He won, but can he govern? Having narrowly won an election where the real contest was fear of isolation versus anger at austerity Antonis Samaras and his New Democracy party now face a much larger challenge. They must reach out to all factions in a deeply divided Greece and replace despair with hope.
Is this too much to ask from a professional politician known mainly for obstruction rather than bold, creative thinking? One can only hope that the struggles of the last six weeks have opened his eyes to the failure of traditional tribal politics and the need for radical change. He has spent his entire political life believing that the enemy was PASOK (the Socialist party). PASOK has now been made irrelevant by coming in a distant third in the election. The real enemy is not any of his political opponents, not even the new challenge of loose coalition of leftist parties called Syriza. No, the real opponent is the very social, economic and political status quo that nurtured him, that created this mess in the first place.
If he can convince people he wants to change this ossified status quo, if he can paint the main anti-austerity party Syriza merely as a defender of the status quo but with new people, and if he has enough skill and dexterity to change the debate from austerity to building a stronger Greece for their children he just might win over some of the sceptics.
It would help if he could develop some of the communications skills of his young opponent Alexis Tsipras, head of Syriza. Samaras unfortunately bears a close resemblance to former U.S. President Richard Nixon with his dark 5 o’clock shadow, rigid demeanour, and total inability to inspire trust.
Although those that know him say he is well-meaning, he comes across more as a bank manager reminding you of your large overdraft than a person who has any sympathy or understanding of your problems in finding money to feed your children. Tsipras, in contrast, is young, vibrant, and telegenic. The fact that his message offers merely a slightly updated version of the same old system is lost in the sparkle of the presentation.
It would also help if Greece’s European counterparties stopped sounding like an old-line school master about to give ‘six of the finest’ to some errant student. “This is going to hurt me more than you, you wretched little boy.”
Now is the time for a more nuanced approach instead of lectures. The northern Europeans have made their point about the ‘profligate’ Greeks. Now they have to help Samaras build the kind of structure that will really integrate Greece into the European family rather than leave it dangling as some distant, slightly unwelcome southern Balkan relative. Put the so-called austerity on the back burner. The country simply cannot afford it right now. Stress the structural changes that will actually generate growth and offer hope for the future. In short, demonstrate and communicate a little more flexibility than a bill collector trying to re-possess a car when the payments come a little late.
There are still a great many people betting on the ‘Grexit’ – Greece’s exit from the Euro zone. Some of these are serious economists, but much of this comment can be dismissed as financial actors merely supporting their own investment decisions. I doubt very much that Greece will in fact leave the Euro. There is absolutely no political will in Europe to test the consequences of such a move. They may not like the Greeks very much, but they like the idea of a crumbling Euro even less. It is almost impossible to predict right now what steps European leaders will take to keep Greece in the Euro or possibly to re-configure the Euro. Ask any five ‘experts’ and you get at least seven answers. On paper, the Greek financial situation continues to look dire. But if European leaders have been good at anything, it is ripping up the paper upon which old agreements were written and coming up with something to fit changed conditions of the moment. I suspect there will be a lot of ripping and feverish re-writing over the next several months.
Samaras has now won his long-cherished goal. He will be prime minister of the Hellenic Republic. What will he do with this opportunity? The old economic and political mould is shattered. The people are confused, distressed, and angry. Will he adopt the words from Abraham Lincoln’s famous second inaugural address as the American Civil War ended -- ‘with malice toward none and charity for all’ -- or will he try to patch together the broken, discredited mould? There is a great deal riding on the answer.