Flooding threatens to damage government’s foundations
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis goes to the Thessaloniki International Fair this weekend to deliver a policy speech that was delayed because of the flooding in central Greece, but whose significance has grown because of the growing pressure on his government over its response to the latest natural disaster to hit Greece.
The immediate impact of Storm Daniel will be visible in the economic pledges that Mitsotakis makes. The outlines of a revised budget were given by Finance Minister Costis Hatzidakis in an interview with ANT-1 TV on Wednesday. Hatzidakis confirmed that the generous handouts that were being lined up for the autumn and winter would have to be trimmed to meet the urgent need for relief in Thessaly.
Around 600 million euros in emergency spending is set to be included in a supplementary budget. In order to meet the government’s commitment to a 0.7 percent primary surplus, some of the spending on pensions and inflation relief is being axed or postponed. This includes the “Market Pass” shopping vouchers, which were to be extended to the end of the year but will now expire in October, and the “personal difference” supplement for pensioners which is being pushed back into the new year.
Mitsotakis met with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in Strasbourg on Tuesday as he sought to highlight that the EU would also provide funds to help with the flood recovery.
Although the government and friendly media tried to present the 2.25-billion-package as an exclusive arrangement in the wake of the damage done by flooding in Greece, von der Leyen made it clear in her comments that the funds were being made available from various EU resources that had remained unallocated so far, including cohesion money, the European Social Fund and the Common Agricultural Policy. She also said that some cohesion funds from the next package could also be frontloaded. The EC president added that Greece could also request up to 400 million euros from the Solidarity Fund, which would be made available to Athens next year. She added that Greece could also repurpose some of its NextGeneration EU package, with the European authorities willing to show flexibility on this issue.
Away from the economic impact, Mitsotakis will also want to show voters that the government is responding swiftly to the organisational shortfalls that Storm Daniel, and the wildfires earlier this summer, exposed. This has led to attacks on the government from opposition parties, which claim that New Democracy’s self-declared competence and its bid to overhaul the so-called “executive state” have proved to be mirages.
The government passed an amendment on Wednesday which transfers responsibility for tackling the aftermath of natural disasters from the regional level to the Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport. The amendment also allows for the fast-track awarding of reconstruction contracts without a tender process in areas that have been declared in a state of emergency.
The government claims the transfer of powers will address the miscommunications caused by overlapping responsibilities between local, regional and national governments. Critics are likely to argue that this represents yet another example of the centralisation of power in the “executive state” model of governance favoured by the Mitsotakis administration, while the model of direct awarding of contracts has been criticised in the case of the post-Ianos reconstruction for delivering substandard infrastructure which failed in last week’s floods.
Mitsotakis lost another minister this week but government officials have denied that a cabinet reshuffle is on the cards this early into the government’s second term in office. Shipping Minister Miltiadis Varvitsiotis stood down after being widely condemned for comments he made in response to the arrest of crew members of a ferry for their role in the drowning of a passenger. Varvitsiotis provoked outrage by apparently equating the distress of the victim’s family with that of family members of the arrested men.
Christos Stylianides, who served as Civil Protection and Climate Crisis Minister up until the May elections, replaced him. Varvitsiotis is the second minister to resign after Citizen Protection Minister Notis Mitarakis quit after being seen on a family holiday during the wildfires.
Since the comfortable election victories in the summer, his government has found itself on the defensive almost continuously. The wildfires and flooding have been the principal drivers of the sense that the state is disorganised and that there have been few, if any, improvements since Mitsotatakis took over in 2019. This undermines the government’s key narrative, which is based on cultivating an image of competence, especially in relation to its predecessors.
Since the resignation of Alexis Tsipras as SYRIZA leader, New Democracy has also lost a focal point for its communications strategy, which was to point to the weaknesses of the leftist politician’s administration as evidence that things could be much worse than they are now.
There is a feeling in the opposition camps that the public’s reaction to this crisis is noticeably different to previous difficulties faced by the government, including the recent Tempe train crash. ND’s rivals are sensing that voters are starting to abandon the belief that this government is more professional than previous administrations and that Mitsotakis is doing a better job of running the country. This, the opposition feels, is being replaced by a sense that the same chronic problems which plagued Greece in the past are still prevalent.
If this sentiment becomes more deeply rooted in public opinion, Mitsotakis will face the prospect of not only seeing his main narrative shattered, but also voters’ trust evaporating – something he could not have expected to be contemplating so soon after strolling to two election victories.