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Greece Without Illusions

ATHENS – “The costliest minor government reshuffle in Greece’s history.” That is at least one way to describe the result of the Greek general election on September 20. Indeed, with few exceptions, the same ministers have returned to the same offices as part of an administration backed by the same odd pair of parties (the left-wing Syriza and the smaller right-wing Independent Greeks), which received only a slightly lower share of the vote than the previous administration.

But the appearance of continuity is misleading. While the percentage of voters backing the government is relatively unchanged, 0.6 million of the 6.1 million Greeks who voted in the July 5 referendum on continued “extend-and-pretend” loans with stringent austerity strings attached did not turn out. The loss of so many voters in little more than two months reflects the electorate’s dramatic change in mood – from passionate to glum.

The shift reflects the mandate that Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras sought and gained. Last January, when I stood with him, we asked voters to back our determination to end the “extend-and-pretend” bailouts that had pushed Greece into a black hole and operated as the template for austerity policies across Europe. The government that was returned on September 20 has the opposite mandate: to implement an “extend-and-pretend” bailout program – indeed, the most toxic variant ever.

The new Tsipras administration knows this. Tsipras understands that his government is skating on the thin ice of a fiscal program that cannot succeed and a reform agenda that his ministers loathe. While voters wisely prefer that he and his cabinet, rather than the conservative opposition, implement a program that an overwhelming majority of Greeks detest, the reality of the austerity agenda will test public patience.