On the road to realpolitik with Alexis Tsipras at the wheel

Agora Contributor: Nick Malkoutzis

In July 2014, Alexis Tsipras took part in a demonstration against the Israeli bombing of the Gaza strip and, wearing a Palestinian keffiyeh, spoke to TV cameras about the “brutality” being inflicted on civilians. Last week, he stood next to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem and talked up the prospects of Greece and Israel working together, particularly in the energy sector.

Of course, there is no reason that a leader cannot object to a country’s military action but also acknowledge the diplomatic necessity of maintaining orderly relations with the same state. Welcome to realpolitik, as uncomfortable as it may be. However, the shift in Tsipras’s stance on Israel is symptomatic of a politician who is showing an ability to veer one way and then the next within the blink of an eye.

SYRIZA has traditionally had a strong pro-Palestinian stance and it was expected several months ago that Greek Parliament would recognise Palestine as a state. This vote, though, has not yet taken place. Instead, the Greek government has begun to use “Palestine” rather than “Palestinian Authority” in its official comments. Even this, though, did not prevent Tsipras from referring to Jerusalem as the Israeli capital during his visit there, despite the fact that many European countries avoid using this term due to the nature of the dispute over the city between the Israelis and Palestinians.

This meandering between positions is not exclusive to foreign policy. After all, Tsipras is the politician who pledged never to sign a new bailout only to do exactly that. He is the prime minister who asked for a “no” vote in the July referendum but turned it into a “yes” a few days later. He is the party leader who campaigned under the slogan “no homes in the hands of bankers” and then agreed to remove much of the protection against foreclosures in place for homeowners.

Now, Tsipras – who eschewed any government offer to find common ground while in opposition – has appealed to rival parties for consensus. This latest volte face has been prompted by the brutal reality of governing. Tsipras’s coalition lost two MPs in the recent vote on bailout measures and, just two months into his latest stint as prime minister, is down to 153 out 300 seats in Parliament. The SYRIZA leader may be relatively new to the job but he already has enough experience, thanks to the frenetic January–August period, to appreciate that this slim majority is unlikely to be enough to ensure that the government survives a vote on pension reforms and other unpleasant measures in the weeks to come.

There is no doubt that Tsipras emerged stronger from his election win of September 20, not just because he dragged his party almost single-handedly to victory but also because the MPs who rebelled against him failed to win enough votes to enter Parliament. If a new faction – like Panayiotis Lafazanis’s Left Platform – emerges within SYRIZA, then

Tsipras could potentially deter such dissenters by pointing to the political wilderness were the previous rebels now find themselves.

However, the problem that Tsipras has this time around is that the margins are so tight (and the opposition in such an uncooperative mood) that it will not take a mass rebellion to destabilise or even bring down his government. Instead, all it needs are a few individual MPs acting out of personal ambition or lack of belief in government policy to stop Tsipras in his tracks.

It appears, for instance, that Independent Greeks (ANEL) lawmaker Nikos Nikolopoulos, who voted against the latest set of measures, decided he was prepared to sever ties with the government as soon as he was left out of the cabinet. Nikolopoulos’s repeated warnings that he would refuse to toe the coalition line failed to move Tsipras or his coalition partner and Independent Greeks leader Panos Kammenos, eventually leading to him being ousted from ANEL but refusing to give up his parliamentary seat.

In contrast, one of Tsipras’s closest aides in recent years, Gavriil Sakellaridis, walked away after decided he could no longer support the measures the government has to implement as part of its bailout agreement. The reduction in protection for indebted homeowners was a bridge too far for the young economist. Although he returned his seat to SYRIZA, meaning the coalition majority was not trimmed any further, Sakellaridis’s departure highlighted how Tsipras may appear omnipotent after winning a series of elections since last year but at the same time be extremely vulnerable: after all, if someone so close to the prime minister loses his will to remain on board, what is stopping those who are less closely connected to Tsipras from going the same way?

This is why the premier is now exploring the option of consensus and finds himself sounding out the parties he identified not so long ago as being part of the “corrupt establishment”. Tsipras realises that he may soon need an injection of votes from some of these parties if he is to stay in power. PASOK and Potami seem the most likely to be prepared to discuss a deal given New Democracy’s parlous state after its failed attempt to hold a leadership election but the wildcard of the Union of Centrists and its chimerical leader Vassilis Leventis cannot be discounted.

However, after making sharp turns at high speed and losing some of his passengers along the way, will anyone else be willing to climb aboard the bus while Tsipras is at the wheel?

Of course, the SYRIZA leader may just be looking to lure the opposition into discussions so that he can spread the blame for the next set of measures and avoid being exclusively on the receiving end of the backlash that the pension reforms in particular are likely to bring. That was certainly the impression that the opposition parties had about Saturday’s failed meeting of political leaders. After the zig-zagging of the previous months, nothing can be ruled out in Tsipras’s case.

*Nick Malkoutzis is the editor of MacroPolis. You can follow him on Twitter: @NickMalkoutzis

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