- A limited cabinet reshuffle aimed at leaving the wildfire damage behind has become a source of embarrassment for the ruling party as a newly-appointed minister declined the job.
- A new pandemic wave in the Fall could be the next test for the government, especially as low vaccination rates are emerging as an intractable issue for the authorities.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis conducted a cabinet reshuffle on 31 August as he looks to move on from a difficult few weeks for his government as a result of extensive wildfires across Greece in August and with Covid numbers rising amid limited progress with vaccinations.
Mitsotakis announced changes to several key posts that saw the Citizens' Protection Minister Michalis Chrysochoidis and Deputy Minister for Civil Protection Nikos Hardalias removed from their posts. Both had come in for strong criticism from opposition parties over the handling of fires that led to 130,000 hectares of land being scorched, including the biggest ever single wildfire in Greece on the island of Evia.
The PM had defended both men publicly and, in a debate in parliament last week, insisted that although operational mistakes were made, the authorities had at least managed to limit the loss of life. He attributed this to an early warning system that was implemented when New Democracy (ND) came to power in 2019 and which involves evacuation messages being sent to communities that are threatened by natural disasters. The conservative leader identified this as a major gain under the current government, especially after more than 100 people died in a wildfire in Mati, northeast of Athens, in 2018, when left-wing SYRIZA was in power.
Nevertheless, Mitsotakis deemed it appropriate to create a new ministry, that of Civil Protection, as part of his reshuffle. The move is a response to the growing concern that Greece is facing a growing threat from the climate crisis. This summer saw record heatwaves as well as extensive wildfires.
The PM suffered an immediate blow, though, as he announced that the former head of the armed forces, Evangelos Apostolakis, would take charge of the new portfolio, only for the ex-military chief to announce moments later that he could not accept the role. Apostolakis had briefly served as Defence Minister in the SYRIZA government and the left-wing party slammed his appointment by Mitsotakis. Apostolakis said he could not take on the job if there was no cross-party support.
The other significant change involved Health Minister Vassilis Kikilias being moved to the Tourism Ministry and New Democracy MP Thanos Plevris being put in charge of the Health Ministry. Plevris is a former member of the ultra- nationalist LAOS party and is the third cabinet official to come from its ranks, along with Development Minister Adonis Georgiadis and Agricultural Development Minister Makis Voridis. Their presence in the government is seen as part of an effort by Mitsotakis, who presents himself as a liberal reformer, to keep the traditional right-wing of his party onside.
Fiscal relief measures to be announced on 11 September
The PM is hoping that the reshuffle will help his government turn a new page after a challenging summer. Mitsotakis is due to set out his main policy ideas in a speech at the Thessaloniki International Fair on 11 September. It is widely expected that he will use the address to announce the raft of fiscal relief measures that ND aims to put in the draft budget for next year. These are likely to include a property tax reduction and the lowering of the corporate tax by 2 points to 22%.
ND believes that together with the influx of the funds allocated to Greece from the EU's Recovery and Resilience Facility (approximately EUR 4bn by the end of the year), this will provide a boost to the economy but also strengthen confidence in the center-right administration.
An opinion poll published in Ta Nea newspaper over the weekend – the first since the summer break – suggested that the public's confidence in ND has waned somewhat over the last few weeks. According to the GPO survey, support for New Democracy fell by 2 points since June, landing at 34.5%. However, this is still more than 10 points ahead of SYRIZA, which is on 24.4%.
The opinion poll data suggested that most Greeks feel that the government and the PM underperformed this summer: 57.3% had a negative view of the way the government dealt with the fires and 56.2% believe that the PM bears some degree of responsibility. In contrast, the use of evacuations and the economic assistance provided to fire-stricken households and businesses did garner the support of most respondents.
A new surge in Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations next?
Covid-19 is another issue over which the Mitsotakis administration faces a strong test in the weeks ahead. Daily case numbers have been rising over the past few weeks, with Greece recently recording its highest ever daily total (4,608). Hospital bed occupancy has risen to around 70%. At the same time, the vaccination program went through a summer lull. As a result, just 57% of the general population has received at least one dose of vaccine, and 54.5% are fully vaccinated. The government had been aiming for around 70% of Greeks to be vaccinated by the end of the summer.
There is also a growing anti-vaccination movement in the country. Several thousand people demonstrated against the jab in Athens and Thessaloniki on 29 August. The protest in Athens resulted in clashes with the police and dozens of detentions. The government is also clashing with hospital workers' unions as any employees who have not been vaccinated by 1 September will face suspension. Recent figures suggested that around 20% of staff fall into this category, raising concerns about labor shortages in the autumn.
Health experts have warned that the number of Covid-19 cases will rise in the weeks ahead, as Greeks return from their vacations and schools reopen by mid- September. The authorities have made vaccines available to children over the age of 12 but so far less than 7% of 12 to 18-year-olds have been vaccinated.