The Pragmatism of Tsipras Is the One Thing Holding The Greek Political Order Together
I had this wonderful idea for a political thriller. It was about a left-wing government elected against the backdrop of political corruption and an economic downturn. Their arrival was greeted by a fanfare of hope and enthusiasm from the people. Even those who had not voted for them recognised that this was the dawn of a new era. The new leader might not say, “It is a new dawn, is it not?” As Tony Blair did but there was a palpable sense that this something was different.
The new leaders, who were known for their informality, soon got into trouble. Their costly public service plans destroyed any trust their creditors had; their amateurism alienated even the few allies who remained. In desperate need of money they flirted with Russia as a potential ally. Soon the might of the great financial institutions brought credit controls. Banks closed. Imports almost ceased. Small businesses faced ruined. People struggled to buy even basic essentials in shops. Under the weight of open hostility from other national governments the administration collapsed. I could hear the sound of military helicopters soaring overhead in scenes from the inevitable mini-series that would make my fortune: A Very European Coup.
The two flaws in my idea were that Chris Mullin had already written a similar book thirty years ago, A Very British Coup; and that, when it came to the crunch, the coup did not happen. The centre held. Fiction was stranger than truth. So far.
In a curious way, the referendum has given Tsipras political capital
Since 2008 Greece’s GDP has dropped nearly 30%, from $354 to $237 billion in 2014, according to the World Bank figures. Unemployment is at 25%, youth unemployment at 50%; child poverty rates stand at over 40%. Alexis Tsipras, the charismatic Syriza prime minister, returns to Athens with a package of eye-wateringly harsh privitizations and cuts in what seems like a massive climbdown. But this is not a coup. It is representative democracy.
In 2008 on the eve of bank recapitalisation, Gordon Brown, worried about political and social stability. If ATMs could not give out money, what would happen? Yet the dog that did not bark in the Greek night is political stasis.
This is perhaps surprising given that Greece’s constitution is only forty years years old, embedded by the overthrow of the military junta in 1974. Moreover Greece is not functioning state in the sense that we understand it: its political establishment is endemically corrupt. Power grimly swapped between PASOK and New Democracy, rival parties which regularly commanded barely 30% of the vote each. In the context of a multi-party democracy Syriza’s 36.3% in January’s elections was considerable. The freshness of Tsipras’ face is his strength; he is a new generation who is physically and emotionally different to the endless streams of Karamanlis, Mitsakis and Papandreou family members who lied, cheated and borrowed while tolerating a shadow economy which accounts for 25% of GDP. In a country without the open systems of governance we take for granted, Greeks do not pay taxes because, put simply, they don’t believe their neighbour will.
In a curious way, the referendum has given Tsipras political capital. The vote itself consolidated his already stratospheric popularity and counter-intuitively gives him greater flexibility in negotiation. Moreover the necessary sacrifice of Yanis Varoufakis, an unlikely lamb who had already been taken off the debt negotiating team, was a sign of Tsipras’ pragmatism: although he had popular backing, he understood it was not a mandate to leave the euro. And some people are just not suited to politics, however brilliant. By bringing in other political parties to consult on the negotiation package he shrewdly covered his back. But his party is split. After four hours of emotional debate in the Greek Parliament amid rioting in the streets of Athens outside, a quarter of his own MPs voted refused to back the bailout deal. Tsipras is now dependent on support of opposition parties.
The obvious tensions between Tsipras' genuinely-held beliefs and the political reality he has found himself in mean that he might not survive
Yet on the whole the country - and even Varoufakis - is willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. For now. It is a tricky tightrope he is walking and one which is perhaps reliant on one issue: debt restructuring. For all the talk of international coups, it is the IMF which - mea maxima culpa! - has been the most cognizant of the need for debt relief. It may not just be Tsipras’ political future which rests on it.
It is two years since anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas was stabbed to death by a neo-Nazi supporter of Golden Dawn, Greece’s far right party. At the time there were fears that his death would be the beginning of a cycle of protest and rioting. Similarly now, despite the unprecedented crisis, political meltdown has been avoided. A week ago I would not have been surprised if my thriller had become a reality. Now I am not so sure. Given the difficulties which would flummox any number of mythological heroes, there is little cause for optimism. Yet perhaps the reason why the political terrain has held remarkably well is not the inherent strengths of the systems but the trust in one man. It is an awful burden to place on one set of shoulders. The obvious tensions between Tsipras' genuinely-held beliefs and the political reality he has found himself in mean that he might not survive. If he does not then the question might become whether a weak and unpopular political system can survive. Yet this is a man who has just discovered a political commodity more valuable than any other: in the words of another thriller, ruthless pragmatism.
About the author
Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).
A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.
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