Greece’s new government: Why it won’t matter

Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou greets reporters while arriving for his meeting with the Greek President in Athens on November 9, 2011. Papandreou pledged his support for his yet-to-be named successor on November 9 as he formally stepped down as leader of the debt-wracked country.
Louisa Gouliamaki

ATHENS, Greece — Debt-ridden Greece finally has a new prime minister, Lucas Papademos, who will be tasked with securing an international bailout before the country goes broke.

Papademos is a former vice president of the European Central Bank. He joined midday negotiations with Papandreou and opposition leader Antonis Samaras, local media reported Thursday.

Awaiting Greece is a $180 billion bailout from the European Union and International Monetary Fund. It includes forgiveness of about $140 billion of Greece’s debt.

The new prime minister’s other main task will be holding elections, likely sometime early next year.

But don’t count on a honeymoon period for the budding interim government. Many Greeks frustrated by tax hikes and pay cuts expect little to change.

After all, regardless of who takes over, power will rest in the hands of PASOK — the socialist party of Papandreou — and the conservative opposition, New Democracy. That’s the way Greek politics have been since 1974. Many Greeks are convinced that nothing will change under this duopoly, and that it’s time for new blood. 

Both major parties were founded in 1974, as Greece’s ruling military junta gave way to a parliamentary republic. The parties have taken turns leading parliament ever since.

To boot, there’s not exactly been a wide diversity of candidates. They usually are named either Papandreou or Karamanlis.

George Papandreou’s father, Andreas, founded PASOK and was prime minister for most of the 80s and once more in the mid-90s.

New Democracy founder Constantine Karamanlis was prime minister from 1974-80. His nephew, Kostas Karamanlis, was premier from 2004-09, when he was unseated by George Papandreou. Both families were politically active well before the military junta.

“Many people are thinking it’s time for a change,” said Themis Galanidis, 45, owner of a sporting goods store in the Galatsi neighborhood.

Galanidis, who said he’s closing his store in December because sales are so slow, usually supports New Democracy. But in the 2009 election, he voted for the far-right LAOS party and its leader Georgios Karatzaferis.

“New Democracy and PASOK have governed for so long,” he said. “Of course there needs to be new blood.”

For now, though, it will be a coalition negotiated by Papandreou and New Democracy leader Samaras.

The caretaker government must shepherd the latest European bailout package through parliament and then schedule an election, likely to be held in February.

If it can’t, Greece risks defaulting, which could have Lehman-style impacts on Europe and the global economy -- if Italy doesn’t beat them to it.

Nick Garifis, 35, said ordinary Greeks feel disconnected from the political elite. He said politicians are insulated from problems like unemployment, which hit 17.6 percent in July, and tax hikes.

“For the last 100 years it’s been two families,” said Garifis, a hair stylist. “It’s better to change. We need younger people, with different ideas. For me, all the politicians today are the same. They say one thing, but they do something else.”

Recent polls give New Democracy the edge in a new election, but without a clear majority. The conservatives have been polling around 30 percent, with PASOK in the low 20s – a huge drop for the party that won a majority in 2009.

The displeasure has meant a slight boost for smaller parties on both the left and right.

The Communist party of Greece, or KKE, is polling just above 10 percent, slightly higher than its third-place finish in the 2009 election. The radical left coalition SYRIZA is at 9 percent.

The far-right LAOS party recently polled at 8 percent. Founded and led by former TV journalist Karatzaferis, LAOS picked up five seats in the last election and now has 15 total. It received 5.6 percent of the vote in 2009, compared to 2.2 percent in 2004.