Having been sworn in as Greece’s new prime minister on Wednesday, Antonis Samaras will hope that this will be his moment of redemption. From rising star to rebel and them from outcast to unlikely unifier, Samaras has covered the whole gamut of political roles. Now, he must fulfill the biggest of them all, at the most crucial of times.
With him in charge, New Democracy veered all over the place like a driver nodding off at the steering wheel. He also managed the unique feat of alienating the party’s middle-ground voters while also losing support to the right. It’s safe to say that Samaras will have to up his game as prime minister.
However, the same goes for the others in his government. While the rapid time in which this rare coalition government has been formed is an impressive achievement by the standards of Greek politics, there have been some worrying signs that the stilted thinking that helped get us here has not been laid to rest.
The decision by PASOK’s Evangelos Venizelos and Democratic Left’s Fotis Kouvelis not to provide MPs or high-profile figures for the Cabinet was highly immature. Clearly, both parties feel that they will suffer if they are closely identified with a government that — no matter how lenient the eurozone feels over the next few weeks — will have to continue with an austerity program. But New Democracy tried this tactic with the interim government led by Lucas Papademos and it failed miserably. The conservatives ended up losing the support of those who blamed them for the extra measures and those who grew frustrated at their undermining of the administration.
PASOK and Democratic Left had a chance to do things differently. It was an opportunity to draw a line under the last few years and give the impression there will be an effort to build on consensus and common interests, however scant they may be. This would have, at least, provided those who voted for the three coalition parties on Sunday (almost 50 percent of voters) with some hope that the country was turning a corner. Psychology or positive thinking will not solve this crisis on their own, but making people believe that change is possible in Greece, whose population is among the most risk-averse in the world, is an important factor.
Based on this timidity, how can this government convince Greeks that it is serious about reforms? Making quick and effective structural changes is the only way the coalition can keep public support on its side and profit from any letup in austerity over the months to come. But if the parties themselves are not willing to change, this process will be dead in the water.
If this government doesn’t show from Day 1 that it’s determined to take on chronic illnesses, such as a severe lack of organization and efficiency in the public administration, its momentum will fizzle out quickly. If it remains beholden to interests in the private and public sector, this administration’s days will be numbered. A combination of watered-down austerity and reform inertia will not convince anyone. Both will be gifts to an emboldened SYRIZA that will argue the new government is neither improving Greeks’ current lot, nor changing the compromised policies of the past few decades.
This coalition will have a tiny window of opportunity to convince people to endure more economic pain in the hope that their sacrifices are not going to waste. If its leaders think the coalition government can survive by simply continuing with the introversion that has pervaded Greek politics, they’re in for a nasty surprise. The onus is on Samaras, Venizelos and Kouvelis to use this moment to stop Greece’s decline. If they fail, they’ll be pulled down faster than those campaign posters.