Public frustration and anger had centered so much on George Papandreou that his departure is sure to elicit some relief. But the lengthy and, at times, comical process of selecting Loukas Papademos as his successor should dispel any notion that there is any consensus among the political elite. The problems that made Papandreou fail have not gone away - much has changed and much has remained the same.
Papandreou was a problem but he was not "the" problem. His failure was a failure to create and sustain a political and social coalition in favor of reform, either among his party or among the public. But his failure reflected the enormity of his task - Greek reform collapsed, as they say, under its own weight. And so those who rejoice that Papandreou is gone ought to ask themselves one question, why are you happy he is gone?
There are two answers to that question. The first is that Papandreou, by signing a pact with the troika devil, forced on the Greek public excessive austerity and ultra-neoliberalism (whatever that means). If anyone is rejoicing for that reason, then rejoice no longer - the prescription for the next few years calls for more of that medicine, which the patient needs desperately. The second answer is that Papandreou was ineffective. He was unable to sell the party or the people on his agenda, and he was never strong enough to punish the members of his own party that did not support him. His chief political maneuver was to elevate his rival into the second highest position, evidence of his inability to check internal challenges.
A new administration does little to change the hard math of reform - its mandate, after all, is too narrow and focused on negotiating a new memorandum rather than implementing reform. The country needs a second bailout, to be sure, but it also needs serious political commitment to the first one. A transitional government cannot provide that commitment.
What the government can do is create a second bailout package that the Greek people will vote on by February. In theory that process will grant more legitimacy on the second package. But in practice, what is curious is that there is no real disagreement among the former PM and leader of the opposition for a troika-like reform agenda, at least for those who can distill the conflicting messages of the leader of the opposition. The discord comes in the "policy mix" to implement it. And so the Greek public is not faced, credibly, with two alternative policy options as much as it is faced with slightly different paths to the same destination, plus a lot of rhetorical noise.
Those who have been reading my blog know that I judge political events by a single yardstick: to what extent do events facilitate the public's recognition that Greece needs to change. That is the reason, for example, I welcomed the taxi strike this summer - because it was so crass and unjustified that it was bound to expose the illegitimacy of the demands made by various special interests. So what to make of this change?
The pessimist in me will see this as evidence that protests work. Those who are opposed to reform may feel emboldened - "we fought and brought down a prime minister" they might say, and keep up the struggle. The optimist will see this as a necessary step in a process of political maturation - as evidence that reform and further EU support will not come from half measures, that Europe will let Greece collapse if it has to, and that the country's political elites will no longer be able to hide behind rhetorical ploys. So the change in leadership and the coming elections will help only if they reinforce in the mind of the Greek public the need and inevitability for radical reform - which it can but is not necessarily going to do.