Less is more: The Greek government needs a chisel, not a sledgehammer

Agora Contributor: Jens Bastian

The parliamentary majority achieved by the SYRIZA-led coalition government following the 25 January elections constitutes a strong political mandate in mathematical terms. Among one of the many immediate challenges facing the new administration is trying to translate its numerical advantage into a majority of support among Greek citizens, including those who did not vote for the senior coalition party.

This is a task that requires investing a considerable amount of political capital into the soft powers of dialogue, persuasion, negotiations and, above all, patience. These powers have repeatedly been advocated by various ministers of the new government as necessary tools that will be applied vis-à-vis Greece’s international creditors and European partners.

But the management of these soft powers is just as important at the domestic level where a mixture of hope and scepticism, confusion and expectations prevailed among Greek citizens after the agreement on the new coalition government.

Among those who voted for SYRIZA are many citizens who cast a ballot for the leftist opposition party for the first time in their lives. These men and women are far from being mainstream SYRIZA sympathisers. Instead, they gave a vote of confidence to this party because their hopes and aspirations are centred on a change agenda, the implementation of structural economic reforms and the integrity of individuals active in the business of government.

Judging by the first days in office, the new administration of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras risks alienating this key constituency at an early stage with a cacophony of messages, policy announcements and decision-making.

The cascade of announcements and the tempo with which these are presented to a domestic audience still trying to come to terms with the impact of the election outcome jeopardises the political capital this new government is trying to consolidate in the first place.

The level of impatience that was apparent from policy statements by incoming ministers who had not even yet taken the oath of office was staggering. Avoiding the microphones pointed at them would have been advisable. In short, less would have been more.

Equally, the choice of coalition partners needs to be explained to a public that remains confused about this ideological match-making that brought parties from opposite ends of the political spectrum into cooperation. Given previous anti-Semitic statements and xenophobic tweets from representatives of Independent Greeks (Anel), including party leader Panos Kammenos, the demand for explanation and clarification ran deep among surprised and frustrated Greek citizens. It is not lost on a host of domestic viewers and international observers that the coalition with Anel was announced on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp.

For many inside and outside Greece, this coalition arrangement constituted a worst-case scenario. At first sight, the junior coalition party is an unlikely partner in ideological terms. But the speed with which these coalition negotiations were concluded over a cup of coffee left the impression that the unlikely partners are all too willing bedfellows.

They may talk different political languages and hail from opposite ideological backgrounds. But they are now brothers-in-arms, prepared to move full speed ahead with their agenda, regardless of the inconvenient questions that many citizens in Greece are asking them. The legacy of these early days after the electoral victory may come to haunt the victors sooner than they would like to think.

The style and content of the new government’s missives has yet to convince a sceptical public in Greece, let alone those with whom the administration will immediately have to do business at the European level. The international media attention awarded to the prime minister and various senior ministers is enormous, but also presents a formidable challenge in terms of managing expectations and the consistency of communication.

Initial mistakes are not easily forgiven in a charged political environment that can quickly turn from euphoria to hysteria. There are those in Europe who are just waiting with arrogant delight for these mistakes to accumulate in Athens. There are others who are prepared to engage with the new administration, giving them the benefit of the doubt in the early days of a government trying to find its footing.

This new government has the chance to define a reform agenda for Greece in areas that have been in high demand but low supply for decades. Anti-corruption, a transparent mode of governance, combating tax avoidance and investments in sectors such as education, agricultural infrastructure, broadband networks and health services are at the heart of such a reform agenda.

These agenda items remain critical for Greece and present an opportunity structure for the new government. They require detailed preparation and consultation with stakeholders. Time is of the essence. The financial and administrative resources necessary for implementation are considerable. None of this is new. But little of what is required is easily available.

Put otherwise, this reform agenda requires a chisel, not a sledgehammer. It calls for dialogue, persuasion and patience. They do not need microphones and everyday announcements of what will be abolished, shelved or reversed.

Delivering in these areas is where Tsipras’ new government can convince the Greek electorate that it does not view its vote as a carte blanche. Moreover, those who did not vote for this new government have yet to be won over. They will not be impressed by what they have seen in the first week of this administration. Rather, the opposite is the case.

The new government in Athens will be forced to make hard choices. The stakes are high in Greece. So too is the capacity for policy blunders with severe, unintended consequences.

*Jens Bastian is an independent economic consultant and investment analyst for southeast Europe. From 2011 to 2013 he was a member of the European Commission Task Force for Greece in Athens. He is a regular contributor to The Agora section of Macropolis. Follow Jens on Twitter: @Jens_Bastian

This article was published in last week's electronic newsletter, which subscribers can receive via e-mail or mobile app. The apps can be downloaded for free at the App Store and Google Play.

3 Comment(s)

  • Posted by: Hermes

    "The parliamentary majority achieved by the SYRIZA-led coalition government following the 25 January elections constitutes a strong political mandate in mathematical terms"

    Only 62% of people voted and 36% of those voted SYRIZA meaning they only garnered less than 25% of the vote. Add another 3-4% for ANEL and that is at best 30% of the vote.

    That is hardly a strong political mandate!

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  • Posted by: H.Trickler

    Imho Tsipras has decided to use a double handed sledgehammer in the international arena. From observing for many years the way how big politics is done in this arena, I am fully convinced that this will result in an unsurmountable hardening of the attitudes in the northern countries.

    Therefore Greece will pretty soon run out of money and the government of Greece will have do officially declare what the FM recently said: Greece is a bankrupt state.

    This is no catastrophe, and imho Grexit is the only way allowing Greece to escape from the deadlock of the past sad years.

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  • Posted by: Dean Plassaras

    Berlin has already stated that its number 1 aim is to engineer a fall of this new government.

    Question is: If you consider this government unfocused, unprepared or unable to deliver the goods then how come Frau Idiot via her wrong policies installed them in power in the first place?

    It seems to me that once you committed a crime, you generally have to forego the right to complain about it and trying to profit from it.

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