If a week is a long time in politics what’s a year? A century? A millennium? An Ice Age? If you’re Greek it can sometimes feel like all three. One year ago today, on 26 January 2015, Greece’s Syriza party formed the most left-wing government in the country’s history having (ludicrously) promised the Greek people to take on the European establishment and rid them of the austerity measures that had blighted their lives for close to a decade.
If hubris and bombast characterised Syriza’s election campaign, then naivety and disaster characterised its first months in office. The new Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras had given the job of re-negotiating with Greece’s numerous European creditors to his charismatic but abrasive finance minister, Yannis Varoufakis. Varoufakis, an undoubtedly brilliant academic who specialises in Game Theory, seemed to believe that the relationship between Greece and the EU was just one big game of chicken. One only had to hold one’s nerve and all would be well.
Alas, things don’t work like that in politics – at least not when dealing with ossified EU institutions. The sole achievement of Varoufakis’ early attempts at negotiation was to alienate almost everyone on the other side. German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble reportedly took a particular loathing to him.
Nonetheless, Varoufakis continued to play chicken, and Greece continued to lose. Throughout early to mid 2015 Greece faced repeated demands to implement harsh fiscal measures in order to receive various tranches of bailout funding. Without the money it faced default, and with it the possibility of Grexit. Each time there was drama. Each time it was a struggle. And each time Greece only just about survived.
Things eventually got too much for Tsipras and in late June, seemingly out of nowhere, and to the rage of Greece’s creditors, he called a referendum. Ostensibly on the question of the latest EU bailout proposals, it was in reality a vote on austerity itself. The Greeks duly voted ‘No’ and Tsipras, duly armed with a popular mandate from his people went to Greece’s creditors – and duly capitulated.
This was perhaps what can safely be described as the turning point for Syriza and Tsipras himself. With the Greek people behind him, he could have chosen to fight but he had learned the lesson of the previous months: the mouse could not roar. It was either come to an agreement or see his country kicked out of the Eurozone. The consequences of the latter scenario were so disastrous for Greece that Tsipras jettisoned almost all his personal ideological baggage and made a deal, even agreeing to creditor demands to get rid of Varoufakis, who resigned shortly after the vote. He chose the national interest over the party line. He acted like a leader.
In true Greek style, events continued with characteristic drama after the referendum. Tsipras was forced to call another election to give himself a fresh popular mandate after going against the referendum result and accepting the new bailout measures. The enraged hard left within Syriza broke off to form its own party, and managed to win zero seats in parliament. Tspiras won the election comfortably.
If there is one lesson to take from Syriza’s first year in power it is, as I have written before, the story of a man who comes to value pragmatism over ideology; the interests of the wider electorate over the dictates of rigid leftist orthodoxy. It is, in the end, an admittedly fraught yet uplifting story and one that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour would do well to heed if it ever seriously wants to compete at the ballot box. Tsipras learned – the hard way – that government is different to opposition; that mere protest is insufficient to safeguard the well-being of your people. He learned what Corbyn singularly refuses to understand: the practice of politics does not take place on the pages of colossal, dusty Marxist texts but in the real world, with all of its petty betrayals and grubby compromises.
It is perhaps fitting that the first year anniversary of Syriza’s government will be marked by a meeting in Jerusalem between Tsipras and that bête noir of the European left, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The two men will discuss energy issues and areas of wider cooperation. Greece could do very nicely out of a potential pipeline running via Cyprus into the country from Israel’s newly discovered gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean. It needs the money and Tsipras knows this. The predictable squeals of outrage of many on the Greek left will once more be drowned out by a focus on the national interest.
One year on, the picture is far from rosy for Syriza. For the first time since it came to power polls put it slightly behind the centre-right opposition party New Democracy; the harsh austerity measures that Tsipras signed last year are now being implemented and will hurt. But Syriza is still standing; Greece has – so far – avoided financial catastrophe. And in Tsipras it has a Prime Minister who is more concerned with doing what is right than what is purely left.
David Patrikarakos is the author of Nuclear Iran: The Birth of an Atomic State and a contributing editor at the Daily Beast. He tweets @dpatrikarakos