A full Cabinet

Prime Minister George Papandreou’s first Cabinet reshuffle since his PASOK party’s triumph in last October’s elections had been brewing since midsummer – and the new government’s size reflects both the months of gestation and the many hours it took to produce the final list of names. Having started out with what he liked to present as a lean, mean Cabinet, Papandreou has now added 12 more positions and brought in 17 new members, for a total of 48. This is a surprisingly large number for a government that cynical observers see as little more than a collection of stewards carrying out orders from the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the European Central Bank. The reshuffle was mandated by the regional and local elections, which are slated for early November. Papandreou wanted to strengthen his government’s image by presenting a reinvigorated team and he also wanted to propose some Cabinet members as candidates to head powerful new regional authorities. In the end, only a few deputy ministers were named as candidates. Agriculture Minister Katerina Batzeli, who had balked at a proposal to run for governor of Central Greece, was the only minister thrown out of the Cabinet altogether rather than moved. Batzeli, however, knew the agriculture portfolio very well, as a native of Greece’s farming heartland and many years’ involvement with agricultural issues in Brussels. Her replacement, Costas Skandalidis, is an old PASOK hand who has held many ministerial posts in past governments but not that of agriculture. Batzeli also stared down militant farmers who blocked roads and the country’s borders for several weeks after PASOK’s elections, breaking all precedents by not giving in to any of their demands. The fact that she had been a close aide of Papandreou for many years reinforced the prime minister’s image as a tough boss who will not take no for an answer. The makeup of both of Papandreou’s cabinets declared that he cares far less than his predecessors whether his choices cater to all the party’s factions and all the country’s regions in a delicate pre-electoral balance. Both demonstrate that Papandreou owes allegiance to no one. Even the old hands that he has brought in, such as Skandalidis and Christos Papoutsis (who now heads the Citizens’ Protection Ministry) were placed in difficult posts where they have no experience. Cabinet members who had not made much of an impression were either moved up or sideways and were bolstered by new assistants. The most prominent feature of the new Cabinet, apart from its size, is the establishment of a core team of senior ministers who will keep an eye on the progress of their colleagues. Papandreou will meet on a daily basis with Interior Minister Yiannis Ragousis, Finance Minister Giorgos Papaconstantinou, Foreign Minister Dimitris Droutsas, Culture Minister Pavlos Geroulanos, government spokesman Giorgos Petalotis, Interior Ministry general secretary Dimitris Stefanou and head of PASOK’s parliamentary group Regina Vartzeli. Other ministers will be summoned when issues pertaining to their portfolios are discussed. This team will be doing what Deputy Prime Minister Theodoros Pangalos and State Minister Haris Paboukis were ostensibly doing. Pangalos retains his title but it remains to be seen what his responsibilities will be. Paboukis has been assigned the seemingly impossible task of attracting major foreign investments and shepherding them through the minefields of bureaucracy. Papandreou now has his new Cabinet in place, in time for the major policy speech that he is to give at the opening of the Thessaloniki International Fair this weekend. The northern port city presents a tough challenge for any prime minister, as it is impossible to dodge issues during the long news conference slated for the first Sunday of the fair. Thessaloniki is where Costas Karamanlis chose to defend ministers embroiled in scandal in 2008 and sealed his fate, coming across as either misinformed or indifferent. For Papandreou, the challenge is to convince the public that his government is up to the task of reforming Greece as well as to present a vision of a vibrant, modern country free of the problems that have brought it to this sorry state. If he fails, the regional and local elections in two months’ time may hold disastrous results for PASOK, stripping the government of legitimacy ahead of what is already expected to be the most difficult winter in many decades.

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