A poster moment for Greek politics

Ten tons of illegal election campaign posters were taken down in Athens over the past few days. The political scrap-heap is full, for now.

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.

Nick Malkoutzis

4 responses to “A poster moment for Greek politics

  1. No, you got it all wrong.

    This government has to convince no one.

    For it is high time that the Greeks should stop asking what their government can do for them and ask instead what they can do for their government.

    This “little windows” nonsense is Made in Berlin and I for one will have none of it. Enough with the “last chance” and “better do it right this time” propaganda that the beast of Berlin spews on a daily basis.

    We, the Greeks, are giving the orders here and when we say jump Germany needs to learn to say “how high”?

    • Dear Dean, I think I have asked you this question before. Why does a man of your knowledge, of your insights into Greece’s problems as well as their solutions and with your obvious leadership traits — why don’t you get involved and “do something for your government”? I take it you are not a fan of the Left. The Left already has a charismatic leader. The rest of Greek politics is presently short of charismatic leaders, so you wouldn’t even have much competition. So why don’t you shoot for the role of becoming the “Tsipras for the rest of Greeks”. You could go down into history, you know?

      • That’s very nice of you Klaus. 🙂

        So you want me to stand up to Samaras and ask him to move over so that I can take my rightful place in history? 😉

        Look, I think Greece has many good and able people. What Greece is lacking is a real connection to the world outside Greece (meaning in its politics). It’s that part of the narrative that interests me. Not so much the domestic side.

        My dream for Greece is to occupy the highest level possible within the European family by distinguishing itself in all things European. I am not sure if domestic Greek politics is the way to achieve such. Because , as you know by now, Greek politics tend to be introvert. That’s why it’s almost impossible for Europeans to understand how Greece is reacting to the present challenge. It starts with the world view which has Greece in its very center, just like the Oracle of Delphi.

        I hope you don’t take offense in what’s been said here because it’s all political and by calculation provocative to elicit responses necessary to overcome issues. Nothing personal.

  2. The consensus among several of your colleagues and analysts internationally seems to be that ‘this administration’s days will be numbered’ anyway, as they most probably would be regardless of who led the current coalition. Tsipras would (will, soonish?) most likely find himself in the same (if not a direr, given his lack of experience and over-reliance on big promises that he couldn’t have delivered), position.

    Venizelos seems to be toying with the idea of migrating a sizeable chunk of PASOK into a revamped version of the by now pretty withered party, in the hope, I suppose, of seizing the opportunity to stake out his political plot in the currently blurred Greek political territory. If that’s correct, from his point of view, keeping a distance from the New Democracy led government makes sense. For Kouvelis, on the other hand, too close an association with New Democracy is unlikely to be profitable: a tiny party that started out on the left and became wholly engulfed by a big party on the right is likely to discover its grass roots supporters have vanished once the coalition implodes, or is ejected by the people, or is crushed under the weight of the problems it aspires to deal with. So from his point of view, keeping a distance probably makes sense too; it could be seen as an effort to preserve the core of Dem. Left’s supporters, at least, intact.

    That the point of view of parties is never aligned with that of the people seems to me the sine qua non of politics, perhaps the world over. At most one can hope that the interests of the ruling parties are to some extent aligned with those of the people.

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