Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s resounding election victory on September 20 poses many questions. Why did voters reelect him after his catalogue of errors between January and July of this year? Have Greeks turned their backs on the country’s established parties once and for all? And can Tsipras’s government, which has returned to power with just a five-seat majority, survive in the long term?
It will take some time to provide convincing answers to these queries, but the initial feeling in Athens as the postelection dust settles is that the result has to do as much with Tsipras’s hot political streak as with the opposition’s failings.
There can be little doubt that Sunday’s win, which was the third time this year that Tsipras emerged victorious at the ballot box, establishes the leader of the left-wing Syriza party as the only serious political player in Greece at the moment.
Greece’s international lenders would have preferred Tsipras to broaden his governing alliance, which will again comprise the nationalist Independent Greeks, to also include the center-left Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) and the centrist The River. Yet it will have become apparent to Greece’s creditors that having a potent Tsipras on board is more important than anything else.
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In the latest election, 35.5 percent of the Greek electorate was willing to back Tsipras again despite the fact that he went back on a pledge not to sign a third bailout agreement and that he sidestepped the “no” result in the July 5 referendum on the deal. That says something about the Syriza leader’s powers of persuasion and voters’ willingness to be patient with him. If anyone can sell the third bailout, which is packed full of painful and contentious measures, to Greeks, surely it is him.
Perhaps the most significant way that Sunday’s result will strengthen Tsipras’s hand is by firming up his own party. The split caused by the Greek parliament’s approval of the new bailout agreement in August failed to clear the air within Syriza. While the party’s most radical element and those parliamentarians and members who opposed the deal walked away to form the anti-austerity party Popular Unity, they left a great amount of discontent behind.
Many of the Syriza members who remained felt that Tsipras had eschewed the party’s key principle of open dialogue and had signed up to the bailout without proper consultation. This feeling of exclusion was strengthened by his decision to call a snap election without first holding the emergency congress he had promised.
However, in the wake of Syriza’s 7.4 percentage point win over the center-right New Democracy on September 20 and its return to power without the need to agree to a complicated alliance with PASOK and/or The River, there is unlikely to be anyone within the party with the appetite to challenge Tsipras.
The prime minister will also be boosted by the fact that those who formed Popular Unity fell flat on their faces as the group failed to pass the 3 percent threshold needed to enter the parliament. If there are murmurs of discontent within Syriza in the months to come, Tsipras will only have to point to his former colleagues in the political wilderness to dampen things down.
What the election win has not given Tsipras, though, is a government with an improved capacity to implement the bailout or to haul Greece out of its dire economic state. Beyond its lack of clarity, one of the biggest failings of the first Syriza-led government was its lack of know-how in running the state. Most ministers simply did not know which buttons to press and levers to pull to get the state machinery working properly. This caused problems not only in Greece’s dealings with its lenders but also in a range of other areas such as education and immigration policy.
Unless the prime minister brings more expertise into his government, the prospects for a productive administration and an amicable relationship with Greece’s creditors will not be good. This is especially the case because of the sheer burden of work the coalition will have to carry out in the weeks ahead, which includes coming up with fiscal measures to meet the targets of a primary budget deficit of 0.25 percent of GDP this year and a primary surplus of 0.5 percent in 2016. Other key priorities are drafting a pension reform plan; moving forward with privatizations; and overseeing the recapitalization of Greek banks.
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Despite his government’s slim parliamentary majority, Tsipras is in the advantageous position of being able to count on most of the opposition’s support for a number of bailout-related measures. In fact, the parties that voted for the latest agreement with Greece’s lenders are represented by 258 of the 300 members of parliament.
However, Tsipras will not be able to count on the opposition’s unquestioning support. The conservative New Democracy, which won 28.1 percent of the vote, spent much of the campaign distancing itself from the deal and has said it will not vote for measures with which it disagrees, particularly tax hikes.
Tsipras’s biggest challenge will be to balance the rigors of implementing the bailout with the need to maintain public support. Once the latest measures really start to bite, Tsipras may find his powers of persuasion to be less effective and his members of parliament, under pressure from angry constituents, less willing to back him in the legislature.
This has been the pattern in Greece since the first bailout was signed in 2010. As a result, the average lifespan of Greek governments since then has been just over twelve months. Can Tsipras buck the trend? Now, there’s a question.
Nick Malkoutzis is the editor of the political and economic analysis website MacroPolis.