by Maria Petrakis February 17, 2015
(Bloomberg) -- Christina Zografou wasn’t among the thousands of Athenians who gathered in Syntagma square on Sunday to support Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.
That’s not because the 21-year-old university student doesn’t support the efforts of her three-week-old government. Rather it’s because Zografou is more anxious than hopeful about what Tsipras will achieve. On Monday night, talks between Greece and its European creditors foundered after Tsipras’s government said the euro area’s proposal to extend existing bailout commitments was “absurd” and “unacceptable.”
“I’m not optimistic this government won’t end up like the others; they aren’t prepared,” Zografou said. “The rallies show how exhausted Greek society is, how it’s a society on the brink.”
While opinion polls in Greece point to unprecedented support for the new government, they also show an undercurrent of concern. A Kapa survey of 1,015 Greeks published the day of the rally showed that hope was the overwhelming feeling chosen to describe Tsipras’s handling of the crisis since his election. The most prevalent feeling after that was anxiety.
The rallies “place an even greater burden on the government to deliver a ’new deal’ for Greece,” said Spyros Economides, a professor at the London School of Economics. “If they don’t deliver, the goodwill generated among the electorate up to now could quickly be eroded.”
Greece’s new anti-austerity government wants to exit the current bailout program, which it blames for the country’s economic hardships, and replace it with a new plan while obtaining bridge financing to avoid defaulting on its international debt. The plan, which would include raising wages and reinstating government workers, is not getting much support from the country’s creditors.
Germany, as the biggest country contributor to Greece’s 240 billion-euro ($272 billion) bailouts and the chief proponent of economic reform and budget cuts in return, insists that Tsipras’s government commit to an extension of its current rescue program, which expires Feb. 28.
Without a deal, Greece could run out of money, forcing Tsipras to consider abandoning his promises to the electorate to prevent the country from leaving the single currency.
In the weeks since Tsipras came to power and as European officials bear down on the new premier, the focus of conversations in Athens’s cafes, bars and sidewalks is all about what needs to be done and what can be done.
A GPO poll published Feb. 10 showed more than 78 per cent supported Tsipras’s handling of events in the first two weeks of his government.
His pledge to go after Germany for payment of a Nazi occupation loan and war reparations has been met with resounding approval, with 86.7 per cent of Greeks in the Kapa poll saying they agreed.
On Feb. 10, as snow fell softly on the capital, a man jumped up and down to warm up, saying to a kiosk owner that it was high time a Greek pushed the Germans for war reparations and that Tsipras was the man to do it.
The rallies to support the government, organized via social media such as Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc., have grown in size since the first one, on Feb. 5, to number more than 20,000 in front of Parliament in Athens on the eve of the second meeting of euro area finance ministers in Brussels.
Under the hash tag #mazi, or “together”, other smaller rallies have been held in cities across Europe, including Edinburgh, London and Amsterdam. In Vienna, when Tsipras met Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann, a group of about 100 braved a blizzard to show support.
The sentiments at the gatherings range from pleas for Greece to be given a chance to defiance. One placard in Athens last week read: ‘This Guinea Pig Has Escaped’; another said ‘Bankrupt But Free’.
Tsipras won support with his message of restoring hope and dignity for Greeks suffering from years of austerity, job cuts and recession.
With their pride at stake, a majority of Greeks say they are willing to accept an “honourable” compromise, according to a survey by Marc of 1,005 households on Feb. 13. Only 34 per cent said the government should stay steadfast to the original plans.
The poll showed that Syriza would win 45.4 per cent of the vote if elections were held again, compared with the 36 per cent it received on Jan. 25.
‘In the Middle’
Haralambos Dimoulis, 26, understands the need for compromise. A waiter in a central Athens coffee shop, despite two degrees in business administration including one from the University of Nottingham, and “working for a wage you don’t want to know about,” he says he voted for Tsipras, despite being a member of the New Democracy party in his youth.
“I voted for change and I saw a change,” he said. “In these first few days I support him more. He’s moving with a sense of responsibility and dignity.”
Still, he says, he’s aware of Tsipras’s constraints.
“It’s not just about us,” he says. “It’s about what the EU and the rest of the world want as well. They will have to settle somewhere in the middle.”
Compromise, not conflict or an exit from the euro, is what the newly hopeful Greeks see, according to the polls.
The GPO poll showed more than six in 10 believed there was still a danger Greece will leave the euro area, up nearly 10 percentage points since the last reading on Jan. 23, two days before Tsipras’s victory. Seventy-six per cent said they believed Greece must stay in the euro at all cost.
In the Kapa poll, 76 per cent said they believed many of the reforms in the bailout accords should have been implemented long ago. Eighty per cent said the government should renegotiate the bailout without risking euro membership.
“It is important to keep in mind that more than 70 per cent of Greeks do not want to leave the euro zone,” said Alastair Newton, a political analyst at Nomura International Plc in London “Compromise should be achievable if all parties are realistic.”
For Zografou, whose mother, a primary school teacher, brings home stories of children coming to school hungry, that spells more pain. She expects the outcome to be more austerity and says she fears she may never find a job in a nation where the unemployment rate is 25.8 per cent, the euro-area’s highest.
Asked what she believed needs to happen, she shrugged.
“I wish I knew,” she said.