Antonis Samaras, Greece's prime minister

At first sight it is puzzling that Greece should be in a hurry to exit the EU-International Monetary Fund bailout on which it has depended since 2010. The yield on Greek 10-year sovereign debt soared above 9 per cent a couple of weeks ago.

Even at 7 per cent, the market rate is much higher than the rate at which Athens borrows from its official creditors. Like a sprinter falling at the last hurdle, Greece is in danger of tripping up because it wants to beat the clock.

For Antonis Samaras, prime minister, and his colleagues, however, this is not primarily a financial matter. It is about national dignity and, as is to be expected in a democracy, political calculation.

A yearning for restored national dignity pervades Greek attitudes to the EU-IMF bailout. The social and economic costs of the rescue, from mass unemployment to business closures, have been punishingly high.

The bailout reminds Greeks of how big powers have often exercised control over their country since the 1821-32 war of independence against Ottoman rule. For older Greeks, the 1941-44 Nazi occupation and British and US influence over postwar Greece are vivid memories. A quest for self-determination is central to the Greek identity.

The political calculation is that by freeing Greece from the EU-IMF grip, the government will win a parliamentary vote, expected in February, to elect the nation’s next head of state. This would enable it to complete a full four-year term and fight the next election in June 2016 from a position of strength.

The snag is the Samaras government is a coalition that controls only 154 seats in the 300-member legislature. Under Greece’s constitution, it will need 180 votes to elect its presidential candidate.

If the government falls short, there will be a snap election. This is not Mr Samaras’s preference, but he figures his conservative New Democracy party may perform well if voters know it has secured an early bailout exit.

Latest opinion polls suggest, though, the winner of a snap election will be Syriza, the radical left opposition party that is hostile to the EU-IMF austerity measures and economic reforms enacted by the Samaras government. Whether, in power, Syriza’s bite would be as fierce as its bark is uncertain. It is improbable a snap election would hand Syriza an outright parliamentary majority.

Arguably, pressure from coalition partners and financial markets would push Alexis Tsipras, Syriza’s leader, towards an accommodation with Greece’s creditors. If so, a Syriza-governed Greece would experience neither fiscal recklessness nor endless austerity but policies guided, in some measure, by a sense of economic responsibility.

Mr Tsipras has always said he wants Greece to stay in the eurozone– a stance that would place automatic restraints on a full-blooded leftwing programme. For Mr Samaras, however, a Syriza election victory risks jeopardising all that his government has striven to achieve in the name of restoring Greece’s good name abroad.

In the end, what matters for Greece is not whether Mr Samaras stays in office or Mr Tsipras replaces him. It is whether almost five years of domestic hardship and subjection to the “troika”– the European Central Bank, European Commission and IMF – have really modernised Greece’s political culture and public attitudes to the state.

The crisis dealt a blow to the time-hallowed system of clientelism, bribery and self-enrichment that gained fresh life in Greece from the early 1980s under Pasok, the socialist party, and New Democracy. But it is pointless to deny that public sector corruption and patronage networks persist. In the private sector, meanwhile, rich Greeks made no sacrifices to help their nation in its moment of need, ensuring the crisis hammered the middle classes and poor instead.

Greek clientelism, and the selfishness of the rich, survived everything the 20th century threw at them – two world wars, foreign occupation, a civil war and a domestic military dictatorship. Do not be surprised if they outlive the troika, too, after Greece’s latest foreign overlords take their leave.

tony.barber@ft.com

——————————————-

Letter in response to this article:

Greece’s silent majority understands there is no way back / From Kyriakos Mitsotakis

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.