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A Hamlet on the Greek left

Democratic Left seeks political alliances after the ambivalent stance of resigned leader Fotis Kouvelis on collaborations

Democratic Left's crushing defeat has reopened the debate over whether and how to cooperate in a much-touted centre-left alliance

Fotis  Kouvelis' resignation has done little to calm spirits in defeated Dimar Fotis Kouvelis' resignation has done little to calm spirits in defeated Dimar The crushing defeat of Fotis Kouvelis' Demcratic Left (Dimar) party in the recent European elections - it came tenth on a paltry 1.2% of the vote - is confronting Greece's so-called renewal left with its perennial dilemma, of whether to work with centrist social democratic parties: Pasok until now, newfangled Potami and maybe others in the future.

Traditionally, the answer from most of the renewal left has been to pursue equitable schemes of cooperation with social democratic political forces, and the late Synaspismos leader Leonidas Kyrkos was one of the primary exponents of that strategy well into his 80s.

It is perhaps no coincidence that Kyrkos' son, Leonidas, ran for and won a European parliamentary seat with Potami, which seeks a decisive say in the creation of a viable alliance of centre-left parties.

What has enraged Kouvelis's intraparty opposition is the leader's coy and ambiguous stance about collaborations. He has often spoken of the need for this to be done on the basis of an agreed upon platform, but somehow a dialogue never got started. Clearly, the motivation was lacking.

To be sure, Kouvelis' political success in the past few years was based on his clear admission that he sees Dimar as a realistic party that could collaborate with as disparate forces as New Democracy and Pasok. He made it clear to voters that he intended to participate in a coalition that he saw as a national salvation scheme, in which the left might try to push pro-labour improvements to a harsh austerity policy dictated and micromanaged by Greece's troika of creditors.

But throughout his term in government, Kouvelis displayed a constant, gnawing ambivalence over a string of unpopular memorandum measures. In some instances, he spoke out as a critic, only to approve a slightly modified version of what he had just opposed. In many other instances of controversial and unpopular austerity measures, Dimar MPs voted "present", wiping their hands of the sinful legislation but allowing it to pass handily with the votes of coalition partners Pasok and New Democracy. Naturally, they complained that Kouvelis always passed the buck when the going got hard, but the image of a kinder, gentler leftist in an austerity government was too useful to  shed politically.

The spectre of defeat

Aside from intraparty opposition, Kouvelis' tactic of constantly hedging his bets soon lost favour with his electorate, which continued to shrink perilously throughout Dimar's participation in the ruling coalition.

The party seemed well on its way to the fate of the rightwing Laos party of Yiorgos Karatzaferis, who was politically annihilated after serving in the interim government of Lucas Papademos.

Kouvelis saw the departure from the government in June 2013 as the only path to political survival. Instead, it led to annihilation.

That Kouvelis chose to leave the ruling coalition over the shut-down of state television, to which he had reportedly agreed in part, was a further blow to Dimar's credibility, as few inside or outside of the party saw it as the vital issue over which such a weighty decision should be taken.

Faced with the stark dilemma of whether to be or not to be in a government forced to implement the harshest peacetime austerity programme ever in Europe, Kouvelis decided to opt out, and he dragged his parliamentary group and party with him, despite strong objections from a vociferous minority. These were obviously not heeded.

Ideological and moral purity, a sort of leftwing chauvinism, has been the underpinning of Kouvelis strategy and political tactics. He has depicted Dimar as the only truly rational, realpolitik, pro-European, leftwing party on the bloc, especially dismissing Syriza as populist and ruling out collaborations there as well.

Moreover, he now depicts Dimar as the only clean hands party that "owes to no one", meaning that he is not beholden to vested interests and corruption that bedevilled Pasok and New Democracy governments over the decades.

That Kouvelis ruled out any collaboration with New Democracy and Pasok because they are parties that serve the memorandum raised political eyebrows, as it with these same parties with which he had collaborated, passing many of the dread memorandum bills that he had renounced. Indeed he ruled out cooperation with "the current expression of Pasok", meaning as long as Evangelos Venizelos (whom his critics accuse of neoliberal policies) is at the helm.

With a muddled, contradictory political outlook, it is hardly a surprise that Kouvelis found no party allies in the political arena, and only a tiny, 1.2% base of support at the ballot box.

Now, with Kouvelis having offered his resignation, Dimar's dilemma is not so much who will be the next party leader – it is pretty much a given that the party will now seek centre-left alliances - but on what basis, with what red lines, and with which parties Dimar might seek to collaborate, based on a common programme.

The main choices are three – Pasok or its new Elia scheme, Stavros' Theodorakis' centre-left Potami, and Syriza.

Given the negative historical baggage in Dimar's ties with Syriza and Pasok, Potami might be a reasonable place to start. But by the time a dialogue on uniting the centre-left begins in earnest, the Pasok/Elia scheme will have made its own policy decisions, which may include a harsher stance on austerity and memorandum policies, something that would facilitate a collaboration with Dimar and yes, why not, even Syriza.

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Fotis Kouvelis
Stavros Theodorakis
Democratic Left
River (political party)
Evangelos Venizelos