On a sunny Wednesday morning in Athens, two days after Alexis Tsipras became Greek prime minister, workmen dismantled the barricades that had protected the Parliament and its ceremonial guards for three years from angry protesters.
The riot bus stationed by the side of the building in Syntagma Square was gone. Cleaners camped outside the Finance Ministry to protest the loss of their jobs embraced and cried after hearing they had been reinstated.
“Not even 30-year-olds can get jobs nowadays, much less a 58-year-old grandmother like me,” said Evangelia Alexaki, who picketed the ministry for months to get back her job cleaning tax offices on the island of Corfu.
As financial markets took the opposite view of a government promising to end austerity and restore the country’s dignity, Greeks at least were certain of one thing: They had a 40-year- old leader who had won a decisive mandate to pursue something different, from tossing out the old political order to taking on the euro region and its bailout agreements.
By midday on Wednesday, as Finance Minister Gikas Hardouvelis handed over the reins to his successor, Yanis Varoufakis, dark clouds hovered over the Parliament. Some said it was a bad omen for Tsipras who had promised in his victory speech to raise the sun above Greece again. Others disagreed.
“When you’ve been through snow and heat, a little rain isn’t going to hurt you,” Alexaki said.
In the five years since the government of George Papandreou revealed deficit figures four times those allowed for countries using the euro, Greece’s economy has shrunk by a quarter, more than a million people joined the search for employment, and pensions, wages and jobs were cut so the country could receive a 240 billion-euro ($272 billion) bailout.
That all paved the way for Syriza, Tsipras’s party, to come to power on January 25 on a promise to seek get rid of more of Greece’s debt, currently about 320 billion euros.
The day after the election, Tsipras confounded skeptics by forming a government by midday, teaming with what appeared to be his party’s alter-ego, the conservative Independent Greeks. Then his newly minted ministers made statements.
The Athens General Index sank to its lowest level since 2012, the year that Greece’s status as a euro member was last in question, before recouping some of the loss later this week. The yield on three-year bonds surged to more than 17 percent and was at 16.82 percent on Friday.
“Many international observers seem to have completely lost their rational capacity to make informed judgments,” said Jens Bastian, a former member of the European Commission’s Greek task force. “All of a sudden everything appears to have been in great order and shape in Greece before Sunday’s election. That’s either being in denial or trying to deliberately re-write the history and performance of the past four years.”
Investors and European officials are banking on Tsipras making an abrupt reversal now that he’s in power, much as his predecessors did, what is being called “a kolotoumba,” the Greek word for somersault.
The prospect of a “kolotoumba” doesn’t scare Nikos Drakopoulos, 21, who voted for Tsipras, as long as it’s done with fairness and honesty.
Tsipras “has done so many and will probably do more, so long as they are not so glaring,” said Drakopoulos, who is studying civil engineering in Athens. “He can’t come out and say we won’t take any new austerity measures and then do just that against those who have nothing. He needs to take action against those who are richer.”
Waiting for Change
On Wednesday afternoon, before the evening rain, Finance Minister Varoufakis, 53, shook off his new security detail and walked to his office at the ministry, shaking hands with well-wishers who recognized him on the street.
One young woman grasped his hand and pumped it up and down with enthusiasm, congratulating him, saying: “Great, great, can’t wait to see something change!” As she walked on with a big smile on her face, she crossed herself.
“It’s a new government, a first for Greece,” said Drakopoulos. “We saw what the others did, so Syriza isn’t that scary anymore.”