Greek Letter: Early election only option if exchequer bare

PM Alexis Tsipras’s plinth may be demolished before his statue can be placed upon it

Picture, if you will, Minister for Finance Michael Noonan wearing nothing but a pair of Lycra cycling trunks and carrying a mop, listening to the Eurythmics. A few years ago, a visitor to the house of Yanis Varoufakis found him in exactly that condition, washing the floor. Of course, Varoufakis didn't know at that stage he would be Greece's finance minister and one of the most talked-about politicians in Europe. But it helps to explain both his current sartorial choices and his insouciance, which have raised eyebrows among his opposite numbers in the euro zone meetings.

It makes it clear that, at Lycra level anyway, Varoufakis doesn't give a damn. Up to his appointment as minister, he taught game theory at Athens University, experience that has served him well at the poker games in Brussels that pass for negotiations.

But there is another, much darker, more committed Varoufakis. Juxtapose that devil-may-care image with that of a seven-year-old boy watching his father, who fought on the left in the Greek civil war, being brutally snatched from his family by the military junta in 1968, and you start to see how this boy learned to show the world one carefree face while deeply committed to the left and suspicious of any form of fascism or authoritarianism.

Basic value

Perhaps the most basic value for Greeks is

filotimia

– a combination of honour, dignity and self-esteem. Lose it, and you lose everything. The incoming Syriza government won because they promised to protect that most valued part of Greekness. Committed but naive champions who are, David-like, standing up to the Goliath of the EU. The Greek word for the “little man” is

kosmak

i, and, intellectual though they may be, Varoufakis and prime minister

Alexis Tsipras

are identifying themselves with the

kosmaki

.

Varoufakis challenged the terms of the bailout, but achieved only a change in its terminology. Rejecting the term "troika", he has insisted on "institutions"; where Greece is a party to discussions, it's now the "Brussels group".

The “bailout”, which Syriza has pledged to rescind, is now “the current agreement”. Varoufakis refers to these new negotiating terms as “constructive ambiguity”. It means that no one can be quite sure of what the other side is saying. If you are committed to the left, in a predominantly conservative environment, the best strategy is: “Whatever you say, say nothing.”

Varoufakis has said things that the Europeans do not understand, or are not prepared to hear. His changes in the terms under which Greece is prepared to continue negotiations may seem like "no change". But to him personally, and to the kosmaki, they are vital to the saving of their filotimia.

Four years ago, the "Indignants" who occupied Syntagma Square in Athens sent a letter, signed by 100,000 Greeks, to José Manuel Barroso, then president of the European Commission. It was part of their quiet, dignified protest. They didn't get an answer. Today, it would be unthinkable for Europe to ignore such a letter. To that extent, the Syriza victory has been a quantum leap in the way Europe regards Greece.

But however much the Greeks would like to make this a conceptual discussion, the reality is entirely financial. If, as is likely, the Greek cupboard is soon bare, with pensions and salaries unpaid and billions owed to the International Monetary Fund as interest on the bailout loans, Tsipras may find his plinth demolished before they have time to place his statue upon it.

Another election

In Athens recently, many journalists spoke of their certainty there will be another election before the end of the year. The question is: when?

If the exchequer is empty, Tsipras will have no option but to go for an early election (most likely in June), which he would probably win. The kosmaki will respect the work he and Varoufakis have done and trust them to carry on.

The next tranche of the bailout (sorry, current agreement) may come this month. But it will be followed by even more insistence from Brussels and intransigence from Berlin that not enough is being done: that the much "more to do" (with which Fianna Fáil won the 2002 election) will not be achieved – that the hand Varoufakis is playing is not good enough, whatever new names he gives to the cards he is dealt.

But even if the coffers start to refill, if Tsipras is seen to compromise too far with Brussels, he may fail to appease his critics in Syriza, some of whom come from as near communism as you can get. Varoufakis, at the end of the card game, may be one of them. And, tactically speaking, he could wipe Tsipras’s floor, to say nothing of Noonan’s, with one mop tied behind his back.

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