Although Greece is understandably concerned with the refusal of Mr. George Papandreou to resign and make way for a government of national unity, we need to focus not on the events of the next 24 hours, but on the events of the next 2-3 months, which will be decisive. Therefore, we need to focus on the main opposition party and its demands, because these will determine both the caretaker government, as well as possibly the next one. I share my thoughts here in a non-political, or non-ideological context.
Reflecting on New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras’ speech in Parliament yesterday, any informed Greek citizen and voter should have cause for alarm. Despite what may or may not have happened between Mr. Samaras and Mr. Papandreou, to get up in Parliament and say the words Mr. Samaras said on Thursday night, replete with jibes at Mr. Papandreou’s grandfather and against Mr. Papandreou directly, raises serious questions as to whether Mr. Samaras is ready for power or not.
What does Greece need at the present conjuncture, and how does Mr. Samaras measure up?
Greece needs a competent, level-headed manager
At the present conjuncture of events, Greece needs a competent, capable manager who can gain a wide political consensus. This manager needs to be able to understand and relate to different points of view, some of which are tactical, some of which are ideological, both within Greece and outside it. This individual will need to sit down and negotiate with figures like Lloyd Blankfein, the Chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs, an institution which bet both for and against Greece. He will need to work with President Nicholas Sarkozy of France; he or his staff will have to give interviews to Bild Zeitung in Germany, which famously put a photoshopped statue of the Venus de Milo on its cover, offending people everywhere.
So the question really is whether Mr. Samaras is a competent manager who can keep his calm and do his best for Greece, or is he a hothead who will alienate even more people within Greece and outside it?
Greece needs to gain consensus within the country
If I were a PASOK MP, having seen the Samaras speech yesterday evening, I would be tempted to vote to keep the Papandreou government in power. There was not the slightest bit of empathy for the PASOK MPs who are the swing vote, and on who’s shoulder’s Mr. Samaras entire electoral strategy rests. Yesterday evening was the opportunity to reach out to these swing voters—and to Greece as a whole--with the reassurance that a caretaker government would be inclusive and competent, and get the job done. Instead, we heard a series of inflammatory statements on why Mr. Samaras was correct, why Mr. Papandreou was wrong and a liar, and what demands Mr. Samaras places to support a caretaker government.
These demands are, in part, absurd, and the manner with which they were delivered unacceptable. Among them is that this government lasts only one month, and in this month will approve the 2012 budget and the ratification of the October 26th Agreement. This is impossible within one month, given that neither PSI nor certain details to be negotiated with the Troika will be ready within this time. For instance, the privatisation programme and labour reserve plan, which are critical parts of the 2012 budget, are impossible to resolve.
So the question is whether or not Mr. Samaras really understands what’s going on in Greece today. Do his one-way proposals and incendiary rhetoric support a solution, or contribute to the problem? Mr. Samaras thinks it’s his way or the highway. This is not what the country needs at the moment. This is also short-sighted, given that no opinion poll gives ND a majority to govern.
Greece needs a means-tested, budgeted plan for recovery
Another question is whether Mr. Samaras actually has a plan for Greece which stands up to the circumstances and to reality. On this count, New Democracy has published a list of policy recommendations, some of which are quite good. For instance, Mr. Samaras made a crucial link between agreeing to a bail-out package with receiving Eurozone agreement for its borders and its Exclusive Economic Zone, which Turkey challenges. But there is still no integrated, budgeted proposal which reconciles the need for austerity and debt service with the need to finding the resources required to operate the public sector and pay public obligations.
So once again, Greece risks electing a leader who has not done his homework, and who has made incendiary statements and promises he will not be able to implement.
Any future Prime Minister of Greece needs competent Ministers
The appointment of Mr. Samaras’ team raises further questions as to how different Mr. Samaras is from Mr. Papandreou. To appoint former ministers such as Aris Spiliotopoulos as shadow Minister of Education is astounding. Mr. Spiliotopoulos’ past performance as Minister for Tourism raise grave questions as to his competence and good judgement, and have been the subject of financial audit. Other key positions are staffed largely by serving members of parliament, many of whom have almost no experience in the private sector or in the real economy. They have spent their entire careers either in government, in parasitic government-related positions, or in academia. This is not what Greece needs.
And finally, we have been here before
Mr. Samaras can hardly claim to be the competent “new leader” of Greece his public relations advisors make him out to be. He is a creature of the political system of Greece, and in the past has made at least two judgements which should give us all cause for doubt.
In 1992, he brought about the downfall of the Mitsotakis government over the issue of the naming of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Then, as now, Mr. Samaras pushed the issue to the limit of brinksmanship, without apparent regard for external and objective realities. He set up his own political party, leaving ND with a margin of 1 vote in Parliament. This government collapsed with the defection of one MP to Mr. Samara's party the next year, leading to a new government by Andreas Papandreou, the father of the current prime minister. There are any number of questions which exist as to the funding of Mr. Samaras’ political party and his relationship with a certain Greek telecommunications oligarch. For anyone interested in this obscure story, the details are in plain sight. The feud between Antonis Samaras and Dora Bakoyianni, which led to the latter’s split from ND in 2010, is one echo of this event.
In 2007, Samaras re-joined New Democracy, and in 2009 was appointed short-lived Minister for Culture until the elections in October 2009. We have still not heard or seen any real analysis of the massive failures of the Karamanlis government and ND during this time. The fact that many of the faces remain the same indicates that only two years after the fall, the same corrupt structure is essentially poised to come back into power. The same networks exist; the same power structure is in place, often with the same faces, or with relations of the protagonists of 2003-2009. Given that the disastrous consequences of the Karamanlis government will remain with us for at least the next generation, it is impossible to overlook this fact.
For all these reasons, I question the future of Greece under Antonis Samaras. His election has not yet occurred, but both his prior record and his current conduct raise doubts as to whether he would be a fair, honest and competent leader. His naked desire to become Prime Minister and prove everyone else wrong lead me to question his capacity to govern reasonably and fairly. Although he is charming in person, his public discourse has become more vitriolic and offensive, and in some cases unrooted in reality.
With all parties having agreed either on immediate elections or a short-term caretaker government followed by national elections, his election is almost assured if we believe the opinion polls. Although he cannot be elected outright, he will almost certainly govern as part of a coalition government.
It is also certain that under any right-wing government, the left-wing bureaucracy will resist further austerity measures and administrative reforms. This too has been seen before, notably during the Mitsotakis and Karamanlis governments. Yet the present state of anger means that this resistance may well take extreme forms. As a result, the social and economic fabric of the country is sure to tear further.
As with nearly all posts on Greece these days, I consciously or unconsciously hope that I will be proven wrong. Let’s hope this is one of those cases.
© Philip Ammerman, 2011