21 Sep 2015

Tsipras crushes his opponents, left and right, to gain second term

It was a Greek family christening. In a modest restaurant in the suburbs of Athens yesterday an extended family – originally farmers – were celebrating a new arrival. They tied small crucifixes to their wrists, sipped beer and then – because I couldn’t resist asking them – we went round the table and they told me how they’d voted.

Former Greek PM and leader of leftist Syriza party Tsipras greets supporters following a speech during the final campaign rally prior to Sunday's general elections on main Syntagma square in Athens

All the elderly people at my table had voted for the radical left party Syriza. The forty-year olds, engineers and middle managers, were divided between the left breakway Popular Unity, which opposes the austerity deal Syriza signed; Antarsya – a kind of Greek Socialist Workers’ Party – and not voting on the grounds of lifelong anarchism.

Voting left was not new to them. But it was the unswayability of the left vote that put Alexis Tsipras straight back into the prime ministerial mansion he resigned from a month ago, calling a snap election.

Tsipras was forced to make a massive climbdown in July, as his strategy of confronting the lenders led to the near breakdown of the economy. The austerity he has to implement is lighter than the one originally being proposed by Greece’s lenders – but no less arduous. It will most likely plunge Greece into another recession, boost unemployment and add to the manifest poverty that scars this country’s towns and cities.

Because he demanded party discipline in the parliamentary vote on the so called third Memorandum, Tsipras lost 25 MPs – a fifth of his old parliamentary group. This included SOAS professor Costas Lapavitsas, the charsimatic former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, and the fiery human rights lawyer Zoe Konstantopoulou.

But the party split was not Tsipras’ only problem. Many activists who didn’t join Popular Unity simply stopped doing things. Some left the party in order to work outside it, and criticise it openly.

So it was a heavily worn-down machine Tsipras took into this election. And the polls put him neck and neck with a revived conservative party New Democracy. Worse still, for Tsipras, his old coalition partner – ANEL, a conservative nationalist party – looked like it would bomb completely.

So when the exit polls put Syriza just 2% ahead of the opposition its activists were nervous last night. But within hours nervousness turned to astonished celebrations.

Syriza’s parliamentary group

Syriza won 35.5% of the vote, leaving New Democracy trailing with 28%. The new, rival left wing party scored just 3% and failed to gain a single MP. Syriza’s parliamentary group – newly enlarged with young replacements for the rebels – is just four short of what it was before. And ANEL got 10 seats – defying all opinion polls and ensuring the same coalition that tried to defy Europe will now rule Greece.

But there are pressing problems. In private the party’s senior officials know they have to make changes to the way they’ve governed Greece. Their reaction to perceived sabotage by the Greek civil service was to try and run ministries with political appointees only. It didn’t work. Their opponents – left and right – landed telling blows when they pointed out how little the radical left’s ministers had achieved. This time, I understand, they plan to bring forward a civil service reform modelled on Whitehall.


Then there is the refugee crisis. When Syriza came to power in Spring it began releasing migrants who’d been rounded up and put in prison camps by the old coalition. But they could not feed them or find them work. Then the Syrian exodus from Turkey began – overwhelming the islands and fuelling the far right, which has begun to recover support, despite its leader admitting “political responsibility” for the murder of an anti-fascist rapper.

Syriza never announced the policy of simply letting the migrants from Turkey move through the country and up into the Balkans. But that’s what the policy was. I got a sense last night that even many people disgusted by the party’s climbdown over austerity voted left because they wanted to avoid the Greek conservatives taking charge of Europe’s front line. Any return to tight border policing, round-ups and preventing migrants from moving out of Greece would have plunged this country into immediate chaos.

Then there is the economy. Syriza has promised to find alternative sources of revenue to avoid some of the tax measures demanded by the Troika. It also campaigned on the argument it was the best party to negotiate debt relief – without which this country will collapse further into penury.

Finally there is democracy. Though the voting percentages were remarkably close to what we saw in January, the turnout was down to barely half the electorate. Many people concluded that since the country was being run from Brussels there was no point in voting.

Greek conservatism

Greek conservatism continues to pay the price for its factionalism – with rival families aligned to liberal and draconian policy variants – and for its incompetence in power. Given almost everything New Democracy warned about in a famous attack ad in January actually came true, I think it’s likely that 28% is the high watermark of conservatism in this country. That means forces aligned to rightwing economics and tough policing will have to come up with something new before they get to rule Greece again.

From today we get Syriza 2.0. Tsipras told me “This victory was even bigger than January.” Shorn of its hard left, and forced to implement austerity he has pledged to be as radical as he can on non-economic measures – reforming the state, the judiciary, and attacking corruption. Like Greece, Tsipras’ administration is a work in progress. But if the doomsayers are right, and the third memorandum simply falls apart as debt, deflation and depression spiral out of control, he will find himself once again at the eye of the storm.

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