The morning after July’s referendum win was a bittersweet moment for Alexis Tsipras. It dawned on him that he had an overwhelming mandate not to accept new, onerous bailout terms but, at the same time, that he could not risk Greece’s position in the euro. Fulfilling both desires would require a gold medal-winning balancing act on the political high beam.
Tsipras has so far executed this routine with aplomb and this has allowed him to savour the more appealing side of his referendum victory, which is that it forced his main political rivals to lose their balance and tumble to embarrassing defeats. The resignation of New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras hours after the referendum result was announced underlined Tsipras’s political dominance at a domestic level: He had, over the course of a few years, seen off political heavyweights such as Samaras and PASOK’s Evangelos Venizelos (who resigned before the plebiscite), while keeping in check the rise of new challengers such as former journalist and Potami frontman Stavros Theodorakis.
New Democracy, Potami and PASOK combined forces to convince Greeks to vote “Yes” on July 5 but despite having the support of the country’s mainstream media and key European officials, they only managed to convince some 38 percent of Greeks to back the bailout. When one considers the stern warnings regarding the fate that awaited Greece in case of a “No” vote, last month’s result can only be seen as a colossal failure for the country’s political establishment.
The fact that the three opposition parties supported the “Yes” campaign but at the same time did not want it to be directly associated with them for fear that it would put voters off tells you all you need to know about why their efforts failed. Over the course of the last five years, a large part of the Greek public has gradually distanced itself from the country’s media and the politicians that have governed it in recent decades. Their word no longer carries value and their ideas hold little sway.
The European Parliament elections of May 2014 marked a watershed in this respect as it was the first time that a party other than New Democracy or PASOK had won a vote in Greece since the end of the military dictatorship in 1974. It was as if a generation of Greeks had cut the umbilical cord tying them to these two parties and started to imagine life without their political guardians. By January 2015, Greeks were ready to elect as their prime minister someone who had not been the son, grandson, nephew, cousin or other descendant of a previous leader or political grandee.
This is one of the reasons that many Greeks seem willing to be patient with Tsipras. They are unlikely to forgive him for his numerous grave mistakes since January, especially once they start feeling the full force of these errors, but they are prepared to stick with him at least a little longer in the hope that he grows into his role. In their eyes, there is no convincing alternative.
Samaras’s leadership of New Democracy proved damaging for the party. He undoubtedly paid the price of having to follow tough fiscal policies. But he failed to keep hope alive among reform-minded Greeks by continuing to feed cronyism and vested interests. Also, his flirtation with the extreme right through the initial handling of Golden Dawn and hardline positions on immigration and citizenship alienated many Greeks who position themselves in the political centre.
His successor, 61-year-old career politician Evangelos Meimarakis, has made a point of saying he will renew the party’s appeal to the centre-right. Although the rough and ready Meimarakis is less divisive and abrasive as his predecessor, he seems a figure more suitable to keeping the party’s MPs and grassroots united rather than launching the conservatives forward into a new era. His everyman qualities have been vital in defusing the tension in Parliament at such a fraught time but he lacks the political stardust to rival Tsipras.
PASOK leader Fofi Gennimata also gives the impression of keeping the seat warm until someone with less baggage and more charisma can step forward to take on the formidable task of reviving Greece’s centre-left, which has been locked in a five-year death spiral. Like Meimarakis, Gennimata’s inoffensiveness and calmness has been a stabilising factor over the past few weeks but pushing PASOK on from this low point will require more drive and vision than has been on view during her long political career, which has included stints in local government and various ministries. Cooperation with the forgotten man of Greek politics, George Papandreou, and Democratic Left (DIMAR), a political apparition that just a few years ago was the great hope of the centre-left in Greece, hardly seems the path to regeneration.
The fact that Potami and its leader, Theodorakis, enjoyed a sudden rise in the months after coming onto the political scene last year but have plateaued since entering Parliament in January underlines just how difficult it is to energise the electorate.
Ex-Energy Minister Panayiotis Lafazanis and the other SYRIZA rebels that formed the anti-bailout Popular Unity last week believe that they can tap into the furious energy of the 61.3 percent of the electorate who voted “No” in the July referendum. Lafazanis and his colleagues have always been prone to utopian dreams and it seems they have bought into another illusion by treating the “No” vote as being the product of a homogeneous group even though all the analysis shows that at least half of those ballots came from Greeks who want to remain in the euro.
Lafazanis can certainly capitalise on the anger brewing among leftist voters and his flirtation with a return to the drachma will be sweet music to many exasperated Greeks. However, it is unlikely that this is enough support to make Popular Unity anything more than a protest party, at least for the time being.
There is fertile ground in Greece for those bearing an anti-bailout/pro-drachma/nationalist message but it is doubtful that Lafazanis is the political entrepreneur who can cultivate it. The message and style of his party, whose name is a translation of Salvador Allende’s Unidad Popular, is too backward-looking to sweep up the Greek public.
In contrast, the problem for the mainstream opposition parties is that Tsipras has left little political ground for them to claim. By signing the third bailout he has made it more difficult for New Democracy, PASOK and Potami to argue that they would offer anything different to the current government given that they also supported the agreement. They cannot claim to be more European or reformist than SYRIZA, as they did ahead of the July 5 referendum, because the new programme defines the contours of Greece’s relationship with the eurozone and its reform policies for the next three years at least.
Instead, Tsipras can argue that his party, which is not a product of the political mainstream, has clean hands and is in a better position than the others to tackle chronic problems such as corruption, tax evasion and social inequality. This is why in the days running up to the snap elections (likely on September 20) the opposition parties, rather than Tsipras, will be the ones having to display their flexibility and poise.