The 58 Initiative Turns Center Left

Unhappy with the fractured Greek left, a new moderate movement dubbed The 58 Initiative because it was begun by 58 academics, intellectuals and others disenchanted with the political system, has begun – with squabbling over whether to become a party or just stand on the sidelines in opposition.

Some of its members want The 58 Initiative to bring together the  center-left and challenge the ruling coalition of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’ New Democracy Conservatives – and his partner, PASOK Socialist chief Evangelos Venizelos, who showed up at the kickoff.

About 2,000 people attended with lots of back-slapping and glad-handing all around, including former prime minster and one-time PASOK leader Costas Simitis, Athens Mayor Giorgos Kaminis, and a bunch of PASOK members and those from the tiny Democratic Left (DIMAR) that used to be in coalition but quit in disgust when Samaras – backed by Venizelos – fired all 2,653 workers at the public broadcaster ERT and shut it down.

Venizelos was rewarded with the positions of Deputy Prime Minister/Foreign Minister for reversing his objection, but DIMAR, which had little support anywhere, is now floundering in last place among the parties in Parliament at barely 3 percent and, politically speaking, is powerless and irrelevant.

The event began with videotaped messaged from European Parliament President Martin Schulz and Hannes Swoboda, the head of the European Parliament’s Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats.

Swoboda, at a news conference in Strasbourgh, France before coming to Athens, tore into a blistering attack against Greece’s international lenders, the Troika of the European Union-International Monetary Fund-European Central Bank (EU-IMF-ECB) that he said are making “unacceptable demands” in harsh austerity – which Venizelos supports.

Greece is locked in stalled talks with the Troika envoys over the size of a hole in the 2014 budget and long-delayed reforms holding up release of a one billion euro ($1.37 billion) installment.

“The Troika is making unacceptable, socially unacceptable, demands, for example that citizens who cannot pay back the credit on their houses because of lack of income, because of unemployment, should be thrown out of their houses and their flats,” Swoboda said.

Back in Athens, The 58 Initiative launch included a speech from Paraskevas Avgerinos, who explained that the unification of the democratic faction is inevitable. This was also echoed by Yannis Tountas, who represented a number of center left movements and pushed for more co-operation from Greece’s fractured left parties. Noticeably absent was the major opposition Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) party.

The main speaker, Yannis Voulgaris, said that The 58 Initiative, which was likened to Italy’s former Olive Tree, “must dare to separate itself from the old political system” and argued that it was not his intention to create a new party to replace the older ones, but rather hopes to encourage a wider cooperation of the various center left parties who divided have virtually no ability to affect government policy.

He said that both New Democracy – Venizelos’ boss these days – and SYRIZA are both wrong in how they are dealing with the country’s crushing economic crisis, an indirect swipe at Venizelos who was there.

Venizelos said his party supports the movement, which wants to get the government coalition that includes his party out of power. He said nonetheless the movement is an opportunity for the left to come together and support progressive policies that he now opposes.

Recent polls by Kappa Research and GPO indicate that a significant section of the electorate body (46.6% and 68.2% respectively) are in favor of a coalition of PASOK, DIMAR and other center left movements in the upcoming elections of European Parliament although that would put PASOK at odds with New Democracy.

According to GPO, 40% would vote for such a coalition in national elections, which isn’t a majority but could be enough to get a unified left party to victory, although it would need a coalition partner too, further weakening its core.

Some in the initiative, such as former PASOK minister Anna Diamantopoulou to become a political party although the track record of new parties in Greece is dismal and shows them so marginalized they are ignored.

Another in the group, Giorgos Floridis, said he believes that PASOK and DIMAR should disband and join the initiative, which is likely to draw fierce resistance from PASOK, showing how much confusion remains among the leftist parties which can’t agree on what they want to do.