ATHENS – Conservative leader Antonis Samaras was sworn in as Greece’s prime minister Wednesday at the head of a coalition government that will have to reconcile the demands of the country’s international lenders with the growing frustration of its recession-wracked citizens.
The 61-year-old politician, head of the center-right New Democracy party, took the oath of office to the chanting of Orthodox priests after successfully concluding coalition talks with the rival Panhellenic Socialist Movement, or Pasok, and the smaller Democratic Left.
“With the help of God we will do all we can to help our people out of this crisis as quickly as possible,” Samaras said in a brief statement afterward. “I will ask . . . the new government . . . to work hard so we can give our people solid hope.”
The coalition agreement ends weeks of political stalemate in the country and puts to rest the imminent threat that it might withdraw — or be expelled — from the euro zone. An election Sunday, contested most pointedly between Samaras and anti-bailout leader Alexis Tsipras, was seen as a virtual referendum on Greece’s membership in the currency union.
Tsipras had threatened to withdraw from the terms of an international bailout agreement if his demands, including a moratorium on interest payments and a nationalization of the country’s banking system, were not accepted by the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the European Central Bank.
As it stands, Greece still faces immense challenges, but the acute risk of a euro exit appears to be off the table for now.
Euro-zone finance ministers and top European officials will hold a series of key meetings this week and next in Rome, Luxembourg and Brussels to discuss their next steps in handling the broader euro-zone crisis, a complex set of problems that is challenging large nations including Spain and Italy and forcing an extensive overhaul of economic relations throughout the region.
The upcoming talks, culminating in a summit next week, will focus on some of those larger questions, such as creating a banking union that puts the full weight of the 17-nation currency zone behind an integrated financial system, rather than leaving each nation to stand or fall alongside its own banks. The government of Ireland was bankrupted by problems in its financial sector, and the same outcome is threatened in Spain.
For Greece, the more important meetings will start when a team from the IMF, the ECB and the commission — the “troika” that is lending Greece the money it needs to stay afloat — comes to Athens to review where the country’s economy stands after weeks of drift.
A date for the visit has not been set but is expected soon.
Key decisions about budget cuts, long-term economic plans and other issues were slated to have been made already by Greek officials, and the next loan payments to Greece will not be made until the troika members and local leaders come to terms about how to proceed.
Disbursement of the loan funds is urgent — the country nearly ran out of cash in June to pay salaries and public pensions.
Samaras has said he will ask — at the least — to slow the pace of budget cuts required under the bailout plan, which currently demands another $11 billion in spending reductions over the next two years.