Samaras earns leeway
During the last days of December last year, I assisted an established Greek TV journalist in producing a special program in Turkey about the most talked about subject currently among the Greeks: the “Turkish TV serials.”
I had not met him face to face since 2008, which in the Greek history books will be registered as “The Year of the Crisis” - a turning point in the life, economy and politics of the country. It is a crisis that has impoverished middle and lower-income citizens and turned politics upside down, crushing a system in which power was shared by two main parties that were supported by almost 80 percent of the electorate over the last three decades. Today, nothing looks like the past. A coalition government consisting of “left, right and center” parties is facing the huge task of keeping the country economically afloat under strict bailout agreements.
My friend supports the main opposition, the radical leftist party of Syriza headed by the young and charismatic Alexis Tsipras, who managed to make a loose coalition of various leftist groups into a united front and who managed to bring his party from a mere 4 percent to 27 percent of the vote, thus becoming the second largest party in the general elections of June 2012. “Wait until January when the new tax bill goes through Parliament. Then the Greeks will really blow their top off. The government cannot survive, people are furious, unemployment has skyrocketed, shopkeepers will just try to collect as much cash as they can during the Christmas and New Year season and then they will close down. Elections are around the corner and Tsipras will get in,” my friend said.
He was mostly right. Greece’s unemployment rate was 23.1 percent in May and 54.9 percent for under 25s. The country’s largest labor union claimed last week that the overall unemployment rate was likely to increase to 29 percent in 2013, the worst in Europe. The new tax bill was passed through Parliament late last week only with the votes of the government parties, with all the opposition leaving the hall in protest. The new taxation legislation will result in a further reduction of income for the average Greek, while surreal clauses demanding that the taxpayer collect expense receipts as a means of tax return, even if his low income has already strangled his purchasing power. People, indeed, are furious, with scores of them laid off work, scores of businesses closing down, and more than 25,000 people said to be homeless, (mostly in Athens). But does that mean that the official opposition is about to take over?
Not necessarily. An interesting poll published last week showed a small but important shift that may indicate a change of heart among the Greek public opinion. The poll by the survey company “Public Issue” showed that for the first time since the beginning of the crisis, Syriza’s popularity has halted. Respondents to the poll gave Tsipras’ party 28.5 percent of the vote, second to New Democracy’s 29 percent. Samaras himself was voted by 48 percent as the most suitable person to lead the government, while only 24 percent thought Tsipras would be suitable for the post.
The assurances given by the leaders of the eurozone that they want to keep Greece inside the club, as well as the fact that the agreed bailout money - a huge 52.4 billion euros - is being released, (albeit with the strictest conditions), have got a lot to do with this shift in opinion. In spite of everything, Greeks now think they see some light at the end of the tunnel and that their place inside the euro is secure for the moment. But it also has to do with the fact that Syriza, which led an impressive protest movement in the “streets and squares of Greek cities,” is still unable to present a concrete answer for how to exit the crisis.
Today is an important day for the leader of Syriza. He will be having a meeting with the German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble in Berlin. It will be their first meeting face to face and Schauble is said to have agreed to meet Tsipras after conferring with the Greek government, a detail that raised a few eyebrows.
It will be very interesting to see whether Tsipras will reiterate his initial position that if he came to power he would simply dismantle Greece’s agreement with its lenders as a means of putting pressure on the eurozone, thus alleviating the tough measures imposed on the Greeks. More importantly, it will be interesting to hear what the Germans will tell him.