BRUSSELS, February 15, 2016 – SYRIZA was the first radical left-wing party in modern Greek history to win a national election. They repeated this feat only nine months later, and in between these two elections, they won a national referendum.
Yet these facts mask some important details.
The first SYRIZA election victory was secured on a platform that promised to reject the financial bailout terms offered by international creditors and to find an alternative way to deal with the overwhelming debt crisis facing Greece. July’s national referendum won by SYRIZA directly authorized the government to reject the creditors’ proposals and to pursue their own handmade solutions for dealing with the national debt.
SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras chose to take a different course: even as the referendum results were being announced, the Prime Minister was engaging in some extraordinary political maneuvering. Yanis Varoufakis, the outspoken Greek Finance minister who had made himself so unpopular with the creditors, was replaced with the more moderate Euclid Tsakalotos.
A week later, Tsipras further amazed the world by returning from negotiations with European leaders in Brussels with a deal that not only went against the referendum he had just won, but that came with even stricter strings attached. This made it so that SYRIZA had to follow through with the terms of the bailout agreement.
Tsipras had a mandate from the Greek people to reject the bailout. Instead, he chose to ignore the referendum’s result and go to Brussels and accept all the terms that German Prime Minister Merkel and French President Hollande imposed on Greece. Against this backdrop it seems clear that no imminent Greek revolution is going to occur and that Greece simply has to try and pay back its creditors.
A government in conflict
While Tsipras and the leadership of SYRIZA have demonstrated a degree of willingness to work with the EU creditors, the signals that the Greek government is sending have become increasingly mixed. Tsipras claims to be committed to pursuing the terms set out in the bailout agreement, but at the same time, the government is also committed to measures that continue to scare off the foreign investors Greece needs to secure it’s economic future.
While SYRIZA won both national elections, at neither election did they win enough seats in the Greek parliament to govern alone. In both cases they chose to govern with the support of the populist ‘Independent Greeks’ party (ANEL) led by Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, a decision that gave them a slim parliamentary majority.
This alliance also appears to have had a significant impact on the government. The majority of contradictory policies coming from the Greek government can be traced back not to SYRIZA itself, but to their minority coalition partner ANEL. On numerous occasions, this party has attempted to sabotage the government and to derail the bailout agreement. Consider that Kammenos recently threatened, in pure Donald Trump style, to flood Europe with millions of refugees within whose ranks “there will be some jihadists of the Islamic State too”.
ANEL is an unlikely partner for SYRIZA, who have oddly become more ideologically aligned with PASOK, or the socially liberal “River Party” after one year in office. It now seems that even the Communists would have been a more comfortable choice for SYRIZA than the Independent Greeks.
This alliance of necessity has been awkward for both sides, and has been the cause of many of the U-turns and disagreements within the government as they have struggled to come to terms with the problems facing the country. Perhaps the clearest example of this can be seen in the government’s plan to bring all Greek shipyards under the control of one public body, a feat that is nothing short of a nationalization of private property, likely to send foreign investors running. At the same time, ANEL has proved unwilling to allow SYRIZA to introduce any social reforms that might have lessened the bitterness felt by many of the Greek electorate over the unpopular cuts that had to be introduced to comply with the terms of the bailout agreement.
In exchange for increased taxation, and significant cuts in pensions, Tsipras planned to introduce a number of progressive measures including a bill that recognized the civil rights of same sex couples. ANEL refused to support these measures, and although they eventually made it into law, they were only passed with the support of opposition lawmakers, including the liberals, the socialists and even some conservative lawmakers including the leader of the New Democracy party, Kyriakos Mitsotakis.
It may be that this co-operation between SYRIZA and these opposition parties demonstrates the way forward for Greece at this point. SYRIZA has understood that Greece is entering a post-political era, ANEL has yet to grasp this. If sufficient support for the policies SYRIZA needs to pursue can be found among the opposition parties, then maybe it is time to sideline ANEL and to form a national coalition government.
Hard decisions lie ahead for the nation and it is time for political leaders to put aside their differences on ideological issues and work together to steer Greece away from the financial precipice, and establish a solid base for future growth in the country.