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Why Greek PM's job is safe for now

Police can protect the parliament building but votes can still topple the  PM
Police can protect the parliament building but voters can still topple the PM

By Malcolm Brabant
BBC News, Athens

Greece's embattled Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis looks set to survive the crisis caused by the death of 15-year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos, just so long as he can maintain discipline among his MPs.

Despite calls by protesters, trades unionists and the main socialist opposition leader, George Papandreou, for the government's resignation and new elections, the only way to force Mr Karamanlis from his Megaro Maximou residence is a vote of no confidence in parliament.

There is no doubt that Mr Karamanlis's credibility has been badly damaged by Greece's worst violence in 40 years, but as long as he can repel socialist efforts to seduce potential rebels, he can continue to limp on, in power.

The ruling conservatives possess 151 of 300 seats in the republic's parliament, a primrose-coloured former royal palace at the top of Syntagma (Constitution) Square.

If two dissidents jump ship then Mr Karamanlis is finished.

But that would be like turkeys voting for Christmas, because the opinion polls suggest that many conservative MPs will be joining the unemployed at the next general election.

A person walks past a damaged bank in Athens
Banks and shops were damaged during the days of rioting

Wednesday's general strike may have inconvenienced Athenian commuters and provided some dramatic television footage of riot policemen defending themselves against volleys of stones and petrol bombs.

But the size of the rallies in Syntagma was embarrassingly small for the trades unions.

If the square had been packed with hundreds of thousands of angry citizens from a cross-section of Greek society, then the government might be looking decidedly wobbly.

More telling was the sight of the dawn rush hour, full of private sector employees trying to get to work before public transport shut down and police buses sealed off the thoroughfares.

Revolution? No thanks! Too busy trying to earn a living in a difficult economic climate!

Compensation offer

By the time the general strike protest fizzled out, Mr Karamanlis went on television to ease the burden of the victims of the riots, the entrepreneurial class and their staff.

The Athens Traders Association has estimated the damage will cost 1bn euros to replace.

Mr Karamanlis said that small and medium businesses would be eligible for an immediate financial payment of 10,000 euros.

Larger companies could get up to 200,000 euros in damage relief.

Employees laid off temporarily because of the damage will have their salaries and Christmas bonuses guaranteed.

Dishing out compensation is a magic trick Mr Karamanlis has performed before.

Just before the last general election, he promised cash handouts to victims of the dreadful fires which swept across Greece, wiping out vast swathes of forest and agricultural land.

This apparent generosity enabled Mr Karamanlis to squeak home in the election with a much reduced majority.

A young woman is arrested during the protests in Athens

Since then the government has attempted to reclaim money from hundreds of recipients who could not prove that they had suffered losses.

Despite the fact that his reputation has been tarnished, and they dislike his party, many Greeks believe Mr Karamanlis has better leadership qualities than his chief rival George Papandreou.

Both come from Greek political dynasties.

Mr Karamanlis' uncle, Constantine, was the statesman in 1974 who guided Greece back to democracy after the collapse of the Colonels' regime, and negotiated the country's membership of the European Union.

Mr Papandreou is the son of Andreas Papandreou, a charismatic socialist prime minister who delighted in being the enfant terrible of European politics.

He is desperate to be prime minister, but his ambition looks like being put on ice.

Political strategy

Mr Karamanlis appears to have won the high-stakes game of political poker. His inner cabinet advocated calm and ruled out panic measures such as a state of emergency.

"That would have been tantamount to hauling up the white flag," said one government insider.

Mr Karamanlis may still be in charge, but for the remainder of his term "he is not going to be able to achieve anything of substance", said one political analyst.

This is a country where history is as important as the future.

And history, as it stands so far, is likely to judge Mr Karamanlis as a disappointment.

After years of socialist inertia and nepotism, New Democracy swept to power with a landslide victory in 2004.

Mr Karamanlis promised to tackle corruption, make Greece a meritocracy and enable business to flourish.

Money talks

Four years on, his government has been knee-capped by corruption scandals reaching cabinet level and business is still shackled by mind-numbing bureaucracy.

As for the concept of Greece becoming a meritocracy?

That is a joke in poor taste.

This is still a country where money and influence talk.

It is who you know, not what you know.

And the proof of that has been on the streets this week.

Unless Daddy knows someone or can pull in a favour, many graduates with good degrees know that the best they can aspire to is an unrewarding job paying a minimum wage of around 600 euros a month.

The irony is that it was young people who believed in Mr Karamanlis and gave him his big chance in 2004.

Through his failure to implement his much-vaunted manifesto, it is the young people that Mr Karamanlis has let down.

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