Greece Letter: ‘Mr Teflon’ Alex Tsipras may yet stay in power
Despite debt talks reversals, weak opposition may wind up propelling Syriza back to power
A banner of Alexis Tsipras hangs over Syriza’s pre-election kiosk in Athens. The banner reads: ‘We are winning tomorrow’. Photograph: Reuters
Speculation on the outcome of the September 20th election focuses on whether Alexis Tsipras will be able to form a coalition government.
Polls show New Democracy closing the gap but, despite Tsipras’s mishandling of the bailout negotiations (which he himself admits), he seems to be on target to bring in Syriza as the largest party.
Tsipras has been called “Mr Teflon” (does that ring bells in Ireland?). Syriza brought a prospect of change, based on honesty and self-assurance, to a political system that was intellectually and morally bankrupt.
In the opinion of many, Tsipras betrayed his own beliefs and election pledges, and thereby betrayed Greece. Yet that youthful innocence continues to win support.
And there is little viable opposition. By obliging the other major parties to subscribe to the bailout, Tsipras has in effect ruled out any challenge to his supremacy. This, in itself, suggests that, however inexperienced he is in government and external affairs, he is an adroit manipulator in the committee room.
Secondly, there is no credible party leader to stand against him. New Democracy has only a caretaker; Pasok’s new leader, Fofi Gennamata, has yet to make her mark; and the leader of the fascists is in jail awaiting trial for murder. The far-left section of Syriza has broken away to form a new party, Popular Unity, but may or may not receive enough of the popular vote to give it parliamentary seats.
Nevertheless, a Tsipras victory gives rise to the question: what is the status of Syriza, after the massive defection to Popular Unity?
A party which was elected in January with a mandate to renegotiate (and rescind) the bailout has failed to do so, and Popular Unity now represents those who, unlike Tsipras, stick to their promises.
The election is a major gamble on Tsipras’s part that people will actually believe him.
It has been argued that Greeks make a virtue of victimisation. That’s unfair. The origins of Greece’s misfortunes, including its indebtedness, can be traced to its emergence in 1821 as the plaything of the Great Powers, and that’s where it remains.
A small, under-industrialised, localised society in the Balkans can never be other than marginal. Its tragedy has been the failure of those Great Powers to recognise the strengths of the Greek character and to put it to good use.
Yanis Varoufakis, the former finance minister, said recently: “We are the blacks of Europe, together with the Irish.” He no doubt knows that 150 years ago the British called the Greeks “the Irish of the Mediterranean”. It wasn’t meant kindly.
When Greece (with EU encouragement) falsified its statistics, the country was vilified. But when we discovered that the unsustainability of Greece’s national debt (and the need for debt relief) had been hidden by the IMF and European politicians and bureaucrats, nobody shouted “shame!”
To wit, it makes no sense to lend money to a debtor simply to make the repayments on previous debt interest. Yet that is what the biggest proportion of the latest bailout is concerned with.
There is a residual problem, which is in fact at the core of a Greek renaissance, which German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble used (unsuccessfully) to try to force Greece out of the euro zone. (This is attested by a conversation between Schäuble and Varoufakis.)
The problem is the systemic obstacles to the reforms that are the prerequisite of Greece receiving tranches of the bailout.
Tax evasion will only be stopped when the connivance of the civil service is halted. Acceptance of bribes will only stop when foreign companies, such as Siemens, stop offering them. Inefficiency and incompetence in the civil service will only be cured when appointments are made on merit, not nepotism.
The brain drain will only be reversed when graduates have secure, well-paid jobs that welcome their creativity. Start-up companies can only demonstrate their entrepreneurship when commercial and bureaucratic obstacles to small enterprises are removed.
You cannot make root-and- branch reforms overnight or even in a year; it requires political will on a superhuman scale. That’s the challenge for Alex Tsipras: not the white heat of ideology, but the cold steel of pragmatism.
Richard Pine’s new book, Greece Through Irish Eyes, is published by Liffey Press