September 22 2015 - by Dr. Elena Pnevmonidou, University of Victoria
Alexis Tsipras, leader of the Syriza Party, achieved a decisive victory in the Greek national election that will enable him to secure a majority government in coalition with his former partner, the nationalist right-of-centre Anel Party. In doing so, Tsipras defied the predictions of polls that consistently placed him either in a deadlock with the conservative New Democrat Party or even trailing behind. Yesterday’s election results are remarkable indeed. For one, Tsipras ran on a platform that one might call the diametrical opposite of the populist anti-austerity platform that secured his landslide victory in the January 2015 election.
Up until the July 5 referendum, which received the support of 61% of the Greek voters, Tsipras seemed to stay true to the principles of his platform. Yet within days of receiving that clear mandate to remain on the anti-austerity course in his bailout negotiations with the Eurogroup and the IMF, Tsipras made an unexpected turnabout, installed a new finance minister and agreed to a bailout package with conditions that critics consider to be harsher even than the conditions of the bailout deal that was annulled by the referendum. Tsipras thereby averted what became the ever more realistic possibility of a Grexit, the forced exit of Greece from the European Monetary Union and return to the Drachme. But he also risked the integrity of the Syriza Party and his own political future: He was accused of betraying the Greek people and the members of his own party. 25 far-left members of Syriza defected to form a new party, the Popular Unity. This fracturing of Syriza placed Tsipras in a minority government position, and he was only able to ratify the harsh terms of the new bailout deal with the support of the New Democrats – his ideological opponents whom most Greeks view as being responsible for both the Greek debt crisis as well as the austerity regime that most Greeks find increasingly unsustainable and unbearable.
Yet, the voters re-elected Tsipras and gave him the clear mandate to lead Greece through the painful process of implementing the 127 terms of the third bailout agreement, that is essentially of deepening the austerity and the restructuring of core facets of Greek society. What is more, Tsipras hardly lost any ground compared to the January election, less than 1% or four seats, and he will be able to form a majority government, again in coalition with Anel. In fact, the second remarkable outcome of this election is that very little has changed compared to the January election. The distribution of seats in parliament looks remarkably similar to the pre-election parliament, with only minor gains and losses here or there. What accounts for this outcome? Why were the other parties unable to make any significant gains from his dramatic turnabout and why did the Greek voters re-elect Tsipras even though he did not make good on his promise to take Greece out of the austerity regime?
The election outcome is deceptive. Superficially the lack of any significant redistribution of seats in parliament seems to be suggestive of political stasis, and there is an element of stasis and apathy to be sure, expressed, for instance, in the record low voter turnout and a widespread sentiment of voter fatigue. However, the fact that there was no significant shakeup in the Greek parliament is itself indicative, if not of change, then of a firming up or clarifying of positions. In more or less repeating the election results, the Greek voters made some clear statements: For one, the new Popular Unity Party, formed by a sizeable group of previous Syriza members, did not make any inroads at all, receiving less than 3% of popular support and failing to gain a single seat in parliament. The message clearly is that voters do not consider the Popular Unity’s radical left platform to be credible and they do not have any desire to entertain a future Grexit and return to the Drachme.
Moreover, while Tsipras certainly confounded and even angered his supporters by changing positions and accepting the new austerity regime, he still did not forfeit the voters’ trust – or at least the trust of those who bothered to vote. Tsipras had a convincing narrative: He blamed the parties of the old establishment, the Pasok and the New Democrats, for having caused both the debt crisis and the subsequent austerity regimes, and he argued that despite his best efforts he was not able to sway the Eurogroup’s neoliberal stance and that he had no choice but to accept the new austerity regime in order to avoid the Grexit. Voters seemed to have bought this narrative, or at the very least they still trust Tsipras more than the old establishment parties to implement the new regime and over time to take Greece out of the current crisis.
Finally, the fact that roughly the same percentage of people voted for Syriza should not lead us to conclude that Tispras today has the support of the same segment of the electorate as he did in January. The fracturing of his party in late July and early August suggested that Syriza was at the brink of dissolution and that Tispras’ political career was nearing its end. However, Tsipras has turned out to be a better tactician than some might have thought. He managed to restructure Syriza and to reconsolidate it in a somewhat shifted position on the political spectrum: Syriza now is a more unified party than it was even before the July referendum, and it is positioned more to the centre.
We must hope that this bodes well for the future of Greece and that Tsipras’ new coalition government will remain stable in the long term. For some very serious challenges lie ahead: 127 bailout conditions need to be implemented and yet despite the austerity regime, Tsipras needs to find a way to reanimate the nearly comatose Greek economy – and he must do so at a time when the mounting refugee crisis imposes additional economic and social burdens on Greece. It remains to be seen how Tispras’ left-right coalition will face these challenges over the coming four years.