Signs of cracks in Greece's political left. Socialist-Communist rift could stymie Papandreou austerity plan
Athens — The political left in Greece is showing signs of a deepening rift -- a development that could translate into political trouble for socialist Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou's ruling party, analysts say. Greek voters registered their disapproval of the ruling Panhellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok) recently in municipal elections that were widely seen as a litmus test of support for the party's year-old economic austerity measures.
On Oct. 19, the voters opted for conservative mayoral candidates in the country's three largest cities -- Athens, Piraeus, and Salonika. In these cities, where 40 percent of the Greek population lives, the opposition candidates outpolled Pasok by 2 to 9 percent.
Pasok's defeat is largely seen as stemming from loss of support from the Communist Party of Greece (KKE). A week before Sunday's runoff balloting, the KKE central committee instructed its rank and file not to support the Pasok-backed candidate in Athens. In the first round of balloting two weeks ago, voters had supported the party line, and the Communist Party pulled more than 17 percent of the vote. If added to the Pasok total, this would have given the left the majority in last Sunday's runoffs.
Political observers saw the KKE's move as a protest against the government's refusal to amend electoral laws that favor the two major parties -- Pasok and the conservative New Democracy party.
In addition to refusing to support Pasok, many voters on the left also registered their discontent by either boycotting the election or invalidating their ballots. Some 35 percent of registered Athenian voters stayed away from the polls -- 15 percent below normal voter turnout.
Mr. Papandreou now faces the tough task of repairing this schism and wooing back the Communists if he is to regain a wide base of support.
The prime minister is in no immediate political danger, as he does not have to call parliamentary elections again until 1988. But analysts here say he is in danger of losing the political initiative if Sunday's vote is translated into a stalemate and he loses Communist and moderate support in a Parliament in which Pasok holds only an 11-seat majority. (Two Greek newspapers yesterday carried reports of rumors that Papandreou may try to head off a loss of initiative by reshuffling his Cabinet. The government has refused comment.) Papandreou also may have to contend with unrest from Communist-run trade unions.
Such developments would aggravate an already-troubled economic situation. Greece relies heavily on foreign capital to keep its economy afloat and to finance its $15 billion external debt. A loan of $1.7 billion from the European Community was agreed to last fall, but as a quid pro quo for the receipt of the second half of those funds at the end of this year, Greece was forced to introduce belt-tightening measures and meet certain economic targets.
Despite the new austerity program, which freezes wages and discourages (but does not significantly cut) imports, Greece's balance-of-payments deficit is still predicted to break the $2 billion mark in 1986. With such forecasts, the government last month was compelled to raise utility rates and decontrol rents to limit spending for imported goods.
Such a move was hardly a vote-getter with a population that has an appetite for American clothing, European cars, and Japanese stereos. And Papandreou realizes he must win back moderate, middle-class voters who welcomed his political ascent and his promises of change in the 1981 and '85 general elections but who now are disillusioned by the austerity measures the government implemented a year ago.
Papandreou thus finds himself caught between the pressures of the international financial community and the demands of an unhappy electorate. If Sunday's vote was simply a symbolic protest in an off-year election, Papandreou has only the bankers to contend with. If, however, the vote is a sign of a growing split in Greece's political left, he will be forced, as one analyst here says, ``to deepen the rift between right and left and halt any moderate voters from shifting to the conservatives.''