international analysis and commentary

Greece: a creditor’s dream come true


Alexis Tsipras won a second mandate. His call for an early election just months after taking office, and after the perilous conclusion of the talks with the European Union, resulted in an astonishing victory, perhaps beyond expectation.

There are two main explanations for that. Regarding the main opposition party, New Democracy, the past apparently still holds sway in voters’ choice. This means that even if Tsipras failed to deliver on his promises, going back to a New Democracy administration is still a very unwelcome alternative for most Greeks. Tsipras, rather, seems to enjoy enormous personal popularity. Even his failure in the negotiations is interpreted by some voters as a noble defeat, in a battle where a young politician fought bravely but ultimately lost to superior powers.

The fact that this happened due to false political assumptions made by SYRIZA is downplayed. Also, because the reform program has already been agreed upon by both parties (New Democracy and SYRIZA), there was really nothing to be decided upon in the elections. In essence, voters simply had to choose who would implement the program, and Tsipras is far more agreeable in that respect. The focus on the personality of the leader, and the argument that this is a battle between “new and old,” all served his purposes well.

Meanwhile, his former “Left Platform” allies, who participated in the elections as Popular Unity, failed to reach the 3% threshold that would allow them a parliamentary representation.

In reality Greek voters have become convinced that there is no alternative to austerity. A return to a national currency was disparaged, capital controls scared the Greek public, and those who supposedly believed in it shied away from the public eye. They kept silent, at a time when there was political space for someone to propose an instant, confident and convincing Plan B. Thus, the result of this political void was that SYRIZA, which ironically started its path by using anti-austerity slogans, ended up crashing any possible objection to these same policies. Its very own capitulation proved beyond a doubt that “there is no alternative”. It did not help that the “Left Platform” politicians only withdrew their support after the elections had been announced, in practice defying SYRIZA’s U-turn only when their jobs were threatened.

This leaves us with the following facts: the SYRIZA government had to rush to elections in order to secure a longer stay in power without the burden of the party’s dissidents (Varoufakis & Co.), and before the agreed measures had the time to show their grim face to voters. In other words, rather than fighting austerity measures, the Tsipras administration first agreed to them and is now in a hurry to secure its position at the helm before the real effects are properly understood. So far this has been the winning formula.

The argument can certainly be made that we live in a post-democratic reality, where it is commonplace for democratic procedures to be taken over by bureaucrats. It is not just the British newspaper The Guardian saying that the new Prime Minister “will not, in any meaningful sense, be running the country.” We have an abundance of official statements clarifying that elections cannot overrule the agreed-upon program: the only thing to be truly decided was who would be appointed to execute it. But this is of no consequence for a large portion of the voters, who are gravely disappointed and want to make it known, either by abstention or by a jocular protest vote to the Union of Centrists (which gained 9 seats).

Vasilis Leventis, leader of the Union of Centrists, is a natural product of the present situation. He has been the laughing stock of Greek television for decades now. But if elections are officially irrelevant, why not then make the bold move of sending the funny guy to parliament, and have a good laugh allowing Leventis to embody the impasse of the system?

It should not come as a surprise then that the level of abstention reached almost half of the voting population. The numbers are telling: 750,000 more people failed to vote this time around in comparison with the January elections. Furthermore, during the latest campaign no promises were made. It is quite common to say that too many promises are a symptom of the populist side of elections. It is also a matter of deeper significance, though. If politics is about changing the world, as well as about running the world, promises preserve the hope that the world can be a better place. At least it must be taken for granted that if there is anything reminiscent of “leftist politics” in particular, it must be the idea that politics is a fight for social justice and change. That still holds true, even if we take into account all the populist, misleading, unethical uses of hope.

The fact that in these elections all parties had to do away with promises shows that there is not much left of politics. SYRIZA was first elected on the promise of “hope”, whilst the campaign ad of these elections only stated that “We vote for the Prime Minister”: the “who” fully substituted the disregarded “what”. This marks the end of the party’s political role; at least the role that the European left and many opinion makers seem to have optimistically assigned to it.

The experience of the last few years gives us a fairly reasonable insight into the future. Pro-austerity parties either dissolve or seriously decline, and voters move on to the next politician who promises to end austerity: that is Greece’s path so far. Anti-austerity rhetoric, when its purveyors are brought to power, is soon replaced by pragmatism and considerable scaremongering, with a subsequent loss of political capital. This has been the case with Papandreou, Samaras, and (alas) Tsipras – minus the last part, the loss of political capital, which hasn’t happened yet.

On the basis of this experience, we may deduce that ANEL, the right-wing nationalist party which is SYRIZA’s coalition sparring partner with its 10 seats, will evaporate sooner or later. Until now it has been the first small political party to vote for a bailout program and survive the elections, possibly because it is too early.

Chances are that in the long run it will follow the fate of LAOS (right wing) and DIMAR (once a part of SYRIZA): that is, their raison d’être is anti-austerity policy, so once they put their signature on a bailout agreement, they vanish. Major political parties have more or less the same fate. What it means for PASOK, the socialist party which mostly marked country’s political culture, to fall from a (now unimaginable even for winners) 44% at the beginning of the crisis to today’s 6.3% in alliance with DIMAR cannot be emphasized enough to a non-Greek.

There again, New Democracy could not hold on to power, so they made sure, last year, they would let the bomb explode in SYRIZA’s hands. We can only expect the same fate for SYRIZA now. To the extent that this has not happened yet, all we can do is wait. If we are wrong in this prediction, Tsipras’ government will end up erasing the anti-austerity policies. But this seems very unlikely.

The deal that the Prime Minister is supposed to implement is simply impossible. Greece will have a period of apparent stability, as the government tries to impose the measures to which it agreed, and this will fail, as many of the impartial commentators (that is, those who can state their opinion without fear of causing political turmoil) predict. At that point, things will have more to do with society’s ability to undergo even harsher austerity, than with communication strategies.

Things will get more interesting after that. This state of affairs cannot last for more than a year or two, and then the country will wonder again: why would a democratic society agree to what looks like its own demolition? Since there are not many parties left to implement these policies, that will be the point where things become impossible to predict.