Greece's Samaras offers hope, but is faced with uncertainty


Antonis Samaras gets his technocrat-laden cabinet working on the economic crisis while he handles the politics.

By Andy Dabilis for Southeast European Times in Athens -- 22/06/12


Newly appointed Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras arrives for the first cabinet meeting of his government at the parliament in Athens on Thursday (June 21st). [Reuters]

As he walked wearily home at dusk, the end of a long's day work as an insurance broker, George Pichlivas -- unlike many Greeks -- said he didn't care who won the critical Greek elections last week. He said he doubted the new coalition government that was sworn in on Thursday (June 21st) would be any different than the others.

"We don't need politicians to have a happy life," Pichlivas, 38, told SETimes. "We expect them not to steal the money."

New Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, a 61-year-old American-educated economist, faces that kind of continuing mistrust in the wake of disjointed elections which his party won, but without enough of the vote to form a government, forcing him to bring in his ideological rivals, the PASOK Socialists, and the tiny Democratic Left.

"I have the majority to form a long-term government of stability and hope," Samaras said after being sworn in. The numbers seem against him: a recession with 22.6% unemployment, 1,000 businesses a week shuttering, the economy shrinking by 6.5%, and tax revenues lagging because austerity has made Greeks kept what little money they have left deep in their pockets.

Already hounded by the strong second-place finisher -- the anti-austerity Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) led by 37-year-old Alexis Tsipras -- and with doubts whether he can renegotiate the pay cuts, tax hikes and slashed pensions he supported, Samaras cobbled together a cabinet of technocrats, including lawyers and academics along with politicians. His coalition partners, however, were not represented beyond lending their seats in parliament.

Samaras comes to power in the midst of the country's worst economic crisis since the end of World War II. Many analysts and Greeks are uncertain his government will last unless he can convince the Troika to give him more time to carry out reforms and delay another 11 billion euros in cuts.

With the Troika demanding Samaras fire 150,000 public workers -- a core constituency of PASOK -- the new leader could find himself bracing for trouble soon.

"It depends on what measures will have to be applied. If they are very tough, I expect more strikes," George Tzogopoulos, a research fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP) in Athens, told SETimes.

Samaras will put a lot of his trust in the key position of finance minister, which went to Bank of Greece President Vassilis Rapanos, who will be the frequent public face of Greece in negotiations with European leaders.

"He should have what it takes," said Platon Tinios, an assistant professor at Piraeus University. "He has a feel for the numbers and he knows the public finance problem of Greece inside out."

Nikolaos Bouzas, an economist specialising in unemployment and income distribution for the National Centre for Social Research in Athens, told SETimes that Samaras will have to overcome the same old problems of governments being reluctant to go after sacred cows in Greece: the rich, politicians, and tax evaders who owe an estimated 60 billion euros.

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"There is no political will to gather taxes from the rich and companies," Bouzas said. "The people who have the obligation to pay more money are not touched by the tax system."

He noted the half-hearted support from Democratic Left leader Fotis Kouvelis, and PASOK leader Evangelos Venizelos. "They want to be in the government because they feel this is the way to gather votes, but they feel this is going to boomerang," he added.

Greece is being watched around the world with fears that if Samaras fails, that the country could still exit the eurozone.

"The new government has a reasonable chance. They need to immediately start radical reforms," Nicholas Economides, a professor of economics at the Stern School of Business at New York University, told SETimes. "If he's decisive, he will restore trust."

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