Friday, 4 November 2011

Papandreou Looks for Scarce Friends After Vote of Confidence

Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou was scheduled to see the country's president today, to discuss the formation of a coalition government that would ratify the Greece's second bailout package.

The coalition talks were the promise Papandreou gave MPs in asking parliament on Friday night for a vote of confidence, saying that he would be willing to lay down his premiership if that brought closer the prospect of a coalition government the following day.He received 153 votes, all from socialist MPs.

Papandreou expressed all other political initiatives - approving the second bailout; unblocking the sixth instalment from the first bailout; forming a coalition government with conservative New Democracy; and holding a general election - as dependent on his government's survival.

Who is willing to talk to Papandreou remains an open question. All opposition parties have shut the door to talks, excluding the right wing Laos. The prospect exists that Papandreou could fail to find partners and continue governing on his own.

Before the vote

Papandreou faced three unattractive choices in parliament tonight, which before his speech were thought of as mutually exclusive:

a). Stand down, take the blame for the referendum fiasco and allow his parliamentarians to elect a new leader.The attraction is that his party and government could move on, possibly to complete the government's full term. Papandreou would leave voluntarily, remain party leader and nurture hopes of a contuned political career. But his premiership would end at a dark moment in the crisis that would stigmatise him forever.

b). Propose that the confidence motion be delayed until he and conservative leader Antonis Samaras have hammered out the scope, lifespan and composition of a transitional government of national unity which would include neither of them. He would be praised for parting with power for the good of the nation, and vindicated after suffering three rebuttals from Samaras. However, his premiership would again be at an end.

c). Go to the confidence motion with the hope that his parliamentary majority of one (he now holds 151 out of 300 seats after three departures in the last fortnight) and a few independents will miraculously support him now that he has dropped the divisive issue of the referendum. He might just win it, but would probably lose and be ousted in a fashion he could not control. 

Option b is the one that puts the country's political system in the best light and somehow salvages what little is left of the credibility of the socialist and conservative parties. The smaller groups are already accusing the two-party system of bringing the country to disaster over three decades. Pasok and New Democracy could thus prove that they can put national interest above party interest.

The mandate of such a government should go beyond the limits Antonis Samaras, the conservative leader, stipulated yesterday - ratification of the second bailout and securing the moneyflow from the eurozone. New taxes should be put beyond its brief. But peopled by technocrats, it could also be authorised to continue cost cuts in the public sector until it had dismantled the client state built by Pasok and New Democracy over thirty years. Papandreou and Samaras cannot do this, but this is their opportunity to allow someone else to. They can then hold elections in the autumn of 2012 and blame the non-politicians for putting things right.

There is a fourth option, of course - that of a general election. But German Chancellor Angela Merkel's December 4 deadline for Greece to accept the second bailout makes this option risky. The constitution mandates a month-long campaign period; polls suggest that an election would likely produce a hung parliament leading to coalition talks; and ministers generally need a month to find their sea legs, thanks to a Greek tradition of outgoing governments shredding every document as though newcomers were a foreign invader.  An election would put Greece on hold for a quarter of a year, which neither markets nor Greece's creditors would now accept.

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