Listening to Greece’s former Socialist prime minister George Papandreou telling Skai TV that his government alone shouldered the burden of keeping the country afloat, and expressing the hope that “there should have been a more ecumenical approach to the crisis,” we cannot help but think of the selfishness of Greek politicians who, while in opposition, put private and party interests before those of the country.
In his interview on the “Istories” program, Papandreou said that he had asked then conservative opposition leader Antonis Samaras to back the first bailout agreement with the country’s foreign lenders in order to ensure a 180-strong majority in Parliament. The New Democracy chief rejected the request. Papandreou said that, as the country stood on the verge of bankruptcy, and under huge pressure from financial markets, “what was needed at that moment, if the main opposition party wanted to play a key role, was to give its consent and say, ‘Yes, we will vote for [the memorandum] too.’”
What Papandreou was saying is right. However, he too had behaved in a similar way when he led the opposition. He objected to the Cosco deal for Piraeus port, he appeared with tears in his eyes after police used pepper spray to disperse a farmers’ protest in Piraeus and he infamously declared “The money’s there” when pressed about the country’s finances (although he offers his own explanation about the incident).
The national consensus witnessed in Cyprus, Ireland and Portugal has been sorely lacking in Greece – and all sides are responsible for this. In 2009, then conservative prime minister Costas Karamanlis urged the opposition to throw its weight behind measures to stabilize the economy, but his calls fell on deaf ears. Karamanlis went to the elections of October 2009 acknowledging the need to “freeze salaries and pensions.” However, during his administration, the budget deficit soared and fiscal discipline went out of the window.
Sure, part of the problem lies with agreements signed by PASOK reformist Costas Simitis, who ruled the country before Karamanlis. And, of course, some of Greece’s woes are a result of the global financial crisis after the collapse of Lehman Brothers. But the deficit totally spun out of control during Karamanlis’s tenure.
Papandreou was not the first to transform from a nationally irresponsible opposition chief to a serious and responsible leader. Samaras – remember the Zappeio programs – had also declared his own war on the bailout deals. He later became responsible and his government put the country on the path of growth. However, he in turn was to fall victim to the reckless and nationally damaging opposition tactics of SYRIZA chief Alexis Tsipras.
As prime minister, Tsipras is now accusing the opposition of populism. But Kyriakos Mitsotakis is not a populist. He has made his fair share of tactical mistakes. One of these is that since taking over at the helm of New Democracy he has been calling for elections (a mistake pointed out by many of his prudent supporters as well as foreign officials). Another is that he is seen backing SYRIZA’s so-called social dividend while at the same time denouncing it as vote-grabbing.
Nevertheless, viewing his stance since January 2016, it would not be fair to call him a populist. On the contrary, he is the first opposition leader in the past decade who has not promised handouts and unrealistic measures. One hopes this is a sign that the Greek political system has matured. Of course, we will only be able to say that with certainty after Tsipras shows a responsible stance following his return to the opposition.