The lessons of the recent defeat of the PASOK in the Greek elections

Two weeks ago the PASOK (Greek Socialist Party) was ousted from power and the conservative ND (New Democracy) were elected to government. Has Greek society therefore shifted to the right? A closer look at the voting patterns shows that a majority actually voted for the left parties, who together got 52%. It also shows that the PASOK lost precisely because of its conservative policies.

The results of the Greek elections two weeks ago came as no surprise to anyone. The only doubt was about the size of the ND (the conservative New Democracy) vote. The margin between the outgoing PASOK and the conservative ND had been going up and down according to the opinion polls. As I wrote in an article published in Greece shortly before the elections:

"In a couple off days, on Sunday March 7th, general elections will be held in Greece which may result in a victory of "New Democracy" (ND) the right wing party, after 11 years of Socialist Party (PASOK) governments. The latest polls give ND a 3% lead which will be difficult for the PASOK to reverse in the space of the few days that are left."

The elections results proved this prognosis correct, as ND won the elections with an impressive 45,37% against 40,55% taken by PASOK.

Months ago it had become clear that the most likely perspective was that the PASOK would lose the coming elections. Almost one year ago we published on this web site an article (Greek working class – a rumbling volcano, By Fred Weston, April 22, 2003), in which we referred to developments in Greece and how these were affecting the electoral prospects of the PASOK. We wrote the following:

"This comes at a moment in which popular support for the PASOK government is waning. It has been in government for all but three of the past twenty years, and it is closely linked to all the policies of cuts and attacks on the standard of living of the workers.

"We are seeing a similar process to that which we have seen in the rest of Europe. There is no turn to the right in Greek society; on the contrary there is polarization with a marked shift to the left among important layers of society. But because of the policies of the PASOK government growing numbers of youth and workers cannot see a clear alternative and therefore prefer to abstain."

This perspective has now been confirmed. In the polls, throughout the last 12 months the ND was ahead by 8-9 percentage points, and remained so until the change of the leadership of PASOK a month ago. Simitis, the outgoing PASOK Prime Minister, was discredited and the PASOK leadership, in a desperate attempt to stop the unstoppable, decided to present a new face to the electorate, that of George Papandreou, son of the more famous late Papandreou who led the PASOK for many years.

Because of the hopes that were raised by this change of leadership among PASOK supporters, the margin was reduced to 3 percentage points. A clear expression of this new feeling of hope was seen in the election of the new leader of the party, Papandreou. The voting was organised like a kind of primary election with polling booths all over the country, where not just party members were invited to vote, but also "friends of the party", ex-members, etc. In this primary there was only one candidate. However, over one million members and supporters of the party participated - an extraordinary number – practically all of them voting for Papandreou. In some working areas of Athens up to 44% of the PASOK electorate turned out to vote! If anyone doubts that the PASOK has roots in the working class this event alone proves beyond any shadow of a doubt that it does. Papandreou made an appeal to all forces that supported the party, all those on the left, to join the party. He promised he would implement job-creation policies. Thus a mass of workers rallied to the party in an attempt to stop the conservative ND. This explains how the margin between the PASOK and ND was reduced to just 3 percentage points.

However, we have to remember that Papandreou, in spite of his populist rhetoric remains firmly anchored to a belief in capitalist policies. While making promises about jobs, he was also espousing so-called neo-liberal policies. He also took several initiatives, which had a very negative effect. Thus the margin between the ND and PASOK started to go up again.

The first of these initiatives was to collaborate openly with two neo-liberal former ministers of the New Democracy rightwing government of 1990-93, Manos and Andrianopulos, who were two of the most prominent cadres of that hated government. The second was the announcement of a rightwing programme with some important counter-reforms, such as the promotion of non-state universities, i.e. in effect the privatisation of the university system, (something which is actually against the constitution in Greece). And after having promised job-creation schemes he announced that unemployed 18 to 24-year old youth could be employed for four years without the bosses having to pay any social insurance contributions. He also announced plans for new tax cuts for big business and a continuation of the programme of privatisations.

The PASOK leaders made things even worse for themselves by doing the most incredibly stupid things on the very eve of the elections. A group of PASOK MPs and a Minister presented a scandalous new law to be voted just before the parliament was to be dismissed, which would allow a hotel company to build thousands of bungalows in a forest are. This was a scandal and revealed the level of corruption of some of the Ministers and Members of Parliament. G. Papandreou reacted immediately and expelled the 9 MPs from the PASOK parliamentary group. But the damage had already been done.

In the last few days before the elections the PASOK leadership tried everything to reverse the negative data by promising a doubling of the lower pensions, free travel tickets for the unemployed, and many other reforms, but all was in vain. It was too little and too late. It was seen for what it was: cheap electioneering and not a serious attempt to change policy.

The real reasons of the defeat

However, it must be said that the events of the last few months were not the main reason for the defeat, but only a small part of it. The real reason lay in the anti-working class and pro-capitalist policies of the PASOK government, right from when it came into power.

A turning point was in April 2001 when they tried to introduce the anti-working class measures around the question of pension and social security contributions. This provoked an all-out reaction of the workers, which resulted in three general strikes with the participation of hundreds of thousands of workers, which forced the government to a panic retreat.

