Despite rollback on election pledges, Greece's new government enjoys massive popularity

Markets Associated Press

Cleaning ladies who have waged Greece's longest-running anti-austerity protest have camped outside a finance ministry building in Athens for nearly two years with one goal — getting their state-paid jobs back.

Continue Reading Below

Anna-Maria Zoumbou is one of the hundreds of tax office cleaners laid off in 2013 as part of spending cuts imposed as part of conditions imposed by international bailout since 2010.

Zoumbou and the other cleaners have pinned their hopes on Greece's new radical left government, elected in January on pledges to drastically ease social pain in a barely solvent country ravaged by economic depression. Its promises included rehiring fired civil servants, cancelling privatizations and seeking forgiveness for most of the country's national debt.

But after a clash with its European creditors, the government has fudged, fumbled and pushed back on many of those promises, drawing criticism even from within the ruling Syriza party.

Still, Zoumbou, like many Greeks, hasn't given up hope.

"We must give this government some time," said the 50-year-old.

Continue Reading Below

Domestic support for the government remains higher than for any administration in decades, with many Greeks pragmatically arguing they'll be happy even if a fraction of Syriza's promises materialize.

A poll this week showed Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras' unlikely coalition with a small rightwing populist party enjoys 69 percent approval — a remarkable gain for parties who won a combined 41 percent in Jan. 25 elections. Tsipras enjoys an approval rating of 72 percent, while 70 percent back Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis' handling of things.

And that's even though Greeks may have to forget basic Syriza promises — including raising the minimum wage to pre-crisis levels and scrapping a hated property tax — at least until after tough talks with creditors in coming months.

The government got a bruising last month from its European bailout creditors. It has backed off a demand that most of its national debt be forgiven, and has watered down plans to undo years of budget cuts that were required to reduce debt but have caused huge social pain.

The Feb. 20 negotiations yielded an agreement to extend Greece's bailout until the end of June, but only if Athens refrains from taking measures that would endanger its public finances and presents proposals for balancing the budget by the end of April.

In the bailout talks, Varoufakis, a flamboyant economist who attends official meetings tieless, with his shirt hanging out, took Greece's eurozone creditors to task for being too tough. However that may have impressed Greece's creditors, it went down well with voters accustomed to governments that for years — publicly at least — showed little backbone when dealing a series of resented demands from abroad.

"When nationalism creeps in, any government, at least in this part of the world, benefits in terms of popularity," said Dimitris Sotiropoulos, associate professor of political science at Athens University.

Furthermore, opposition parties — including the conservatives and Socialists who ruled unchallenged between 1974 and 2015 — are in disarray.

Divorced pensioner Nikoletta Pita, a 62-year-old grandmother who has been struggling with cancer for 22 years, said she realized the novice government's task is hard.

"I'm not saying they'll be able to perform miracles, as the noose is so tight around our necks, but they will be able to make small steps," she said.

The government is on borrowed time, however. Pessimism among Greeks is growing again after a marked improvement around the Jan. 25 elections, a poll for Star television by MRB shows.

Berenberg Bank analyst Christian Schulz said Tsipras' negotiating position with creditors is weakening: The economy appears headed back to recession, the government is at risk of running out of money with tax revenues falling and rescue loans unforthcoming pending negotiations, while other European countries are less exposed to financial damage from a Greek collapse.

"Having already made major U-turns for the 20 February deal, we expect Greece's double populist coalition to withdraw most of the remaining election promises to secure funding," Schulz said.

Syriza has also sent contradictory signals since gaining power.

Tax relief for debtors has been watered down, a police directive easing immigration controls was hastily revoked and state hospitals have been told to cover funding cuts by using their cash reserves.

Some of the harshest criticism has come from highly regarded members of Syriza itself — an often cacophonous amalgam of ardent pro-Europeans, radical Marxists and proponents of a eurozone exit.

Nonagenarian European Parliament lawmaker and World War II hero Manolis Glezos, revered for pinching the Nazi flag from the Acropolis under the nose of the German garrison, publicly apologized to the Greek people after the Feb. 20 deal for "contribut(ing) to the illusion" the bailout would be scrapped.

Last week, senior Syriza economist John Milios co-authored an opinion piece on his blog criticizing the government for being ill-prepared for its negotiation, and the finance ministry for sending conflicting signals.

"This badly set up negotiation ... had the characteristics of a blindfolded leap," he said. "The fact the government chose to present the evident retreat and the forced change of its program as a 'victory' is a bad sign for the future, because it shows it is more interested in communication than in substance."

For now, Syriza probably enjoys enough voter goodwill to be able to roll back on more of its pledges if it has to, and is likely to maintain its massive popularity if the government is successful in creditor negotiations.

If not, said Sotiropoulos, "the avalanche of problems related to education, environmental protection, social welfare and migration policy" will take its toll.

___

Raphael Kominis in Athens contributed to this report.