|Saturday, 23 June 2012 14:29|
CRITICAL: After the election euphoria comes the hard part for Greece"s new leader, write Rachel Donadio and Liz Alderman
ANTONIS Samaras has worked his entire life to become prime minister of Greece. But now that he has achieved his dream job, the biggest question among both his friends and his enemies is how long he will be able to hold on to it.
On Wednesday, Samaras, the leader of the New Democracy party, was sworn into office, ushering in a new coalition government that will put Greece back at Europe"s bargaining table and ending a seven-week leadership vacuum that had destabilised this already-fragile nation and cast a shadow over the eurozone"s future.
"I am fully aware of the critical moments we face as a country," Samaras said during the transfer from the caretaker prime minister, Panagiotis Pikrammenos, adding that the Greek people were "injured" and needed "healing".
But with Greece"s economy at a standstill and European leaders still uncertain about the country"s fate, Samaras, a pro-European nationalist known for his stubbornness as well as his tactical shrewdness, comes into power with little room for manoeuvring and scant chance of comforting Greeks.
The new government can "incrementally develop a certain sense of stability and certainty, but it will always be vulnerable to any shock whether political or economic," said Marco Vicenzino, director of the Global Strategy Project, a geopolitical risk analysis firm based in London.
Samaras" new role will require significant political contortion.
Samaras, 61, must wrest enough concessions from Brussels in easing the terms of Greece"s austerity agreement to pacify the Greek public. Simultaneously, he needs to pursue root-and-branch changes to his nation"s sclerotic economy and dysfunctional government to persuade Germany and Greece"s other foreign lenders to keep Athens" financial lifeline in place.
And he must do so while presiding over an unruly coalition that includes his longtime rivals, the Socialist party, Pasok, and a smaller left-wing party, who have little common ground besides a deep desire to prevent Greece
While European leaders had publicly hoped for a victory by New Democracy over the more radical Syriza, which had pledged to renounce Greece"s bailout agreement, privately, some officials say that Samaras will have to work hard to regain trust and goodwill, given his strident opposition to Greece"s first bailout deal and his weeks of foot-dragging last autumn before agreeing to go along with the second. Many voters switched parties to support Samaras as their last hope to save the country from ejection from the eurozone. Samaras ran on a platform promising to change the policy mix in the loan agreement by reversing some tax increases and rescinding cuts to pensions.
But he did not convincingly specify where the extra money would come from in a country whose coffers are expected to run dry as early as the middle of next month
"Although he comes from the conservative background of New Democracy, he has an open mind on both sides of the spectrum," said Chrysanthos Lazaridis, a member of Parliament from New Democracy and one of Samaras" close advisers.
As a trained economist, he added, Samaras favours "allowing market forces to do their job without letting social cohesion unravel."
Critics say that Samaras destabilised Greece with his insistence on calling elections to replace the government led by Lucas Papademos, the technocratic prime minister whose mandate was to sign Greece"s second loan agreement.
"He just wanted to be prime minister," said Thanos Veremis, a political historian who said he voted for New Democracy as a last resort. "It was pure ambition, pure and simple. Even in this state of collapse, he wanted to be Nero, playing his harp."
In a sign of the challenges the new government will face, Evangelos Venizelos, the Pasok leader and a former finance minister who negotiated Greece"s second debt deal, said his party would support the government in Parliament but not contribute any politicians to the new cabinet.
Educated at Athens College, an elite high school, Samaras, like many Greek politicians, has spent his entire career in office, with no experience outside government. He was first elected to Parliament at age 26 in 1976, after receiving an MBA from Harvard Business School and an undergraduate degree in economics from Amherst College.
As Greece"s foreign minister in 1992, Samaras signed the Maastricht Treaty, which set the criteria for the single currency. But that year, he was ousted from the government of Constantinos Mitsotakis for bitterly opposing allowing the former Yugoslav Republic of Macadonia to call itself Macedonia, the name of a bordering northern Greek region. Samaras set up his own party, Political Spring, setting off the collapse of the Mitsotakis government in 1993.
Samaras then stayed on the sidelines of Greek politics for more than a decade, forming his own small party before returning to New Democracy in 2004 and rejoining the Parliament.
Much is riding on whether Samaras can pull together the two mainstream parties, New Democracy and Pasok, and forge a workable agreement with Europe and the International Monetary Fund.
"I think the future of both parties lies in this merger," said Veremis, the historian.
"If they fail to pull it off, they will both go down the drain under the Syriza onslaught." NYT