The PASOK government, because of its continuous attacks against the workers, its austerity policies, the numerous scandals, its close collaboration with the bosses, was becoming more and more isolated from the workers, the unemployed and the poor. This isolation of the party had long been evident. But towards the end it finally dawned on the blind people in the leadership of the party, and that is what explains the sudden change of the leader just one month before the elections. It was a vain attempt on their part to hold on to their power and the privileges.

A right-wing turn?

The victory of the ND it is not the result of a turn to the right on the part of the working class, or of the fact that the Greek society has become "more conservative". It is clearly the result of the fact that a part of the PASOK voters, especially the most marginalized elements (the unemployed, very poor, peasants, and middle class people that have been hit by the crisis) decided to punish the party for the anti-worker policy that its leadership had adopted throughout the previous years. This was clearly revealed in the exit polls, where 30% of those who voted ND said that they had done so in order, "to punish the PASOK"(!).

The defeat of the PASOK was also the result of the decision of the ruling class that the Simitis government had served its time. They no longer had any use for a government that could no longer hold the workers back. This influenced important layers of the bourgeoisie itself and layers of the wealthier petit bourgeoisie. A large part swung behind their traditional party the ND. This was clear in the rich suburbs where the support for this party by 10 to 15 percentage points, even reaching the level of 70%.

However, although the ND won, the PASOK got large support from the working class and the poor of Greece. In the working class areas of Athens the PASOK got a majority of the votes. This is in spite of the crimes of the leadership. And together with the other left parties (the "Communist" KKE, Synaspismos, and DIKKI) they received over 60%of the votes in these areas. Nationally the combined vote of all the left parties was over 52% against the 47.5% of the rightwing parties. Apart from the ND, the other right wing party is the LAOS. This is a right-wing split off from the ND which received 2.19% of the votes.

We also have to note that the ND did not present their real face to the Greek workers. They presented a very soft face and they very carefully disguised their programme behind many promises of reforms ("in favour of the poor" as they said). This they did to try and rebut the accusations of the PASOK that they are in reality the old and well-known rightwing which will attack the workers. They also made a pretence of an open self criticism of their own past saying that they have changed and that they have drawn conclusions from the mistakes of the past.

Failure of the Left

The KKE, Synaspismos and DIKKI, all failed to gain from the losses of the PASOK The KKE grew by a miserable 0.4% (5.90% the total vote). This was thanks to its sectarian policy, (they rejected the proposal for electoral collaboration of the left made to them by the Synaspismos), its ultra-left attacks against the PASOK, its tactics aimed at splitting the labour movement, combined with its reformist programme and its Stalinist image. There are also the many criminal mistakes of the past that it has never admitted and never corrected. As a result of all this the bulk of the working class couldn’t see it as a credible alternative to the PASOK.

The Synaspismos only just managed to get past the 3% barrier, which allows it to have parliamentary representation. It got 3,26% of the votes, compared to 3,20% in the previous elections. It cooperated with some better-known figures of the left and some sectarian groups. It moved more to the left trying to make up for the fact that some very well known cadres belonging to its right-wing current had left the party and had joined the PASOK. The final electoral result for the Synaspismos was a complete failure. If the KKE had failed to become an alternative to PASOK, this was even more the case for the Synaspismos. It has a reformist programme and has very limited influence within the working class.

The DIKKI, a small reformist/nationalist left party which split from the PASOK in 1995 at the wrong time and for the wrong reasons, received only 1.79% (compared to 2.70% in the 2000 elections) and nearly disappeared. It has no influence among the working class and it can’t survive for very much longer. Already some of its cadres have returned to the PASOK, and the majority of its electoral losses went to ND!


The PASOK has entered into a very convulsive period, when the members will be asking many questions. They will want to discuss the reasons for the defeat and undoubtedly they will draw more radical conclusions. For the time being there is no perspective of any serious split from the party because the new leadership has the support of the rank and file. But by the time the real intentions of the new leader become clear to all there will be more tensions both in the rank and file and at the top of the party.

In the early stages we believe the new ND government will tread very carefully. It will measure its actions because they don’t wont to provoke an immediate reaction on the part of the labour movement. The reason is that they have the bitter experience of the previous time they were in government in 1990-93. Then they were brought down by the workers’ movement. There is the added problem of the European elections which are to be held soon, and in a year’s time there are the election of the new president. They would not want to carry out policies that would risk them losing these two important elections.

However, after this necessary and obligatory period of biding their time, the ND government will show its real face and will attack the workers with all its force. Then it will become clear that they were merely elected to finish the dirty work that the PASOK governments had started but were unable to finish. The inevitable attacks of the ND will lead to a massive mobilisation of the workers. Tens of thousands of workers will be pushed into action and into the trade unions. The result will be a radicalisation of the unions and the replacement of the old degenerate leadership with a more militant one. These processes will be reflected inside the PASOK with the coming into the party of thousands of workers and youth over the next few years. They will do so looking for a political alternative in their fight against the ND.

The election of the ND undoubtedly represents a negative step for the working class. It will mean sever attacks on their living standards and on hard-won reforms, such as healthcare and education. But in this it contains a positive element. It will be a hard lesson for the new generation of workers. They will learn that it is capitalism itself that is to blame, not this or that party. It will be the whip of the counter-revolution that will push the consciousness of the masses forward. This will create in the next period very favourable conditions, both for the Marxist ideas and the work of the Marxists.