Let’s not forget what prompted George Papandreou’s ill-fated and panic-stricken effort to unburden himself of the weight of government by calling a referendum: the need for radical reforms, the popular rage that this has provoked and the sporadic violence of small but persistent groups. When the myth that our governments don’t need to govern (as long as they just pretend to) crashed against reality, it was natural that something would give. The weakest link, from his election two years ago, was George Papandreou. The man who carries the banner of consensus and transparency, at home and abroad, caused irreparable damage to his own and Greece’s credibility with improvisations that managed to surprise even his closest aides. He seemed to lose his cool under pressure from protests and the merciless attacks of opposition parties.
Who will withstand the blows that brought down George Papandreou? Which prime minister, which government will ignore the reactions that will accompany the implementation of measures whose adoption by parliament has already caused a rupture in society ? measures such as dismissals in the public sector, new cuts to wages and pensions, harsher taxation, privatization and the utilization of public assets?
Today our country needs a prime minister who will feel secure enough not to be shaken by public outbursts and will be able to shoulder the burden of his responsibilities domestically and in dealing with our foreign partners. When the PASOK government, with an adequate majority, did not dare to support its own decisions, and the whole of the opposition damned them, will the members of a coalition be able to implement measures that some of its members were fighting? Will the parties that stay out of government, the unions and other organized groups consider the danger that Greece faces? Or will they be encouraged by Papandreou’s woes and so continue to invest in chaos? The virulence of the demonstrations against the reforms will determine, to a great extent, the legitimacy of the new government and its negotiating power with our creditors. This will determine our future.
It is no coincidence that both times that Papandreou tried to throw away the burden of government were during widespread demonstrations and violence. Last June, during the parliamentary debate on harsh new austerity measures, which were accompanied by violence in Syntagma Square, Papandreou suddenly told New Democracy party leader Antonis Samaras that he would resign as prime minister in order to make way for a government of national unity; the second followed the demonstrations of October 28 and the cancellation of the annual military parade in Thessaloniki, just after a deal with our EU partners and the IMF to write down a large part of our debt.
Papandreou’s weaknesses often overshadowed his many qualities. His lack of resolve before the crowd’s rage, his lack of organization and his persistence with ill-timed obsessions (such as his proposal for a referendum, which shook confidence in the efforts to save the euro), were magnified to a dangerous level because PASOK has remained a vehicle for its leader, as it was from its foundation by the prime minister’s father, Andreas Papandreou. On the other side, Samaras’s New Democracy appears to be abdicating its role as a center-right party, serving only the obsessions and vision of its leader. The inability of Papandreou and Samaras to reach agreement has cost the country dearly; the continued lack of consensus among the two major parties will worsen the problems that PASOK could not solve on its own, and it will worsen even further the image of Greece abroad.
But Greece’s image and its relations with its partners and creditors are not the only problem. The big issue is the need to convince the citizens that the reforms are absolutely necessary and that the immediate aim is to achieve greater social justice and improve the country’s potential. Only a strong government with the greatest possible legitimacy may achieve this. George Papandreou’s government, on its own, failed. Neither will New Democracy succeed on its own. We can only hope that all the parties (as well as the many special interest groups) will see the truth and shoulder their historic responsibility: giving, through their union, comfort and security to citizens while presenting a determined and united front to our partners.