A Tactical Move during Economic Crisis: What Are the Chances for Alexis Tsipras?

Tsipras managed to achieve this stunning success by making populist election promises: he pledged to renounce all obligations under the Memorandum of the Troika of Creditors (the IMF, ECB and EU) that was endorsed by the previous government back in 2012 and to try to negotiate a new agreement with them.

On August 20, 2015, in a televised address to the nation Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras announced his decision to resign from his post, declaring that his January 25 mandate “has reached the ceiling.”

Alexis Tsipras came to power in an early parliamentary election in January 2015 as the youngest Greek prime minister since 1865. Breaking the years-long and seemingly indestructible tandem of the traditional parties, New Democracy and PASOK, his party, the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), won 36.34 percent of votes and 149 seats in the parliament.

Tsipras managed to achieve this stunning success by making populist election promises: he pledged to renounce all obligations under the Memorandum of the Troika of Creditors (the IMF, ECB and EU) that was endorsed by the previous government back in 2012 and to try to negotiate a new agreement with them. SYRIZA also threatened a Greek withdrawal from the euro zone, something that would be likely to lead to a systemic crisis in the EU as a whole. Thus, Tsipras wanted to have his cake and eat it too, by persuading creditors to ease tough repayment terms, while at the same time remaining in the euro zone. But, as demonstrated by subsequent events, it proved impossible to achieve two mutually contradictory objectives at once, particularly because of the pressure that Germany, an opponent of any indulgence in the matter of Greek debt, brought to bear on other EU members.

Eventually, the Tsipras government appealed to the Greek population on June 27, 2015, and called for a national referendum. Approved by parliament, the referendum was held on July 5, eight days after the appeal. The Greeks were supposed to respond “yes” or “no” to the following question: “Should Greece accept the plan for a new debt repayment agreement, new credit accommodation and a new austerity package presented by the European Commission, the ECB, and the IMF?” A record number of voters (61.31 percent) said “no” as against 38.69 percent who responded “yes.”

Nevertheless, Prime Minister Tsipras had to accept an agreement proposed by the international creditors despite its flat rejection by the Greek population. The agreement was formalized at the extraordinary EU summit in Brussels on July 13. Purportedly, Greece could receive between 80 and 90 billion euros over three years. But the funds are intended for serving the existing debts – providing ways and means, removing indebtedness, creating the necessary cash reserves and recapitalizing the banking sector – rather than for resuscitating the real sector of the economy. For its part, Athens should increase taxes many times over, privatize public assets (such as profitable ports, airports, railways, etc.) and curtail pensions and social benefits substantially, a highly unpopular proposition, rejected by the mass of Greeks.

It's no wonder the signed agreements caused both indignation among ordinary citizens (the country was swept by a wave of protests and strikes) and a split in the ruling SYRIZA party. Tsipras’ closest ally, Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, resigned in protest on July 6 shortly before the agreements were signed. On July 15, 64 MPs out of 300, with six abstentions, voted against their ratification (229 MPs voted in favor). The vote actually split SYRIZA, with 32 deputies from the ruling party, including Tsipras’ old ally, Speaker of Parliament Zoi Konstantopoulou, cold-shouldering the prime minister’s frantic appeals to the effect that there was no alternative to the agreement and joining the other 32 recalcitrants.

The SYRIZA protests actually meant that Tsipras had finally lost the support of the parliamentary majority. And so, on August 20, the Prime Minister announced his decision to resign, declaring that his January 25 mandate “has reached the ceiling” and that now the Greek people had to decide “who will lead Greece further, and how.”

A few hours later, a number of SYRIZA deputies declared that they were creating a new party, Popular Unity, and a new parliamentary faction. The party is led by Panagiotis Lafazanis, former Minister of Productive Reconstruction, Environment and Energy in the Tsipras Cabinet and a SYRIZA deputy in parliament. Currently Popular Unity is gaining popularity both among MPs and ordinary people. According to some Greek media, this party might be joined by Parliament Speaker Zoi Konstantopoulou, as well as the popular composer Mikis Theodorakis and the iconic figure of the Greek modern history, WWII veteran Manolis Glezos. For its part, the party promises to continue the fight against the austerity imposed by the international creditors and to insist on a Greek withdrawal from the euro zone and a return to the national currency (the drachma).

Thus, the early parliamentary elections scheduled for September 20, 2015 promise to be rather interesting.

On the one hand, Alexis Tsipras will try to obtain another mandate for steering the chosen course and thereby legalizing it. However, he will no longer be able to use former slogans in his election campaign, such as the fight against international creditors, scrapping of unfavorable agreements, withdrawal from the euro zone and the return to the drachma. Voters know that Tsipras has not renounced the belt-tightening and has accepted even tougher terms that have hurled the majority of Greeks below the poverty line and actually put them on the edge of survival. Apart from that, the split in the ruling party and the emergence of Popular Unity will not allow Tsipras to gain the majority of votes. According to polls, SYRIZA would gain a mere 24 percent of votes if the elections were held now, with 4.5 percent of votes going to Popular Unity.

On the other hand, Greece has no alternative to Alexis Tsipras in terms of popularity. His older and more experienced colleagues (for example, Antonis Samaras, Evangelos Venizelos and Georgios Papandreou) are associated with the old mistakes made by the former governments, which led the country to its current lamentable state. New Greek political stars capable of gaining a sensational victory are yet to rise in the sky.

Therefore, it is in Tsipras’ vital interests to make the forthcoming election campaign as brief and as stunning as he can to prevent the ordinary people from feeling the full extent of hardships to which he subscribed under the new agreement. Alexis Tsipras can well win the majority of votes, with other parties following close on his heels. The left-wing parties (CPG, DIMAR, Potami, Popular Unity) can syphon off much of the SYRIZA vote that the prime minister so badly needs. In any event, Tsipras will have to form a coalition government. The question is, who will his coalition partners be and how long will the partnership last? 

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.