Tsipras and the binary opposition

Agora Contributor: Nick Malkoutzis
Photo by Myrto Papadopoulos [www.myrtopapadopoulos.com]
Photo by Myrto Papadopoulos [www.myrtopapadopoulos.com]

The morning after July’s referendum win was a bittersweet moment for Alexis Tsipras. It dawned on him that he had an overwhelming mandate not to accept new, onerous bailout terms but, at the same time, that he could not risk Greece’s position in the euro. Fulfilling both desires would require a gold medal-winning balancing act on the political high beam.

Tsipras has so far executed this routine with aplomb and this has allowed him to savour the more appealing side of his referendum victory, which is that it forced his main political rivals to lose their balance and tumble to embarrassing defeats. The resignation of New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras hours after the referendum result was announced underlined Tsipras’s political dominance at a domestic level: He had, over the course of a few years, seen off political heavyweights such as Samaras and PASOK’s Evangelos Venizelos (who resigned before the plebiscite), while keeping in check the rise of new challengers such as former journalist and Potami frontman Stavros Theodorakis.

New Democracy, Potami and PASOK combined forces to convince Greeks to vote “Yes” on July 5 but despite having the support of the country’s mainstream media and key European officials, they only managed to convince some 38 percent of Greeks to back the bailout. When one considers the stern warnings regarding the fate that awaited Greece in case of a “No” vote, last month’s result can only be seen as a colossal failure for the country’s political establishment.

The fact that the three opposition parties supported the “Yes” campaign but at the same time did not want it to be directly associated with them for fear that it would put voters off tells you all you need to know about why their efforts failed. Over the course of the last five years, a large part of the Greek public has gradually distanced itself from the country’s media and the politicians that have governed it in recent decades. Their word no longer carries value and their ideas hold little sway.

The European Parliament elections of May 2014 marked a watershed in this respect as it was the first time that a party other than New Democracy or PASOK had won a vote in Greece since the end of the military dictatorship in 1974. It was as if a generation of Greeks had cut the umbilical cord tying them to these two parties and started to imagine life without their political guardians. By January 2015, Greeks were ready to elect as their prime minister someone who had not been the son, grandson, nephew, cousin or other descendant of a previous leader or political grandee.

This is one of the reasons that many Greeks seem willing to be patient with Tsipras. They are unlikely to forgive him for his numerous grave mistakes since January, especially once they start feeling the full force of these errors, but they are prepared to stick with him at least a little longer in the hope that he grows into his role. In their eyes, there is no convincing alternative.

Samaras’s leadership of New Democracy proved damaging for the party. He undoubtedly paid the price of having to follow tough fiscal policies. But he failed to keep hope alive among reform-minded Greeks by continuing to feed cronyism and vested interests. Also, his flirtation with the extreme right through the initial handling of Golden Dawn and hardline positions on immigration and citizenship alienated many Greeks who position themselves in the political centre.

His successor, 61-year-old career politician Evangelos Meimarakis, has made a point of saying he will renew the party’s appeal to the centre-right. Although the rough and ready Meimarakis is less divisive and abrasive as his predecessor, he seems a figure more suitable to keeping the party’s MPs and grassroots united rather than launching the conservatives forward into a new era. His everyman qualities have been vital in defusing the tension in Parliament at such a fraught time but he lacks the political stardust to rival Tsipras.

PASOK leader Fofi Gennimata also gives the impression of keeping the seat warm until someone with less baggage and more charisma can step forward to take on the formidable task of reviving Greece’s centre-left, which has been locked in a five-year death spiral. Like Meimarakis, Gennimata’s inoffensiveness and calmness has been a stabilising factor over the past few weeks but pushing PASOK on from this low point will require more drive and vision than has been on view during her long political career, which has included stints in local government and various ministries. Cooperation with the forgotten man of Greek politics, George Papandreou, and Democratic Left (DIMAR), a political apparition that just a few years ago was the great hope of the centre-left in Greece, hardly seems the path to regeneration.

The fact that Potami and its leader, Theodorakis, enjoyed a sudden rise in the months after coming onto the political scene last year but have plateaued since entering Parliament in January underlines just how difficult it is to energise the electorate.

Popular Unity

Ex-Energy Minister Panayiotis Lafazanis and the other SYRIZA rebels that formed the anti-bailout Popular Unity last week believe that they can tap into the furious energy of the 61.3 percent of the electorate who voted “No” in the July referendum. Lafazanis and his colleagues have always been prone to utopian dreams and it seems they have bought into another illusion by treating the “No” vote as being the product of a homogeneous group even though all the analysis shows that at least half of those ballots came from Greeks who want to remain in the euro.

Lafazanis can certainly capitalise on the anger brewing among leftist voters and his flirtation with a return to the drachma will be sweet music to many exasperated Greeks. However, it is unlikely that this is enough support to make Popular Unity anything more than a protest party, at least for the time being. There is fertile ground in Greece for those bearing an anti-bailout/pro-drachma/nationalist message but it is doubtful that Lafazanis is the political entrepreneur who can cultivate it. The message and style of his party, whose name is a translation of Salvador Allende’s Unidad Popular, is too backward-looking to sweep up the Greek public.

