The flag of permanent defeat
There was something impressive about Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s appearance at the Thessaloniki International Fair (TIF) last weekend. It didn’t relate to the number of companies exhibiting at the Expo or that China was the honoured country again. It didn’t have anything to do with how many promises the SYRIZA leader made or didn’t make either.
What truly stood out this year is that Tsipras took to the podium in Thessaloniki - where each September, Greek prime ministers set out their government’s economic agenda in an annual routine that is as dull as it is outdated - and told the audience that he would not devote his speech to looking back at the failings of previous governments and the problems his administration inherited.
Instead, Tsipras said he wants to look forward. It was almost as if he realised that he actually is the prime minister of Greece and has the responsibility and power to address issues that worry him.
At the end of this month (September 29, if my calculations are correct), Tsipras will become the longest-serving prime minister of the Greek crisis, serving a day longer than Antonis Samaras (951 days), almost 200 more days than George Papandreou (766) and roughly five times as long as interim premier Lucas Papademos.
It’s interesting that it has taken Tsipras all this time, almost 1,000 days, to decide that the best thing he can do is to look forward. Tsipras and his government have spent most of their time in office doing the exact opposite, wallowing in the misery created by his predecessors, raging against the lenders for their shortcomings and rummaging about in the past.
His speech at TIF, as well as the interminable press conference (another stale tradition) that followed the next day, were largely focussed on completing the next review, exiting the programme, attracting investment and enhancing growth.
This version of Tsipras (maybe we can call it type 3.0) bore no resemblance to the SYRIZA leader of 2015, a transformation that he openly accepted. “The SYRIZA that you thought existed is no more,” he told journalists.
In fact, a large part of his speech and responses to reporters’ questions could have been uttered by New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Maybe the delivery would have been more enthusiastic and the belief more obvious in Mitsotakis’s case, but the words would have been more or less the same.
Perhaps Tsipras figures that if he makes enough of Mitsotakis’s positions his own, he will stall the opposition leader’s momentum. This re-working of the triangulation politics that got Bill Clinton re-elected in 1996 is highly unlikely to deliver a victory for SYRIZA at the next elections but Tsipras is probably hoping it is enough to claw back support and keep his party relevant, possibly even a necessary part of any future government.
This would be a remarkable comeback given how backing has drained away from SYRIZA steadily since the September 2015 elections, leaving New Democracy with a double-digit lead over the leftists. However, before we get to this hypothetical situation, there is a key question that the prime minister has to answer: What is his goal now?
When SYRIZA was elected in 2015, its goals were clear: End the bailout programme, reverse austerity, tackle corruption and the lack of meritocracy in the public sector, improve the level of social justice and smash the “triangle of power” between the government, big business and the media.
Tsipras’s government has failed on each of these counts. Its six-month struggle to end the bailout ended in a third programme, the tax hikes and spending cuts have continued, there are persistent complaints about the judiciary’s independence being compromised and party appointees being given key jobs, Greece remains the most socially unjust country in the European Union and the government has tried to amplify its influence in the media, where oligarchs reign mostly, although some faces have changed.
SYRIZA’s claims of being cleaner and morally superior to its political rivals have foundered on the rocks of government and, in some cases, been sunk by the coalition’s own choices, such as appointing the father of Digital Policy Minister Nikos Pappas as the head of the Thessaloniki Urban Transport Organisation (OASTH).
SYRIZA has also provided those who took damaging decisions for Greece over decades the chance to absolve themselves of any responsibility and to push all the blame onto SYRIZA, which has been in power since January 2015. The incompetence and myopia, sometimes driven by ideology, displayed by the SYRIZA-led coalition during these nearly 1,000 days has allowed New Democracy and PASOK to associate the Greek crisis exclusively with Tsipras and to swerve awkward questions about their pasts. A chance for catharsis in Greek politics was missed.
Day by day over his time in power with the nationalist Independent Greeks (another blow to SYRIZA’s leftist credentials and aspirations of bringing a new ethos to governance in Greece), Tsipras has gradually been raising what Ernest Hemingway called the “flag of permanent defeat.” None of the main goals he set his sights on has been achieved.
The SYRIZA leader would argue that the country is now experiencing an economic recovery and that the end of the bailout is in sight. These are significant milestones but they were also visible in 2014. Greece was edging towards recovery territory then and was due to complete its programme the following year, albeit with the help of a conditional credit line and doubts about the state of the economy.
Tsipras could have sat back and let that happen. He may have still had a chance of succeeding an increasingly crabby and desperate Antonis Samaras as prime minister but he chose to strike when the vote for a new president took place in Parliament in December 2014, triggering snap elections the following month.
Investing in recovery
Even today, as he seeks to draw a line under the past, Tsipras cannot give a convincing interpretation regarding what the last 2.5 years have been about. Rather than clear this detritus of past failures out of the way, he is focussing on the nascent recovery, hoping it will bloom into something less fragile and more convincing.
The prime minister says that he wants to ensure that the economic growth which is emerging is fair for all and does not lead to a re-run of the past through the creation of bubbles and wealth ending up in the hands of the few. This is admirable enough but in political terms it is pretty thin stuff. It says very little about what kind of Greece he sees emerging from the crisis and how the country will reanimate itself after this dismal period in its modern history. From education to institutions and from innovation to investment, there is a lack of new ideas and progressive thinking.
The government’s changes to the education sector are a case in point. An opportunity to yank the university system, which is dreadfully out of sync with the job market, into the modern era was missed. In fact, critics argue that the reforms adopted by the government are a major step backward.
Tsipras and SYRIZA are often accused by critics of being interested in nothing else but remaining in office. It is true that being in government offers this once-marginal party an unexpected opportunity to pull the levers of power and a chance to form enduring alliances that could deliver political prominence for years to come. But virtually every government in the world could be condemned for being more focussed on holding on to power rather than doing something positive with it.
Instead, what Tsipras should be berated for is that it has taken him so long to realise the only way that he and the country can progress is by focussing on the future. And now that he has decided to look ahead, he should be told that he is projecting a blurry picture, not a distinct or inspiring vision. Maybe that flag of permanent defeat is flapping in his line of sight.