They drove the economy into free-fall, racked up huge budget arrears, closed the country’s banks and ended up being forced into a humiliating about-turn and a new bailout program harsher than anything seen in the previous five years. Of course they won.
Greece’s Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his Syriza party have achieved a stunning victory at Greece’s fifth election in the last six years. Stunning not only because they finished eight percentage points ahead of their main rivals when all the opinion polls had indicated they were neck-and-neck, but also (and far more) because of their record over the last eight months.
As Holger Schmieding, chief economist at Berenberg Bank argues, in his first stint as PM, Tsipras “chose the wrong coalition partner, the wrong finance minister, the wrong policies and the wrong strategy to negotiate with the lenders who were keeping Greece afloat.” How is it possible that the voters haven’t punished him for that?
Well, for one thing, it’s not clear that they haven’t. As we pointed out earlier this week, actually governing Greece under the conditions imposed by the third bailout agreement (signed by Tsipras as his economy threatened to implode in July) is going to be Purgatory. Re-election as punishment might work as a concept for many voters.
But such a resounding win, in such circumstances, has to be respected for what it is. The overwhelming majority of Greeks backed parties that were committed to keeping Greece in the euro. The extreme-left group whose defection from Syriza triggered this election failed to get the 3% needed to enter into parliament. The Fascist and Communist vote ticked up, admittedly, but not by enough to change the electoral calculus.
Those who voted voted for as clear a break as possible with the clientelism and corruption that has characterised modern Greek politics. And, rather like the Germans 13 years ago when they re-elected the Social Democrat Gerhard Schroeder, now that painful structural reform can’t be put off any more, they have mandated the party that they think will do it more equitably.
The only other strong signal the voters sent was disillusionment–the turnout of 55% was the lowest ever. With over 5% of votes cast going to parties that didn’t make it into parliament, the chamber that runs Greece will actually speak for less than half of Greek voters. That point was played up by the anti-bailout extreme leftists whose defection from Syriza triggered this election (albeit that was an attempt to deflect attention away from the fact that they failed to get into parliament, falling shy of the 3% threshold).
And that is about as good as the news gets. Expect the usual flood of diplomatic niceties and well-wishing, and a lot of talk about the wonderful opportunities Tsipras now has to set his country firmly on the path of modernisation. But this is the same Tsipras who freely admits that he doesn’t believe in the measures he’s being forced to implement, and who has signalled he wants to renew his coalition with The Independent Greeks (ANEL), a bunch of right-wing nationalists, rather than team up with the smaller parties of the center and center-left with whom Tsipras Mark II ought to have more in common. With a prospective majority (after 70% votes were counted) of all of four seats, that does not look like a team that can deliver a convincing implementation of the reforms demanded by Greece’s creditors. A highly problematic first review of the program awaits next month (or in November, if the creditors cut them that much slack). The risk of “Grexit” is still >0.
It may be that Tsipras (who has shown undoubted mastery of keeping atop of the greasy pole if nothing else) is luring ANEL into a trap, preparing to blame them for any problems with the review and ditch them in favor of more overtly pro-bailout parties in order to secure the first big payout from the creditors (the program is heavily front-loaded). But that’s a relatively small point, and for another day.
What matters tonight is that Tsipras has his victory and his opportunity to make a better fist of the impossible job that is Keeping Greece In The Eurozone. Wish him luck – he’ll be needing it.