Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras tried to revive his government with many young Cabinet members in preparation for the General election, which he called “the mother of all battles.”
Ahead of crucial polls in 2019, the once radical leftist has brought in 13 ministers, many in their 30s and 40s, in what has been hailed as a concerted shift to claim the centre ground. Six of the newcomers are women. Key posts, however, have been untouched, with the finance, foreign, defence and labour ministers remaining.
Speaking before the reshuffle, Tsipras told his Syriza party the changes were precipitated by the need for renewal as debt-burdened Greece entered a new era days after exiting the biggest economic bailout in global financial history.
“It will be the mother of all parties,” he said, firing the opening shot in what is expected to be a heated campaign; elections must beheld by autumn next year. “Our country, the government and the party need new blood and more appetite for work.”
Tsipras’ popularity, already dented by the implementation of the austerity measures he once vowed to overturn, took a further hit this summer after his government’s bungled handling of catastrophic wildfires outside Athens. The death toll climbed to 97 this week, with authorities announcing that 25 remained in hospital, five in intensive care.
The public outcry over a disaster now seen as one of the worst in living memory has exacerbated outrage over the government’s enforcement of budget and pension cuts in return for international rescue funds to avert the country’s euro ejection. Latest opinion polls show the main opposition New Democracy party leading by between five to 10 percentage points, more than with the small rightwing Anel party.
The embattled leader’s effort to make up lost ground is now focused on broadening his government’s appeal. In an attempt to remould itself as a progressive force capable of claiming centrist votes, a former socialist minister, Mariliza Xenogiannakopoulou, replaced Olga Gerovasili as minister of administrative reform. Myrsini Zorba, a professor of cultural theory and erstwhile socialist MEP, became culture minister, while the former conservative MP-cum-independent, Katerina Papacosta, was elevated to the post of deputy minister at the key citizens protection ministry. Gerovasili, a senior Syriza cadre, took over this ministry’s helm, marking the first time that two women have overseen public order in Greece.
“He is not the Tsipras of 2015,” said the independent MP Haris Theocharis. “The radical rhetoric has gone and he is now clearly trying to establish Syriza as one of the two pillars in a two-party system. To do that he has to open up to the centre, but how successful he can be is another question.”
Signalling he had taken stock of the criticism the government has faced over the fires, Tsipras attempted to inject new life into his administration with leadership changes at the interior and justice ministries. In a nod to younger Greeks, who are expected to play a vital role in the elections, the 41-year-old deputy economy minister Alexis Charitsis took over the powerful interior ministry, replacing Panos Skourletis, Syriza’s new secretary general. Michalis Kalogirou, a 42-year-old lawyer, was made justice minister.
But the reshuffle was quick to elicit derision. Worn down by nearly nine years of austerity that has left 20% unemployed, more than a third of the population living below the poverty line and 500,000 of the brightest and best seeking jobs abroad, patience is thin on the ground.
Tsipras has defined the coming battle as a fight between the old and new with his own party facing off the “bankrupt and corrupt” forces that brought Greece to the brink of economic collapse. Instead of being revitalised by the reshuffle, criticism was widespread that the new government reeked of tried and tested faces. Though even the Greek prime minister’s fiercest opponents concede that at a time of tumult and unprecedented political drama, he has proved to be the country’s wiliest politician.