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Merkel in Athens

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Angela Merkel’s visit to Athens on Tuesday came at a critical moment for Antonis Samaras and the junior partners in his three-party coalition government. Under pressure to agree to new, socially wrenching austerity measures, his government faces enormous odds in navigating the country through its worst crisis since the collapse of the colonels’ junta in 1974. At stake is whether Greece can remain in the eurozone, but of greater importance in the long run is whether, in doing so, it can again find its footing as a polity, renewing the struggle that began after the Second World War to emerge as a modern European democracy.
 
The immediate question of whether or not Greece should remain in the euro has apparently already been decided by its creditors in Europe and the IMF, who seem to think that it should, but are at loggerheads over how that can be done, at what price and who will pay it. But Greece, which is reminded ad nauseam that it must ‘fulfil its obligations’ if it wants bailout loans to continue, also plays an important role in the equation. If Samaras’s venture were to fail, nothing will be left standing from the old, largely discredited political establishment, leaving Alex Tsipras’s radical left Syriza as the most popular of the new forces that the crisis has engendered: new forces that unfortunately include an increasingly popular neo-fascist party, now running third in opinion polls. It’s also unfortunate that even if Syriza were to emerge as the first party in subsequent elections, forming a workable coalition would be nearly impossible. In this context, Merkel’s visit gave Samaras’s government a much needed boost.

The protests were, by Greek standards, relatively small (there were around 30,000 demonstrators). The size of the security operation was one reason for this, but a fear of political instability and a loss of faith in political alternatives also played their part. The protest movement, for the time being at least, is in abeyance. Apparently sensing the public mood and aware that it is not ready to govern, Syriza was notably low-key.

Merkel’s visit will have helped Samaras’s standing with other European leaders, which had been somewhat in doubt since he rejected the 2010 emergency loan programme when he was in opposition. It will also have helped smooth increasingly fractious relations between Samaras and his coalition partners. Given that the crisis has shattered Greece’s old two-party system, the only glimmer of hope for political renewal lies in coalition governments’ being able to iron out their differences and work together. Disagreements among the governing parties over new austerity measures have contributed to protracted delays in arriving at the final package, which must be ready by next week, leading many Greeks to believe it will be hard for the government to survive for long. In fact, the high stakes suggest that it will be hard for the government to fall.

Merkel’s visit will have enhanced the government’s credibility domestically, at least among the many Greeks who, while not investing their hopes in a dramatic turnaround, see Samaras – he’s a rightwing nationalist, after all – as trying to get the best deal he can, rather than merely serving as a conveyor belt for foreign dictates. Despite harsh attacks on the government from opposition parties on both the left and right, no political force in Greece is prepared to accept the economically onerous consequences of a disorderly bankruptcy and return to the drachma, which would benefit only such privileged interests as wealthy Greeks with bloated Swiss bank accounts, eager to buy up Greek assets at devalued drachma prices.

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