hailed as a saviour by his supporters, MPs loyal to Evangelos Venizelos accuse the former Prime Minister of hypocrisy, noting that “Of the last 1,000 days, for 800 of them the former Prime Minister was abroad and absent from every party process.” The official statement released by PASOK in response to Papandreou’s proposal also implies that he was absent from key parliamentary votes.
Venizelos may receive support for his position that disunity within PASOK threatens the stability of the government at a sensitive time for Greece. However there may also be little he can do about it.
As for how voters will react it remains to be seen, although it is unlikely that they will be inspired by the image of the once-powerful party pulling itself apart.