February 3, 2015 / 3:37 PM / 5 years ago

Brash new government holds Greeks in thrall

ATHENS (Reuters) - Barely a week in power, Greece’s new leftwing government is winning over an increasingly enthusiastic domestic audience by moving boldly on populist campaign pledges at home even as it strikes a more moderate note abroad.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras (C), Deputy Prime Minister Yannis Dragasakis (2nd L), Defense Minister Panos Kammenos (L), Interior and Administrative Reconstruction Minister Nikos Voutsis, Minister of Productive Reconstruction, Environment and Energy Panagiotis Lafazanis (2R) and other members of the new government pose for a group picture after the first meeting of the new cabinet in the parliament building in Athens January 28, 2015. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

While selling a message of reassurance on a diplomatic charm offensive in Europe, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has surged to a 68 percent approval rating at home by taking a radical line to show that the old, unreliable world of Greek politics as usual is out — both symbolically and otherwise.

Ministers, many sporting Tsipras’s no-tie look, drove up in their own cars on their first day at work last week, some complaining about traffic to waiting cameras. Barricades outside parliament to hold back protesters were taken down. Riot police were notably absent at a demonstration over the weekend, leaving protesters with no one to vent their anger against.

Bigger changes are also afoot. Even before the government formally unveils its programme this weekend, ministers have moved with dizzying speed to tell television cameras their plans to raise the minimum wage, halt unpopular sales of national assets, rehire workers fired without cause and reinstate a Christmas bonus for poor pensioners.

“He is doing much better than expected both at home and abroad,” said Costas Panagopoulos, head of the Alco polling institute in Athens, adding that the new government’s first week in power had injected a dose of confidence into the country.

“A big part of society feels that after years of being mistreated, squeezed and deprived of sovereignty someone is trying to restore this,” he said. “There is no feeling of fear. There is anticipation but no fear.”

Perhaps even more surreally for many Greeks, the hated “troika” of EU and IMF inspectors, who many felt held them in a reign of terror over four years with repeated doses of austerity, were virtually overnight deemed unwelcome in Athens.

“People already feel that they can breathe, irrespective of the outcome,” said Anthi Apostolopoulou, a 55-year-old housewife shopping in central Athens. “It’s still early days, but they have already given a sample of what they are willing to do.”

The message abroad has been decidedly more nuanced. Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, who has become a celebrity in the local press with his sporty casual look and Yamaha motorbike, has emphasised during a trip to Paris and London that Greece has no interest in bilking the European taxpayer and that the country will honour its obligations while it seeks debt relief.


But in a sign of the careful line the government must tread to avoid alienating its European partners or its voters, his proposal to investors to swap debt instead of demanding a straight writedown was met with surprise in Athens.

Varoufakis quickly put a statement saying he had been misinterpreted, in a bid to quell suggestions that the “bomb”, as it was described in some media outlets, meant rowing back from a pledge to seek a debt write off from European partners.

Appearing on Greek television on Tuesday morning, government spokesman Gabriel Sakellaridis sought to play down the issue, saying the government had already succeeded in shifting the European debate towards its anti-austerity goals.

“For the first time, Europe is discussing ending austerity, while 10 days ago the discussion was only about cutting pensions and wages,” Sakellaridis told Antenna TV. “People feel for the first time that the Greek government is negotiating.”

For now, the contradictory and conflicting signals sent to financial markets and European partners appear to have done little to dim Tsipras’s star at home.

A poll for the Parapolitika newspaper conducted last week showed that 68 percent of Greeks felt positively about Tsipras as prime minister. About half of the 1,000 respondents felt hope for the future, outnumbering the 45 percent who felt anxious.

A second poll, by Public Issue for the Syriza mouthpiece Avgi, showed 50 percent of Greeks felt relieved that Syriza won compared to 26 percent who were indifferent. Nearly 70 percent said that Tsipras’s Syriza party — in power for the first time on a national level — was ready to govern.

Anecdotal evidence also suggests a changing public mood in a country that three years ago topped a Gallup poll of most pessimistic nations in the world. Motorists rolled down their window on Friday to shout “Alexis, we love you!” outside Tsipras’s prime ministerial mansion on Friday.

To be sure, many Greeks share remain sceptical about whether the new government can offer a lasting solution to their problems, let alone deliver on its promises while facing depleted state coffers and a standoff with European creditors.

“I hope he succeeds but frankly, I believe that speaking in football terms, (former Prime Minister Antonis) Samaras finished the first half and Mr. Tsipras has taken over for the second half,” said Vassilis, a 58-year-old public sector worker.

Additional reporting by Costas Pitas; Writing by Deepa Babington; Editing by Giles Elgood

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