Europe crisis gets a respite as Greece swears in a new government

McClatchy NewspapersJune 20, 2012 

— Greece swore in conservative politician Antonis Samaras as prime minister on Wednesday, ending a six-week government crisis and offering a rare respite for the nation and the beleaguered euro currency zone – even if it didn’t address the underlying causes of Europe’s economic slide.

Samaras, a 61-year-old American-educated economist, took office at the head of an uneasy coalition that groups his center-right New Democracy party with its historic rival, the Socialist PASOK, and the Democratic Left, a small reformist party.

Looking determined and grim, Samaras lowered expectations in his first remarks as prime minister. “We will have to work hard to give our people tangible hope,” he said on emerging from the office of Greek President Karolos Papoulias.

With the country at the edge of bankruptcy after 13 quarters of economic downturn, Samaras, Evangelos Venizelos of PASOK and Fotis Kouvelis of the Democratic Left turned immediately to the business at hand – trying to persuade European creditors that Greece intends to repay its debts but needs relief from an austerity package that has made things worse.

European leaders welcomed the new government, starting with Germany, Greece’s chief creditor, but Chancellor Angela Merkel’s congratulatory words sounded more like an admonition as she wished Samaras “luck and success for the difficult work that lies ahead.”

Wolfgang Schaeuble, the German finance minister, wielded the rhetorical hammer that he used to drive home German policy throughout the election campaign here: “What is needed is greater decisiveness in the implementation of what has been agreed,” he said in an interview.

The two parties at the heart of the new government, New Democracy and PASOK, have been widely blamed for the fiscal indiscipline and phony statistics that provoked the Greek fiscal meltdown, and their inability to work together in the early stages fueled the far bigger crisis that now surrounds the euro currency. The Democratic Left’s program includes measures intended to put the spotlight on the other two parties for covering up scandals that occurred on their watch.

The precariousness of the new government was brought home by the refusal of PASOK and the Democratic Left to name top political figures from their parties to the new government and instead proposed technocrats, not necessarily from their own parties, for key posts. Party officials portrayed the appointment of technocrats as a message to the Greek people of the seriousness of the new undertaking, but it may also be seen as a signal of their reluctance to get tied to a program the could still fail.

The position of finance minister will go to Vasilis Rapanos, president of the National Bank of Greece, a private institution.

Samaras, who was educated at Amherst and Harvard, is a nationalist with a reputation for taking polarizing positions on key issues, only to shift sides later, seemingly for political gain.

In the early 1990s, while foreign minister in a New Democracy-led government, Samaras worked closely with Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic to threaten the newly born state of Macedonia. In a campaign that infuriated its European and NATO allies, Greece said it could not accept a state with a name that it said implied territorial ambitions toward the Macedonia region of northern Greece – but the ambitions may have been on the part of Milosevic and Samaras. Two decades later, the dispute remains unresolved.

More recently, Samaras vehemently opposed the first EU bailout of the Greek economy, but late last year switched positions to support a second.

With these parties as its components, the new government will find it a challenge to command public confidence, and many analysts doubt the coalition will hold together longer than a year. At the same time, the Samaras government is likely to come under fire from Syriza, the Radical Left, whose campaign to scuttle the austerity program altogether propelled leader Alexis Tsipras from the margins of Greek politics to finish a close second in Sunday’s elections.

There is also the possibility that Samaras, having arrived at his country’s top political position, may use his ample political skills to turn the corner on Greece’s deepening crisis.

In its first act after agreeing to form a government, the three-party coalition decided to send a delegation to talks with euro zone and European finance ministers later this week. It was to consist of the 65-year-old Rapanos – a professor of economics at the University of Athens – and the caretaker finance minister, Giorgos Zanias.

The government will not reveal its proposal for a revision of the bailout terms until it swears in the new cabinet, probably some time next week, a senior official of New Democracy told McClatchy, at about the time that a delegation of the so-called Troika – the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund – travel here to assess progress, or lack thereof, in fulfilling terms of the bailout. New Democracy and PASOK have both called for an extension of at least two years in implementing new cutbacks, worth $14.8 billion, and in repaying Greece’s loans. Democratic Left leader Fotis Kouvelis has demanded that Greece disengage from the austerity plan over the next three years.

Their strongest argument is that the austerity program is not working and in fact has worsened the economy, making the repayment of loans all the harder. An example is tax revenues, which have not grown, in part due to the continuing recession.

Email: rgutman@mcclatchydc.com

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