Does Tsipras still hold Greeks under his spell?
I spent the whole month of August and the first part of September in Athens. I was there just after the painful negotiations of Alexis Tsipras’ team in Brussels with Greece’s creditors, when he had to capitulate to a new three-year bailout agreement that would secure a further 86 billion euros, but under tough terms and constant monitoring. I was there to witness the numbness of his followers when they saw their Greek Robin Hood had not brought back food for the poor from Brussels but a cruel to-do list of reforms that would decrease their already slashed pensions and welfare benefits and increase their taxes. I also witnessed the dizziness of his followers when he announced he would go for elections – again - in order to seek a new mandate from his people. An even bigger shock followed: The decision of a large chunk from his party, almost 22 deputies and many more party members, to leave Syriza and form another party, in deep disillusion over the outcome of the Brussels deal. Especially as it came after a referendum which gave an almost 62 percent support to the Tsipras government for “not accepting” another bailout deal!
The pill was too hard to swallow. The percentage of the party support fell to a mere 33 percent while the dissidents - several ministers of Tsipras’ government as well as the overpowering lady-speaker of the parliament, under an old time leftist, Panayiotis Lafazanis - used a powerful rhetoric to attack Tsipras for betrayal of their principles, even for treason! And as if all that was not enough, an unlikely strong rival replaced the lackluster Antonis Samaras in the leadership of the main opposition center-right New Democracy party. Evangelos Meimarakis, a former speaker of the parliament and several times minister, who was appointed as a “temporary” leader after Samaras’ resignation, emerged as a charismatic opponent with a “people’s touch” who managed quickly to secure almost 85 percent support of the party’s voters.
By the end of the first week of September, a close associate of Tsipras’ confided to me: “We have a problem.” The polls were showing New Democracy edging ahead, while there was no enthusiasm among Syriza supporters and the percentage of undecided votes was high. Plus, support for small parties was rising, among which were the fascist Golden Dawn and the freak one-person party of the Centrists.
The reversal of fate started to show during the last week. Tsipras campaigned on the ticket of “let us get rid of the old corrupt political class” and “build a new, fairer Greece, even under a bailout program,” and managed to heal his wounds and recover some of his losses (to what extent we will see). My friend sent me a message: “I reckon we will be around 30 to 32 percent and New Democracy below 32 [percent].”
Those were elections that were done under capital controls, under great speed and pressure. Greece needs to take immediate measures to secure a positive evaluation by the creditors so that money can start coming. Tsipras wanted a renewed mandate to be able to impose a new austerity program about which the electorate knew very little, as it was not explained during the campaign. This was similar to “American style” elections, where the emphasis was on the personalities of the leaders rather than on policies. But they all knew there was only one policy and the program was agreed to and signed in Brussels. If neither Syriza nor any other party secures an absolute majority – most likely – the country will go through the process of a coalition government of two or three parties. Cohabitation may not be easy.
The austerity program will unavoidably create further social frustration and deepen the crisis before any positive impact on the economy. And if Tsipras heads the government again, then he will perhaps be confronted with a much more serious ideological challenge before his voters if he cannot rule with skill, fairness, organization and planning that can provide real benefits to a psychologically and financially exhausted society.