So Alexis Tsipras is Greece’s new Prime Minister. Syriza, the extreme-left party he leads, may end up (just) short of an overall majority. But it won a landslide today – and no one will stand in the way for making government policy of its party programme.
This means we’re guaranteed turbulence ahead, both in Greek and Eurozone politics. Syriza is no club for chic leftist posturing, nor is it a discussion circle for grey-haired Marxist academics. It is a coalition of hard and soft communists, violent and peaceful revolutionaries, eco-warriors, radical socialists and a hotchpotch of lefties that think it is an act of fascism to take away bonuses to public servants for washing their hands.
They are all out on a mission – and their leader is young, telegenic and compelling. In the rest of Europe, Tsipras may come across as the acceptable face of Miliband-esque or Hollande-style social democracy, its version originale, but a good part of his party is less excited about renegotiating Greece’s debt than with putting the hammer and the sickle in the EU flag.
Greece’s elite had this coming. Like all big economic crises, Greece’s economic collapse had its roots in state failure. For thirty years, Greek governments of left and right have spurred corruption and political patronage. For the most part, Greek politics has been a society for the silver-spooned elite. Both the centre-left and the centre-right have deep connections into organised labour, the Orthodox Church and crony business families, groups that all have helped to support political clientelism.
Faced with an escalating crisis in 2010, the government entered a Mephistophelean pact with the so-called troika; a pact that would protect the privileges of the elite at the expense of average Greeks. No doubt Greece had to slash government expenditures – and most Greeks accepted that there would be years of austerity. But the arrogance of the elite, the belief that it could cruise through Greece’s crisis without injuries, brought Syriza’s its landslide.
However, Tsipras may not be Prime Minister for a long time. His quest to free Greece from its public debt, and make austerity history, is simply impossible. He may be able to wring some debt relief from the hands of Angela Merkel, but it will only be an extension of Greece’s debt and some symbolic reductions in the interest rates that Greece pays its creditors. That gift will not come for free – Greece will only get debt relief if its prepared to agree to new conditions of fiscal and economic reforms. And that bargain doesn’t work for a party that has promised a return to the age of entitlements. If Tsipras accepts such a deal, he would have to renege on his key election promise.
Tsipras only way to make Greece’s creditors malleable to his policy is to default on the debt and make a serious call to take the country out of the euro. But if Tsipras begins to trespass in Grexit territory, he would be signing his political death warrant.
Greek voters dislike the Eurozone elite, but they dislike Greece’s elite even more. They believe euro membership keeps their own elite on a tighter leash than a drachma regime. Syriza would not survive a Greek departure from the euro, but Greece’s elite would certainly find a way to benefit from it. If Grexit, then, is not a credible threat, Tsipras will have to accept the same reality as his predecessors: beggars can’t be choosers.