The education of Alexis Tsipras

In his final Athens rally before the January 25 elections, SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras gave a rather subdued speech that was only spiced up by the guest appearance of Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias at the end.

“A wind of change is blowing through Europe,” Iglesias told the crowd in rudimentary Greek.

While that may have stirred the crowd’s passion for a radical change, just moments earlier Tsipras had attempted to quell any leftist fervour among his supporters.

“The left’s time has come,” chanted the crowd at one point during his speech. Without a second though, Tsipras responded: “The time of all Greeks has come.”

In that moment, his transformation from the “leftist firebrand” that threatened to “destroy the euro,” as the international media would have it in 2012, to national leader entered its final phase. The natural reflex to play down SYRIZA’s success as a victory for the left but one that would benefit all Greeks spoke to Tsipras’s growing realisation over the last few years that his evolution from uproarious student leader to prime minister would involve political compromises.

Tsipras set out on this road in earnest after the June 2012 elections, soon after his ragtag coalition of leftist factions came within a whisker of being in a position to form a government. Internally, he embarked on the process to mould his loose groups into a single party, under his central command. This culminated in a party congress in the summer of 2013, where the majority of SYRIZA members approved Tsipras’s changes. Of course, the left wing of his party, the Left Platform, displayed its reservations but this did not detract from the fact that the party had travelled a long way in a short period of time, largely due to Tsipras hauling it out of the fringes of Greek politics.

Outwardly, though, Tsipras was also working on bolstering his, and his party’s, status. There were meetings with International Monetary Fund representatives, European Central Bank president Mario Draghi, US officials and German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble. Then, last year, he ran as the European Left’s candidate for European Commission president. He travelled Europe promoting his message and held his own in the televised debates with other, for more experienced, candidates.

There was also an effort to court a domestic audience that had previously been out of SYRIZA’s reach. One of the most significant moments in this journey was his appearance in March 2013 at an event commemorating Greece’s late conservative leader Constantine Karamanlis. It was an awkward balancing act for Tsipras as Karamanlis, despite his significant contribution to post-dictatorship stability in Greece, is viewed with some suspicion by the left. Tsipras, though, delivered a well-crafted speech that presented him as a unifier able to bridge the political divide.

“Karamanlis’s contribution to the country managed at times to go beyond the boundaries of his ideology,” said Tsipras. “He managed with other party leaders to cement the culture of calm democratic exchange. It is a culture that we have to safeguard.”

The SYRIZA leader displayed throughout his speech, and in subsequent public comments, a realisation that he could not become prime minister without being able to compromise his ideals. Tsipras told his audience that Karamanlis’s greatest contribution was to make the “extra step” to unite the country.

“All political forces have to preserve this extra step,” said the SYRIZA leader.

It is this extra step that Tsipras is now called upon to make. Until now he has skilfully handled the internal idiosyncrasies of his party as it grew from 5 percent to over 35 percent, but he has also engaged in populist rhetoric while riding the wave of popular discontent that has accompanied Greece’s crippling recession and sharp fiscal consolidation. The challenge now is to engage in the art of the possible, to choose synthesis instead of antithesis.

Internal resistance

Over the last few years, Tsipras has shown that he has a good sense of political awareness and that he is able to carry people with him. These skills will be tested to the full over the next few weeks as his government tries to implement the four-month deal reached with lenders and negotiate another one to carry the country beyond June.

At a meeting of SYRIZA’s central committee over the weekend, it became abundantly clear that his party is not going to make it easy for him. Almost 40 percent of committee members who voted chose to back the position of SYRIZA’s left-wing faction, the Left Platform, to reject the recent Eurogroup deal. The Left Platform also won four of the 11 seats on the political secretariat.

This is just the beginning of the battle that Tsipras will have to wage with his own party in his effort to drag SYRIZA with him. The possibility of a irreversible rift cannot be ruled out. While Tsipras, with his roots in Greece’s Communist youth, may be sympathetic to the Left Platform’s views, he has also shown himself to be a pragmatist, perhaps even a calculating one, over the last few days.

For instance, while many frowned upon Tsipras’s decision to ally with the right-wing Independent Greeks, it has given him a distinct advantage in domestic political terms. The government currently covers a cross section of the political system that runs from the Communist left to the populist right. This gives it broad appeal and, at the same time, hampers the opposition. It has been noticeable that Greece’s opposition parties have been wrongfooted by the coalition and the strong backing it has received. They are unsure whether to attack it for being reckless or to bide their time and be supportive of negotiation efforts until they collapse in failure.

Choice of president

Those hoping for a radical departure in Greek politics after SYRIZA’s election victory will have shrunk a little further into their seats this week. After choosing to ally with the right-wing populists of Independent Greeks and including only a light smattering of women in his cabinet, Tsipras chose former New Democracy Interior Minister Prokopis Pavlopoulos as the man to be Greece’s seventh president.

For anyone expecting Tsipras would use this largely ceremonial role to make a political statement, ditching the baggage of the past and allowing public sentiment to be carried away Mary Poppins-like on the wind of change there was great disappointment.

The truth is that Tsipras has never shown himself to be a politician that would shy away from making a decision inspired or dictated by smoke-filled room politics. And it is through this perspective that his decision to nominate, and elect, Pavlopoulos should be seen.

For the 40-year-old Greek prime minister, a head of state from the centre-right is a means to an end. His coalition already covers a wide range of the political spectrum and Pavlopoulos’s addition means that Tsipras has opened a channel to the pool of politicians and voters that still remain faithful to former Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis.

Pavlopoulos has been one of several politicians to represent the reticent Karamanlis publicly since the end of his premiership in 2009. Karamanlis has enjoyed a good relationship with Tsipras over the last few years and it has been reported that the current prime minister turned to the ex-New Democracy leader as his first choice for president but was turned down.

Final destination?

Tsipras’s pragmatism was also evident in the way that he reportedly took over negotiations before the final agreement at the Eurogroup. He met with Eurogroup chief Jeroen Dijsselbloem after the second failed meeting of eurozone finance ministers and spoke to Chancellor Angela Merkel the night before the third and decisive talks in Brussels. According to Dijsselbloem’s account of that Friday Eurogroup, the Eurogroup president and other key figures negotiated directly with Tsipras over the phone rather than Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis who was in the Belgian capital. There is a sense that Greece’s lenders believe that can do business with Tsipras.

While his speeches in Greece have been defiant, his appearances abroad have been much more moderate. Where his finance minister has been verbose and erratic, Tsipras has been dogged but moderate.

In his journey to this point, Tsipras has displayed greater political deftness than most would give him credit for. But, as with all journeys, success or failure will be judged by where it ends. The final destination is not clear yet.

*An earlier version of this article appeared in the MacroPolis weekly e-newsletter received by all subscribers

Follow Nick: @NickMalkoutzis


About the Author

The Corner
The Corner has a team of on-the-ground reporters in capital cities ranging from New York to Beijing. Their stories are edited by the teams at the Spanish magazine Consejeros (for members of companies’ boards of directors) and at the stock market news site Consenso Del Mercado (market consensus). They have worked in economics and communication for over 25 years.

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