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As the Greek general elections of May (and then June) 2012 approached, every poor unfortunate European politician attempted to grab a moment in the spotlight by pontificating on whether Greece should or should not be in the single currency. While the euro vultures picked at Greece's carcass, thousands of fear-stricken Greeks withdrew their money from local banks. Who knows, maybe in our strange world of acute fiscal adjustment and extreme political polarisation it is a sign of progress that Greece no longer needs foreigners to encourage a bank run. Local politicians can do the jobs themselves.
Prime Minister Antonis Samaras popped into Parliament on Tuesday night to speak to New Democracy MPs. With anxiety about the March presidential elections running high, Samaras sought to put his lawmakers' minds at rest by reportedly telling them that if the government fails to elect a new president and SYRIZA wins the ensuing general election, Greeks would take all their cash from their bank accounts the next day. In case there were any doubts about whether Samaras had been misquoted, New Democracy's parliamentary spokesman Adonis Georgiadis repeated the claim the following morning on national TV: A SYRIZA win would cause a bank run.
It is difficult to know where to start with such a monumentally self-destructive declaration. If it came from a foreign politician or commentator, he or she would be derided as a reprobate. That such a statement was apparently uttered by the prime minister of the country that would suffer the effects of such a bank run is incredible. As he invoked a bank run, Samaras forgot the 16 billion euros that flew out of Greek bank accounts in May and June 2012 just before he took power and the damage this did to the economy he had to manage.
Understandably, Samaras is frustrated. His government is stuck in a deep rut, watching the opposition overtake it. His ministers have to reach a new consensus with the troika, while SYRIZA can stand on the sidelines and jeer. He has to temper his economic pledges, while Alexis Tsipras can be more open-handed. The coalition has to find the 180 votes required to elect a new president, while the opposition needs to gather just 121 to lead the country to early elections.
Samaras has undoubtedly had a thankless task over the last couple of years as he tried to steer Greece through treacherous waters but his bank run comment reeks of spite and pusillanimity. It is a low form of politics that does not befit his position.
It also undermines his attempt to portray the opposition as reckless egotists. The prime minister is within his right to accuse SYRIZA of “toying with institutions” by attempting to use the presidential vote - for a position with severely limited powers - as an opportunity to bring down the government. This accusation would carry weight though, if Samaras did not threaten to undermine his country’s banking system and visited Parliament to engage in democratic debate with MPs (he rarely attends plenary sessions) rather than have coffee with them. Are Parliament and the country's banks not institutions as well?
As he charges Tsipras with populism for promising to cut taxes, raise pensions and increase spending without being crystal clear about how he would fund such a programme, Samaras should cast his mind back a few years to when he was opposition leader. In May 2011, Samaras unveiled his second "Zappeio" package for the economy, named after the venue where he presented it. He promised to slash taxes and increase pensions to give the economy a kick start. After his speech, the Finance Ministry said New Democracy had miscalculated the cost of their programme and that it would reach increase the deficit by almost 12 billion euros. This week, the Finance Ministry accused Tsipras of hiding more than half of the 27 billion euros it would cost to implement the measures he promised in Thessaloniki last week.
The recurring pattern is an unhappy one for Samaras but also bodes ill for Tsipras. One of the things he managed to achieve with his speech in Thessaloniki is to get everyone talking about how he could implement such an economic plan rather than if he will get the chance to do so. A University of Macedonia poll for Skai TV found this week that 28 percent of Greeks approved of what Tsipras proposed, compared to 18 percent who backed Samaras’s pledges at the Thessaloniki International Fair.
While there is substantial scepticism about SYRIZA (53 percent of Greeks said that Tsipras’s plan had not been thought through properly or could not be implemented), there is a sense that most Greeks are coming to accept he is likely be their next prime minister, regardless of whether they intend to vote for his party. Certainly by being fierce in his opposition and generous in his promises, Tsipras has displayed similar characteristics to his predecessors. For Greece's sake though, he will have to display a different - far more superior - set of qualities if he does in fact lead the country. Sadly, the bar has been set low.