2016: A watershed year for Tsipras

2016: A watershed year for Tsipras

If the beginning of 2015 was a time when “hope came to Greece,” the beginning of this year may be the time in which “hope has gone.”

The boost of optimism the leftist Syriza party inspired in an exhausted society after years of sustained recession and two bail-out agreements was like a breath of fresh air. Its new political rhetoric sounded different; it was people-oriented, caring for the poor, promising a fairer wealth distribution, a war on corruption and even a clash with the country’s creditors - the eurozone, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Central Bank. 

Under the strong leadership of a young and untested Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, many Greeks were convinced the time had come for a “make or break” attitude with Europe. They believed that Greece’s position inside the eurozone was institutionally secure, so that nobody would take the risk of causing a blow to the zone of the euro by putting one of its full members out of the door. 

Having Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, an anti-austerity advocate and “libertarian Marxist” (his own words), as his main economic advisor, Tsipras tried to play it hard, hoping to avoid a new austerity program. 

After five months of battling with his country’s creditors and with the state coffers looking emptier by the day as money was not coming from Brussels, Tsipras took a political risk by resorting to a surprise June referendum on a new austerity package proposed by his creditors. He positioned himself against the package, calling on the people to approve his stance. The people gave him 62 percent support in the referendum on July 6, 2015, to help his negotiating position in Brussels.  

One week later, it took a tough, 17-hour session between the Greek team and Greece’s creditors to kill all Greek expectations by using the very card that Greece thought was safe: Its participation in the eurozone.

The battle was lost; Tsipras accepted a new austerity agreement and justified his defeat as “taking responsibility for the decision in order to prevent the realization of the most extreme pursuits of the most conservative circles in Europe.” A large number of Syriza deputies abandoned the party in protest; the new bail-out package with even stricter clauses was approved in parliament. Tsipras risked a new early poll in September 2015 with the slogan “second time left” and, against all odds, secured a second victory by promising this latest bail-out agreement would be the last. 

The rest of the story has been a continuous battle for political survival for the Syriza-led government; a struggle to secure the parliamentary approval for tough reforms against an increasingly aggressive opposition who fight for an “all party new government” and an even bigger struggle for Tsipras to sustain the approval of his people.

But the Greek society of January 2016 is not the one of a year ago. The first 2016 social survey showed a deeply disappointed and depressed society towards politics with low expectations for the new year. While some 70 percent stated 2015 was “a year of hope but also of disappointment,” more than 50 percent thought “things will get worse” in 2016. What is interesting is that one in two of the respondents believe the Syriza-led government will not survive and a new government will have to be chosen by parliament. 

“In 2016, a new page is opening for the country and the target to liberate Greece from the noose of supervision [by creditors]. We are defending the weak, however this does not mean that the road will be easy,” said Tsipras, in an article in the pro-government newspaper Avgi. He also wrote that the first months of this year will be the beginning of a new period for the economy and society, “but also for Europe, as the reinforcement of powers that fight against austerity creates the basis for a big political change.” 

It is obvious Tsipras looks at the electoral rise of Podemos as a new source of hope for his disillusioned society.

But it may be difficult to convince them this time because the following three months will see a series of the toughest reforms to date going through the Greek parliament, including that of lowering the minimum pension. Greece’s creditors demanded this before they can give their final approval to the financial package.

Will the Tsipras phenomenon last the year? Or even the first few months of 2016? It is difficult to predict.