ATHENS - All eyes in Europe were turned on Greece this past weekend when millions of its citizens turned out in the boiling heat to cast their ballot in parliamentary elections for the second time in two months. In the early evening, the news was that the Conservatives and radical left were running neck-and-neck. But just before 10 p.m., Alexis Tsipras, leader of the leftist Syriza alliance, acknowledged his defeat and congratulated Conservative leader Antonis Samaras who is poised to become Prime Minister, and the most powerful man in the country.
Samaras had managed what only a few believed possible: putting his Nea Dimokratia (New Democracy) party back on the path to success. In his victory speech, Samaras reiterated what he was elected to do by stating: “The Greeks have voted for a pro-European course and for keeping the euro.”
For a long time it had looked as if the Conservatives would lose. The Greek party landscape seemed too fragmented, and Syriza leader Tsipras too charismatic. Samaras, meanwhile, is a man of the old Greek elite whose party ran the government from 2004 to 2009 and bears some responsibility for the country’s desperate debt situation.
Put simply, Samaras opponents see him as an opportunist, while supporters admire his ability to always bounce back.
Samaras had already played a major role on the Greek political scene in the early 1990s as a hardline Foreign Minister, before forming a party called Political Spring that was more right-leaning than Nea Dimokratia and enjoyed considerable if short-lived success. By 2004 he was back with Nea Dimokratia, a move that paid off: the Conservatives garnered the most votes in parliamentary elections and remained the leading party until 2009.
Samaras, who’d risen to party chief and leader of the opposition, spent much of the last two-plus years making life difficult for then Prime Minister Giorgos Papandreou, and the resulting domestic political standoff contributed to the worldwide financial crisis. Samaras was a bitter opponent of the severe austerity measures that the European Union, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and European Central Bank (ECB) troika wanted to impose. But in November 2011, when Papandreou resigned and the Conservatives regained a role in government, Samaras ended up accepting the measures.
The 18.85% of the vote that Samaras got during the first elections on May 6 were interpreted by many as a slap on the wrist for his surprising turnaround, but Sunday’s victory for Nea Dimokratia, which received just under 30% of the vote, showed that Samaras was on the road to the prize he’d always longed for: the Prime Minister job.
Not the time for discounts
Following Sunday’s results in Greece, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso was quick to announce that now that the pro-Europeans had won, there was no time to lose and reforms should be quickly implemented. In Berlin, an initial statement by Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle on Sunday evening seemed to suggest that the Greeks might be granted a little more time to meet their obligations to creditors. But that was quickly reversed, as a German government spokesman said this was “no time for any sort of discounts,” with Westerwelle adding: “If I gave the impression that I was prepared to accept less stringency as regards to the need for reform in Greece, that is definitely a wrong impression.”
An aura of mistrust hangs over European reactions to the new reality in Greece -- and it is linked directly to Samaras. His intransigence as head of the opposition on the issue of reforms and austerity still rankles. Indeed, the European Conservatives in Brussels are most diffident, having long tried to talk him into acceptance to no avail.
However, after making their point European partners will have to come around to some adjustments in the timetable. Between the early May elections and the ones last Sunday, hardly any progress on reforms has been made in Athens. As soon as a new government is in place, representatives of the purse-string holding EU, IMF and ECB troika will come calling.
The first thing they’ll do is check the finances, and they will undoubtedly find that Greece in behind in both cutting costs and collecting taxes. The corrections and adjustments the euro countries then press for will depend on the results of those checks. One billion euros in European payments to Greece had been delayed pending greater clarity in the situation, and these funds could now be released short term.
The hour of truth will come by the end of August at the latest. That’s when the Greek government has to pay back 3.8 billion euros. It can only do that of the troika attests that the country is on an austerity course and the euro countries agree to release the next big chunk of the second bailout package.
Photo - Nea Dimokratia