It’s something of a tradition in Greek politics that embattled prime ministers make lousy cabinet reshuffles. We saw it in the fatal shakeup by conservative leader Antonis Samaras in the summer of 2014 and had a fresh taste of it Tuesday.
Everything has an explanation. Political spinmeisters recommend overtures to the populist right or left, to anything that will presumably help a party narrow the gap in opinion polls. Meanwhile, the inner-party equilibrium grows fragile with time, which means bigger compromises, as the share of disgruntled officials is growing bigger – and potentially more damaging.
Another key problem is that any prime minister who is under pressure wants to bring recognizable figures on board. It is something that Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras could have achieved after the 2015 elections. Back then he enjoyed a fresh mandate, his power was unchallenged and the time was ripe for a shift to the political center given that he had done away with the radical left-wing elements after his infamous about-face. He could have counted on the people who believed that Greece was at a crucial turning point and were prepared to lend their support.
Tsipras did not reach out to them; perhaps he lacked the necessary courage. Today the environment is too toxic and the non-desperate players of the political game do not want to identify themselves with the Tsipras administration, either because of their own concerns or because they are put off by its political style and behavior.
Tsipras made his own calculations on the basis of these limitations and the result was yesterday’s reshuffle. The prime minister is in firm control of the government’s hard core. There is a little bit of the old right and a little bit of the old PASOK. As one political veteran put it: “All Tsipras had was pasta and tomato. How can you possibly expect him to make moussaka?”
The next eight months will be dominated by extreme polarization. The coalition will come to an end when the name deal with Skopje is put to a vote in Parliament and elections follow in May. Until then, the state apparatus will be dragging its feet. Financial markets will eye Greece with skepticism. Upsets could happen at any moment.
The biggest danger is that, under pressure from opinion polls, the government will be tempted to make generous handouts. There is money thanks to the primary surplus. But this is not the point. Should the government switch into handout mode, Greece will quickly find itself in a very tough spot: With the Europeans thinking they’re done with Greece, a simple proportional representation system and the risk of political paralysis.