Syriza has upended the rules of the Greek political system

Der Spiegel reports: Minister of Administrative Reform Georgios Katrougalos sits cheerfully in his new office and rejoices about his little revolution. He has just announced that soon the first 3,500 public-sector employees can return to work, including the famous cleaning ladies who led the protest against job cuts. With their rubber-glove-clad clenched fists, they embodied a feeling shared by many Greeks — that they had been mistreated by Europe. Now the cleaning ladies were becoming the symbol of the new beginning.

According to the administrative reform minister, these aren’t new hires — they are the reversal of unfair layoffs. “The cleaning ladies were the weakest, and the troika needed numbers.” He claims this is primarily a redress for the absurdity of the austerity measures. After they were let go, the financial authority’s 595 cleaning ladies — who had to be fired in September 2013 in order to fulfill the requirements of the savings plan — continued to receive 75 percent of their earnings. Their work was then done by private cleaning companies — in the end, the whole thing was more expensive than it had been before. It was these kinds of decisions by the previous government that had made the Greeks furious — and led them to vote for Syriza.

The administrative reform minister is a counterpoint to Athens’ new culture of laxity, characterized by Alexis Tsipras and Finance Minister Giannis Varoufakis, who like to appear tie-less in public. Katrougalos wears a suit and a tie. He has given up his role in the European Parliament and joined the government in order to reform the administration — a thankless task. He is a gambler, he says with a laugh. He loves calculated risk. All of his friends had advised him against it. “But I want to help shape the new beginning,” he says, “and only a left-wing party can tackle this kind of reform.”

Katrougalos says he wants to “break the system of patronage and clientilism.” The minister, who isn’t affiliated with any political party, is well-qualified for the job: He wrote his PhD about administrative reform in Greece. He comes across as open, non-ideological and competent — and he makes an effort to show that this new beginning will be different than the previous ones, that he too wants to save money, but on the backs of the politicians instead of the citizens. He wants to get rid of about 70 percent of the official cars used by top officials. He has removed the police surveillance in front of his ministry, because it sends a “bad signal” and is unnecessary in any case. And he has cut advisor positions — which had previously often been granted as favors — in half.

Something has happened in Greece that has not happened like this anywhere else in Europe: A handful of neophyte politicians, intellectuals and university professors have taken over the government. It feels like a small revolution instead of a handover of duties. And that’s not only because many members of the previous administration deleted their hard drives and took their documents with them, or that there initially wasn’t even any soap in the government headquarters. No, the new government has upended the rules of the Greek political system — and spurred into action a Europe that is still unsure how it should react to the rebels. [Continue reading…]

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