In contrast, the problem for the mainstream opposition parties is that Tsipras has left little political ground for them to claim. By signing the third bailout he has made it more difficult for New Democracy, PASOK and Potami to argue that they would offer anything different to the current government given that they also supported the agreement. They cannot claim to be more European or reformist than SYRIZA, as they did ahead of the July 5 referendum, because the new programme defines the contours of Greece’s relationship with the eurozone and its reform policies for the next three years at least.

Instead, Tsipras can argue that his party, which is not a product of the political mainstream, has clean hands and is in a better position than the others to tackle chronic problems such as corruption, tax evasion and social inequality. This is why in the days running up to the snap elections (likely on September 20) the opposition parties, rather than Tsipras, will be the ones having to display their flexibility and poise.

*An earlier version of this article appeard in our August 21 e-newsletter, which is available to subscribers. You can follow Nick on Twitter: @NickMalkoutzis.

5 Comment(s)

  • Posted by: Diran Majarian, Amalia Tankers Inc.

    Seems to me rather foolish and short sighted to leave out Golden Dawn for any serious analysis given that it is third largest party in Greece and also has three seats in Brussels.

    Like or not, you are going to have to accept Golden Dawn as perhaps the most revolutionary force in Greece politics since inception of the 3rd Greek democracy and perhaps the only party capable of picking up the pieces in the current crisis.

    Historically this has been the end result in all previous Greek bankruptcies and there is no reason to believe any different today. Even more so, do the abject leadership failure of the present political class.

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  • Posted by: Dean Plassaras

    t is said that Napoleon called the English a nation of shopkeepers. He obviously meant that as an insult, seeing shopkeepers as people of limited imagination, ambition and wit. There is some truth to the saying about the English, although George Orwell was enraged at the trivialization of their achievements. To the extent to which the English were suspicious of the wholesomeness and usefulness of French and particularly German philosophy, Napoleon was right. But if he was, then Hitler achieved something extraordinary: He made all of Europe into nations of shopkeepers.
    After the war, the obsession of Europeans was to live. Then it was to make a living. Napoleon's insult was that there was more to life than simply making a living. What Hitler achieved was what he would have been appalled by: shopkeepers ruling Europe. But Europe is obsessed with making a living and suspicious of profound thinking. It has seen where that got it and it doesn't intend to go there again. The best minds get MBAs. The broad public sleeps late on Sunday. The train wreck that Hitler made of Europe created a secularism not only in relation to Christianity, but in all attempts to recreate the depth of European culture.


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  • Posted by: Dean Plassaras

    Look guys, let's try to put it all together because we are losing the plot here regarding the anxiety of who will govern next in Greece.

    It used to be a time that a Greek political party would take over governance via elections for roughly a 2-4 year period and then pass on the mess created as a liability for the next (successor) party. This for years was the political ping-pong played between ND and Pasok as we knew it in Greek politics.

    This is no longer the case because of the Troika or Quadriga's presence. In essence (and despite the deep injustice of the whole set up) the government which will take over Greece in 2-4 years from now is guaranteed to have a much better managed economy and a platform to claim future success. Therefore the old model of passing along your mess and poison the well for the successor party does not exist in Greek politics anymore (for as long as Quadriga's supervision of Greece is on - which for purposes of this analysis let's assume it will be for a long time).

    The upside of this new Greek political reality is that, at tremendous social and political cost, a sort of financial equilibrium has been achieved. The downside of this new reality is that you don't want to be the party that implements this austerity model because a.) basically you no longer govern w/ Quadriga breathing down your neck and b.) the damage to your name and reputation would be great and impossible to either ignore or absorb.

    Taking all of the above into account the bottom line is that you should avoid (punt at) being the governing party in Greece at this particular point in time because your damages/losses would be far greater than imagined. Therefore (and let's invoke Game Theory terms) the whole strategy and tactics must ensure how this burden of "high wear and tear governance" mode is taken over by (more likely forced upon) your opposition.

    Therefore it's quite clear that Tsipras' best choice is to allow ND to win the next parliamentary election

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  • Posted by: Dean Plassaras

    The best move for Tsipras at this point is to leave the implementation of the horrible 3rd MOU to ND and other lightheaded Yes Greek political parties. History has shown that once you collaborate with Berlin you are history.

    Therefore the best thing for Tsipras is to allow ND to be crushed for good by Berlin under the weight of impossible implementation terms.

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  • Posted by: GC

    So, essentially, Tsipras is winning the hearts of the left by having called the referendum and leaving little ground to mainstream parties (the same mainstream parties, whose stern warnings about the referendum essentially came to pass) by having trashed the referendum results and accepted the third bailout. Then another party is being punished by its flirtatious acts with the far right, notwithstanding Tsipras actually governing with a pretty right wing nationalist parties.

    Sorry, but the Greek people sound really schizophrenic here and how a plurality might still consider Tsipras to lead anything after the referendum fiasco is beyond me.

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