Pasok: New Leadership, New Discourse To Revive Greek Social Democracy

Kostas Botopoulos

What would you say is the current situation of Pasok, the Greek social democratic party? What is the historic position of social democracy in the Greek political system? Given the recent Greek crisis, where does the party now stand?

I’ve been working for some 30 years now around the socialist parties. Not only in Greece but in Europe. My doctoral thesis, my first book, is on what I call socialists in power in Greece, France, and Spain at the start of the 80s. It goes back to that very different period. Since then I’ve been studying the evolution of socialist and social democratic parties.

PASOK was until 2012, I would say, one of the most popular socialist parties in Europe. It followed a very steep upwards course after the dictatorship. PASOK was founded in 1974 just after the dictatorship and the beginning of what we term here in Greece the New Political Era, Metapolitefsi. There’s a special Greek word for that.

PASOK started with 13% in the first elections in ’74, went up to 25% in ’78 and came to power with around 48% in ’81. In seven years, it grew from 13% to 48%. About one in two Greeks voted for PASOK and this continued throughout the ‘80s and the ‘90s.

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Even the two occasions that PASOK lost the elections in the late 80s/‘90s, it got about 40% of the popular vote. And the same happened in the ‘noughties’. PASOK came back to power in 2009 with 44%. This was the government of George Papandreou, which had to endure the crisis and the memorandum, the famous (Troika) memorandum. From there the downhill route, if I may put it so, started. In 2012, from 44%, PASOK went down to 13%.

Even worse, in the 2015 elections when Syriza, the leftist party, won power there were two elections in six months. PASOK did very badly: 4.6% in the first and 6.28% in the latest elections. There we had the really downward route. From 44% we came back first to 13%, which incidentally is the start of the rot.

Now PASOK scores in single digits. It even went down to less than 5%. At that point, it was the seventh party in the Greek Parliament after always being the first or the second. Now it’s the fourth party in the Greek Parliament with 6.28%. It’s been a steep decline electorally since 2012.

What are the main reasons behind this weakness and this decline of the party?

I think that the main reasons for the decline have to do with two linked factors. The first is that PASOK has been for 30 years almost continuously in power or in a position to be the first or second party, so very much involved in decision making in Greece. This has taken its toll. But most importantly, this has taken the biggest psychological toll. Then it got translated into electoral terms with the advent of the crisis because for good or less good reasons it was perceived as responsible. Not immediately because it must be noted that the crisis in Greece only really began in 2009.

At the end of 2009, PASOK won the elections with 44%. This is the last PASOK government. At the end of 2010 with the memorandum already being enacted since May PASOK won the local elections once more and had a very good showing in the opinion polls as well.

It wasn’t immediately after the advent of the crisis and of the memorandum but slowly it began to dawn on PASOK’s electorate or to be perceived as being responsible, if I may put it so, for the crisis, which took a terrible toll on the lower classes. We are going to talk about the sociological changes but the popular classes, as in most social democratic cases, were the bulkwark of PASOK’s voters.

They became totally disenchanted both politically because they thought that it was the fault of PASOK that this situation – not only financial but also the day-to-day crisis – had begun. But also, and this is I think most important, there was a big psychological bridge among popular electors – the people that voted traditionally for PASOK for 30 years – because it slowly dawned on them that PASOK opened the door through which the policies of harsh austerity were brought into Greece.

Another factor that played an important role was that during this period, we had the crisis on the one hand, the disenfranchisement of the popular electorate and also some very important scandals, which also took a toll on the image of a (once-)popular party. The most important one being a vice-president of both parties, the government and the Socialist International, who is now in jail and who was rightly seen as somebody who used his political power in order to gain money.

The combination of those three factors. The crisis, the political change vis-à-vis the political and psychological change vis-à-vis the popular classes and the scandals, which also took a toll on the image of a left-wing party, I think achieved this very brisk and phenomenal, I would say, collapse.. You know, the term Pasokisation is based on this brisk change of fortunes of a socialist party.

Against this spectrum of decline and crisis, are there any strengths left in the party?

That’s difficult to say now because you know the situation is so difficult. Both in the global political landscape in Greece and also in the electoral fortunes of PASOK. To give you an idea, PASOK is polling now around 7% or 8%, so it’s still in single digits following the elections of 2015. Notwithstanding the fact that Syriza, the leftist party which came into power and which grabbed a big part of its electorate, is perceived as a failure by most people. Syriza is no longer popular at all so less able to continue grabbing the attention of people who once voted PASOK and then voted Syriza.

Even so, PASOK is still polling in the single digits. The electoral situation is bad. It’s difficult to find good spots. I would find two glimmers of hope if I may put it so. Also on the pessimistic side, there’s the phenomenon which plays a very important role of the global difficulties of the socialists and social democrats throughout Europe. This is also something which has an echo in the Greek electoral system.

