An election without aspirations in Greece

Ahead of Sunday’s snap vote, both front-runners are vowing to stay in the eurozone – and that means continued austerity.

Alexis Tsipras
Greeks prepare for snap elections to be held this Sunday after months of economic turmoil [Orestis Panagiotou/EPA]

Athens, Greece – Former Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is attempting to turn adversity to advantage.

His capitulation to European Union-imposed austerity policies, which he had vowed to abolish before being elected, split his Syriza party like an iceberg adrift in the tropics.

Tsipras lost the support of 39 of his 149 parliamentarians when he brought Greece’s third bailout agreement home on July 16.

When he presented the first implementation bill to parliament on August 14, the defections rose to 44. Six days later, he resigned and called a snap election. 

In both votes, Syriza failed to muster the 120 MP threshold considered necessary for a major piece of legislation to be constitutionally sound. That’s because ruling parties must have the support of at least 120 of their own MPs in votes of confidence.

Failure to reach this threshold in a major bill is an indirect censure from one’s own side.

As Tsipras laid bare in a televised debate on Monday, the decision to resign seven months after coming to power was also the result of opportunism.

“In the previous election we got 149 [seats in parliament], when there was a danger of leaving the euro. Now that that danger is gone … we can get the two extra MPs we need,” he said, referring to the 151 absolute majority a party needs to rule in Greece’s 300-seat legislature. 

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Syriza leapfrogged to power by triggering early elections, as the austerity crisis wore down Greece’s traditional power brokers – the socialists and conservatives.


It jumped from 16 to 26 percent of the vote in 2012 by refusing to join a conservative-led coalition, leading to a hung parliament and repeat polls. It came to power with 36 percent of the vote by refusing to support the conservatives’ choice of president this year, triggering another premature election.

Still in favour

When Tsipras resigned on August 20, Syriza was still riding above its January performance in some polls, though its support was dropping fast.

The party’s hopes of retaining power are now pinned on Tsipras’ modest and telegenic personality.

“He’s young. He’s honest. He hasn’t been in power long enough to be corrupt,” says Katerina, an out-of-work hairdresser from the western Athens suburb of Aigaleo. “It’s the other parties that brought Greece to this pass over 40 years. I shall never vote for them again.”

She forgives him his negotiating stumble with Europe’s debt-collectors, saying “it was clear that he wasn’t ready, but there were interests in Greece and abroad that wanted him to fail”.

“There was never an alternative [to austerity],” says Nikos Divis, a pensioner, who believes Germany’s Christian Democrats led a pan-European crusade to eradicate the emergence of the left in southern Europe.

“The Europe of solidarity and partnership doesn’t want solidarity… It’s all about who will strangle whom.”

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Despite the unpopularity of austerity, four-fifths of Greeks still favour remaining in the eurozone. Both front-runners – Syriza and the conservative New Democracy – are now pro-euro parties vowing to do what it takes to keep Greece there, and that makes them pro-austerity.

“The Greek people are humbled, exhausted and deeply disappointed. They just want a bit of peace,” says Petros Raptis, a film-maker and lifelong leftist, who believes the fighting spirit that elected Syriza to overturn austerity last January has evaporated.

“[Greeks] will no longer elect Tsipras in the ordinary sense. They will give him not so much a mandate as a vote of tolerance.” 

‘Logic of no growth’

There was an alternative to austerity, but they didn't negotiate right - nobody did.

by Roula Ifanti, civil servant

There is a true alternative to austerity propagated by Popular Unity, a party made up of former Syriza backbenchers. It says prosperity is not possible within the eurozone, because creditors will not allow Greece to do what it must to properly restructure its economy.

“The debt ends up shaping the entire economic policy of Greece, and that policy means austerity and liberalisation, privatisation and so on,” says economist and Popular Unity candidate Kostas Lapavitsas. “That’s a dead end for Greece… That’s the logic of no growth.”

Lapavitsas says a mere extension of its repayment schedule is no longer enough for Greece to prosper. The debt must simply be forgiven – or unilaterally defaulted on if necessary – and cease to loom over the country.

Popular Unity also says private enterprise cannot rebuild the economy with banks in private hands. It would nationalise the banking system and pump liquidity into small and medium-sized businesses.

“Greece has become already a marginal and insignificant country in the monetary union and the EU,” says Lapavitsas. “Why? Because it’s going nowhere economically. It’s a beggar, fundamentally, and it has terms dictated to it. We want to reverse that.”

Lapavitsas says Tsipras was simply naive.

“The leadership had the wrong strategy,” he says, “and the strategy was: ‘We’ve got a good programme, a sensible programme… If we go there and argue coherently, our friends and allies and partners will understand the error of their ways… In the end they will back down.’

“Syriza went there… It came up against a brick wall, basically. In the end it was subjected to blackmail because that’s the nature of the monetary union, the power relations there, and it surrendered completely.”

In sentimental terms, many Greeks agree.

“There was an alternative to austerity, but they didn’t negotiate right – nobody did,” says Roula Ifanti, a disgruntled civil servant. “We answered to the Germans before and we are still answering to them.”

 One Minute Greek Debt Crisis

Ignoring the alternative

But it is doubtful that Ifanti or many other Greeks will vote for Popular Unity. Polls suggest it will win only single digits.

While many people say the current austerity plan won’t work, a poll by Rass published by the non-partisan newspaper To Paron last month, had 81.2 percent of respondents saying Popular Unity’s alternative proposal would be impossible to implement.

“There wasn’t overwhelming support from people for a period of hardship,” says Raptis, who spent years in exile under the seven-year Greek dictatorship in the 1960s and ’70s.

“In other times, Greece might have relied upon domestic products. Now we have no manufacturing, or it is bought out by multinationals. We can no longer subsist, and starting the economy from scratch requires a long, long primary period to yield results.”

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Constitutional lawyer Yiorgos Sotirelis says the election is about a cynical political calculation.

Greek electoral law awards the top party a 50-seat bonus in the legislature, equivalent to 17 percent of the vote. By virtue of that bonus, whoever pips the other at the post, even by a single vote, wins the premiership and command of a coalition. For Syriza and New Democracy, that primacy could prove existential.

 Greeks: How did we lose our way?

“The electoral system falsifies the election result,” says Sotirelis, who supports more proportional representation. He puts parties’ failure to alter what he describes as “one of the worst election laws this country has ever known” down to “political Machiavellianism”. 

However, both front-runners are stuck in the high 20s in opinion polls. It is conceivable that whichever wins will only be able to govern through a marriage of convenience with the other.

Such a grand coalition took place once before, between socialists and conservatives. It lasted five months and is remembered by Greeks as a vehicle hijacked by the country’s creditors.

Even in the plodding, non-aspirational atmosphere of this election, such a marriage of convenience is unlikely to last long.

Source: Al Jazeera