Over the past couple of years the spotlight has been shining over Alexis Tsipras, the leader of the Greek opposition radical left party ‘SYRIZA’. Media and political analysts across Europe have either been raving about his political charisma, presenting him as Europe’s new champion against austerity, or painting him as the Eurozone’s biggest threat.
SYRIZA’s rise – meteoric yes, unexpected no
But how can one explain the rise of the radical left in Greece when just a few years ago, ‘SYRIZA’ only received 6 per cent of the votes?
One doesn’t need to look very far – the crisis and its enormous impact on the Greek population is the very simple and obvious reason. With an unemployment rate around 30 per cent (50 per cent for young people) and wages across private and public sectors plummeting, the most effective political rhetoric is one damning the austerity paradigm.
In his programme for economic recovery, the “Thessaloniki plan”, named after Greece’s second largest city and a former industrial centre, Alexis Tsipras’ promises include raising the minimum wage and halting the laying off of public servants. This of course sounded like music to the ears of the millions of Greeks who had been enjoying the security of working for Europe’s most overinflated public administration. To be specific, in Greece, if one wants to rise to the top of the political pyramid, one needs the support of the public administration. Otherwise, not only is election less likely in the first place, in the event one manages to do so, it will be almost impossible to gather sufficient support from the administration to deliver quality work. The latter is exactly what happened in 2004 after the election of the centre-right ‘New Democracy’ party. The administration was unofficially affiliated with the centre-left ‘PASOK’ party, who had been in power for over 10 years. A significant number of administrators refused to work with newly elected ‘New Democracy’ Ministers, hiding documents and refusing to share information. In addition to increasing levels of dysfunction within the public sector, the refusal of part of the existing staff to work with the new government had led to an explosion in the size of the administration. Nepotism aside, to combat the old guard’s refusal to work with the new guard, ‘New Democracy’ Ministers simply just hired more staff, making the existing bubble even bigger.
Another reason for Tsipras’ rise has been the political vacuum in Greece’s centre-left. At the moment, 3 political parties, ‘To Potami’ (The River), ‘To Kinima’ (The Movement) and ‘PASOK’ (Socialist Party) have been bickering over who better represents “socialist” ideas. The lack of a unified social-democratic party with a programme differentiating itself from ‘New Democracy’s’ “pro-Europe, pro-austerity” stance or SYRIZA’s “anti-austerity” posture encourages many voters’ to flirt with ‘SYRIZA’. That has been especially the case for older generations who worshiped former PASOK Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou, and who Alexis Tsipras’ has modelled his communications style on.
Alexis Tsipras has been careful to model himself on Papandreou, and in doing so has developed a campaigning style that is informal, ‘close to the people’ and one that strongly appeals to Greece’s 1980’s ‘PASOK’ generation
In any case, “στους δυο τρίτος δεν χωρεί” (in two there cannot be a third), proclaims a Greek saying. Historically, from the eternal North/South Thessaloniki-Athens divide, the Civil War in the late 1940’s, to the military junta in the late 1960’s, and even to football, Greeks have always been polarised. In this election, Greek politicians are capitalising on that polarisation, and campaigning on the very explosive question “Are you pro or against Europe (interchangeable with austerity)?”
The ‘day after’ – The impact of a Tsipras U-turn
Regarding the current “pro or against Europe” dilemma, the ‘day after’ the elections will be critical. In the event ‘New Democracy’ wins (it seems unlikely at the moment according to polls), Tsipras will remain in opposition and continue to play on his “charisma” in order to further develop his image of Europe’s messiah. However, if he is called to form a government on the 26th January 2015, things may prove a bit trickier.
First, it is not yet clear whether or not he will make a U-turn and put forward a more moderate stance on the renegotiation of Greece’s debt and austerity package, as he has indicated in his latest interviews. Depending on which parties he decides to form a coalition with, his room for maneuver may be limited. There is no way he can introduce structural reforms and maintain a productive relationship with the Troika of the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission, if his government coalition partners include the ‘KKE’- Greece’s communist party. On the other hand, if he decides to align with the right-wing, anti-austerity ‘ Independent Greeks’ party, he will receive intense criticism from within his own party, as the two parties do not align on a number of core social issues, such as the division of the State and the Church.
Second, in the event Tsipras manages to form a government with more moderate partners such as the ‘Democratic Left’ or ‘The River’, it’s crucial to keep in mind that Tsipras is not ‘SYRIZA’’s “absolute monarch.” ‘SYRIZA’ is in fact a coalition of small left wing parties, some of which have significantly more radical opinions than Tsipras on issues of national interest such as the debt negotiations. This means that, even in power, Tsipras is at risk of being derailed by his own party.
In any event, the day after will therefore by no means signify the end of Greece’s political instability. In his effort to appeal to Greek voters and the Troika, Tsipras may jeopardise his appeal to his own party. Given the existing fragile balance of power, forming a stable government seems more like wishful thinking over a possible reality. There is a very high chance that following the January elections, Tsipras will fail to please all his partners, and a second round of elections will become inevitable. Two elections in two months – that’s a guaranteed way to put stress on financial markets and for Greece to lose its international partners’ “unconditional’ trust. This would result in decreased bargaining power for Greece during the negotiations on the financial assistance package (for more on the elections’ impact Greek-EU relations take a look at Claire Bravard’s post from yesterday on GREXIT- BRACING EUROPE FOR A SECOND ROUND).
So no matter what happens on Sunday, this is not the end of the tunnel. In trying to please everybody, Tsipras’ likely U-turn may cost him power, and see a return to the polls within weeks. As we all know; the road to hell is paved with multiple elections.