On the brighter side, first of all, as you may know, now as we are talking we have elections. The first round is next Sunday and the second round is in ten days, the Sunday after that. We have the election of the new chief of PASOK through a popular consultation. Many people are expected to vote and it’s very important to see how massively people will come out to vote. The goal being to start anew, to rejuvenate a bit this very poisonous legacy.

If this succeeds, and that’s a big if, and if the new leader, who has been president since 2015 and she is a strong favourite to win, takes note of this participation and really makes a change and starts afresh, the situation might get better. This is one glimmer of hope.

The second one is because of the general situation, because things are so difficult – the crisis is continuing for a seventh year in Greece. I think there is a need for seriousness and for following the course of democratic values. For change but not through radicalism. For change as political change, which would bring a better life for people. Those things are coming to the fore again because of the situation.

If the party arrives at this rejuvenation through this election, it might start being credible again. The big thing now is that PASOK because of the situation we described is not perceived as credible. It has lost the very important psychological link with the popular classes and with the electorate at large. Those are the main challenges now.

You mentioned the opportunity to potentially reconnect with the co-constituency.


Apart from the process of electing a new chairwoman or chairman, how do you want to overcome this loss of authenticity, this loss of trust with the co-constituency? I mean it probably needs a bit more than just the change of an electoral process for getting a new leader.

Sure. The way this can be done is the classical way of all reformists in social democratic parties. Namely through the policies they will be proposing. There is also in conjunction with the election of the new chief also a big debate on what should be the policies and the proposals of, let’s say, the rejuvenated or the new party – because there’s a possibility of even changing the name after the election. There’s also this ideological and political rethinking going on, which if there’s also the big stimulus of participation in this process could be a start for reconnecting with people.

It’s not only the personalities that are going to change. The main thing is that in light of the crisis, in light of the more general problem also of the European social democracy, there’s a big effort to change the propositions, the discourse, the main attributes of these parties. That’s the way the reconnection is perceived. Also through, as you know, the classical social democratic way of winning mayoralities in some towns, by using local connections, by trying to be more vocal in parliament etc. But the main thing is the new leadership, the new image of rejuvenation of the party and the new political discourse of this party.

Okay. To wrap the conversation up, there are of course also not just upsides but there are potentially threats to PASOK if it fails to rejuvenate itself. At the same time, you mentioned the reconfiguration of the policy agenda. If you look internationally, do you see any potential role models for that? Where do you get new policy inputs and inspiration from?

Yes. It’s difficult to say internally. In Greece we have an anti-model, if I may put it so. We know that there must be a change. The already existing model of a PASOK as a party that works from the bottom up, if I may put it so, with a very strong leadership. This was one of the main historical characteristics of PASOK. Not only in Greece but in Europe in general. When it started, it had many, many active members, which was a new phenomenon for Greece. We had up to 200,000 to 250,000. For a country like Greece, it’s a very big number.

In the first direct elections of the leaders of PASOK, I remember when George Papandreou was first elected and he had no opponent. And one million people went to vote. There was a very important connection with the populace. Be it the voters of PASOK or people interested in the history of this party.

This is over as a model. Both the bottom-up approach, a very strong leadership, the monolithic government. There’s no possibility for the time being for PASOK to rule alone. Even if it were to go from single to double digits or even to improve its electoral performance twice over, it’s impossible now. We have a new electoral role. We have got used to having coalition governments now in Greece.

All these things have changed, so there’s an anti-model, if I may put it so. As for the model, if it were to come from other European countries, there’s a debate I would say but this has to be taken up with caution. With all due respect, the dissimilarities are bigger than the similarities. But theoretically, there is a debate currently going on in what I call the ideological discourse between, let’s say, a type of more reformist, Macron-type party and a more not leftist but trying to be part of a coalition of the left. More of the Portuguese type.

If I were to generalise that would be the two poles around which the Greek socialist experience can take form as we speak. Not tomorrow because there’s still a lot of political and ideological work to be done and it very much depends on the new leader as well.

One would be to go more to the centre, a reformist Macron-like party of government. The other would be to try to refocus on an alliance of the left. The big difficulty in Greece being that the left for the time being is occupied by Syriza, which is not a social democratic party. This is one of the big changes, the big differences, vis-à-vis the Portuguese experience where the social democrats are the big component in the left-wing alliance.

Whereas in Greece, PASOK cannot be at this point the main part of it. Syriza – again this is my personal opinion but I’m very adamant about that – is not at all a social democratic party. It has the characteristic of a populist nationalist nominally leftist party, which is not at all what the social democratic experience would require. An anti-model is the existing model of PASOK.

Well it’s either the French or the Portuguese option. Thank you very much, Kostas. This was very insightful. We’ll sure follow what the development of PASOK is and see where the party decides to go.

this is the fifth in a series of SWOT analyses on the future of social democratic parties promoted by SE and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung


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