Teflon Tsipras. Despite the near-collapse of the domestic economy and a spectacular U-turn on austerity pledges, Greek Premier Alexis Tsipras’s popularity remains unchallenged.
Less than a week after Greek lawmakers voted through the country’s third massive international bailout, Antonis Bertsos, a 69-year-old retired businessman who lives in Athens, has no regrets about supporting SYRIZA in January’s general election. He says he would happily do so again even though the party had to abandon its policy pledges.
“Tsipras is alone among Greek politicians to have truly negotiated with the nation’s creditors,” he told Kathimerini English Edition.
Bertsos, who used to work for a German multinational firm, has seen his pension drop by 43 percent since 2010 due to a series of cuts demanded by Greece’s creditors. A former supporter of the socialist PASOK party, he later migrated to the more business-friendly conservative New Democracy: the two parties that dominated the country’s post-dictatorship politics. Now, Bertsos justifies his newfound preference by pointing to SYRIZA’s moral advantage and its youthful leader’s unblemished political record.
“He has never put his hand in the cookie jar,” Bertsos said of the 41-year-old Alexis Tsipras, a former member of the Communist party youth movement who became Greece’s youngest party leader at the age of 33.
During Tsipras’s tumultuous tenure as premier, the country has fallen back into recession, sunk deeper into debt, and introduced stringent capital controls as banks shut down for three weeks. On top of that, after the country’s economy all but shut down, Tsipras, elected on a pledge to end austerity, signed up for a 86-billion-euro cash-for-reforms rescue agreement a mere week after Greeks massively backed his plea to reject a less brutal deal in a controversial, nationwide referendum.
But this devastating record does not seem to have put a dent in SYRIZA’s popularity.
A poll by Metron Analysis conducted late last month found that 63 percent of voters deemed that reaching an agreement with lenders was the right move. The survey put voter preference for SYRIZA at 33.6 percent, leaving main opposition New Democracy in the dust on 17.8 percent, or trailing 15.8 percent.
Fresh opinion polls are expected after the summer lull.
The government’s scattergun technique and dismal record, analysts say, has not prevented SYRIZA spinmeisters from building a strong narrative of defiance and victimhood.
“While in opposition, SYRIZA succeeded in tweaking public perception of the bailout agreement. Far from an imperfect, even problematic, remedy to a problem, the memorandum came to be seen as the very source of the Greek crisis,” political expert Elias Dinas told the newspaper.
In the process, SYRIZA casually slipped into nationalist language at odds with its previously progressive rhetoric to attack its conjured enemies. They were, by and large, mainly to be found at home, and were made up of all Greek administrations between 2009 and 2015.
SYRIZA stuck to a similar strategy after climbing to power and winning the January 2015 election. But the strain from trying to keep promising its outrageously untenable campaign pledges, a manifesto known as the “Thessaloniki program,” meant that SYRIZA had to scramble to find a new target. They did not have to look far.
“The villain was now the Germans, [German Finance Minister Wolfgang] Schaeuble, [Chancellor Angela] Merkel, the vaguely defined conservative circles and elite groups inside the European Union,” Dinas said.
“The ideological content of these targets is secondary to the nationalist dimension: They are portrayed as enemies of the Greek people and this generates emotional responses that, of course, favor the government,” he said.
Another reason that Tsipras and his ministers were able to dominate the political scene despite some of the biggest flip-flops in recent memory was the stark absence of a convincing alternative.
“There is simply no viable opposition party that could gain votes from SYRIZA,” said Spyros Kosmidis, an expert on elections and public opinion.
“This leaves a lot of wiggle room for mistakes and delays,” he said.
Following former Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’s ignominious exit, New Democracy seems pretty much locked in existential mode. The conservatives recently voted Vangelis Meimarakis as their new leader. He is a no-nonsense party stalwart who is popular across the political spectrum but whose presence at the helm reflects the lack of alternatives for the main opposition party. Its most recognizable faces are also those that took part in the ND-PASOK coalition that suffered a landslide defeat in January. It will take time until ND manages to present itself as a real competitor to SYRIZA.
In the Socialist camp, the party’s spectacular decline was sealed by the election of the underwhelming Fofi Gennimata as its new leader. Her sharp jibes at Tsipras have fallen on deaf ears, and the extinction of the most dominant force in Greek politics has left a vacuum at the center.
Seeking to fill this vacuum, the pro-European, pro-business Potami party, which was launched last year, represents the most serious bid to energize reformist voters, yet it does not have what it takes to occupy the middle ground.
And for a large chunk of voters who abandoned longstanding ties with other parties, it doesn’t even matter whether someone else would actually be better for the country – it would be hard to accept that the change they believed in could turn out to be false.
“These voters will be rationalizing their choice for quite some time,” Kosmidis said.
Although SYRIZA’s ratings have escaped relatively unscathed, Tsipras’s teflon suit could start to wear uncomfortably thin as voters begin to feel the pinch of the mounting austerity measures.
Studies estimate that the total burden on the average household from changes to VAT rates will reach 650 euros on an annual basis.
After trying to shirk responsibility for the six-month economic decline, SYRIZA is likely to try the same on the impact of the third memorandum.
“Attributing blame to creditors or the previous governments can be a successful strategy, but it has a short expiry date,” Kosmidis said, adding that the fallout, especially on employment, will inevitably hit the government’s popularity.
“When that happens, the ‘bad Europeans’ narrative will no longer work,” he said.
But then again, maybe we won’t see a sharp drop in the popularity of SYRIZA and Tsipras. PASOK, after all, went on to win the 2010 local elections six months after the first bailout agreement.
“SYRIZA’s decline will be gradual and linear to economic outcomes. The opposition’s support for the third bailout agreement will help them maintain some support,” Kosmidis said.
Experts deem that the most likely factor to accelerate popularity loss is the nascent split within SYRIZA – officially known as the Coalition of the Radical Left.
Tsipras has on three separate occasions relied on votes from ND, PASOK and Potami to pass legislation mandated by creditors as SYRIZA MPs rebeled. The process has exposed the party’s pre-existing division between a majority of pragmatic MPs and a vociferous minority of dissidents spearheaded by former energy minister and head of the mutinous Left Platform Panayiotis Lafazanis. A day before Greek lawmakers endorsed the bailout deal, Lafazanis announced that he would help set up a new, anti-bailout movement.
The fracture has made elections unavoidable, but it is still unclear whether Tsipras will hold a vote of confidence to trigger a snap vote, as some of his close aides have advised him, or choose to first pass the bulk of legislation implementing reforms Athens has committed to by the end of September.
In any case, SYRIZA will most likely seek to transform the pro- vs anti-bailout cleavage that has animated Greek politics into a pro-euro versus pro-drachma one.
“It is ironic that the party which built its popularity on this dichotomy will now try to abandon it, but nothing is written in stone when it comes to electoral politics,” Dinas said.
Although it should not be ruled out, a collaboration between SYRIZA and center-left parties, including Potami, is unlikely.
It is also not necessary, experts say, as SYRIZA still has room to play the critical pro-bailout force without deviating into center-left territory.
“SYRIZA’s populist discourse has a nationalist component that enables the party to draw support from the non-leftist section of society without having to approach the median voter in ideological terms,” Dinas said.
“This is thanks to a populist tradition that goes a long way back, but one that SYRIZA has served very well since the beginning of the crisis,” he said, indicating the decision to join forces with the populist nationalist Independent Greeks (ANEL).
Shrugging off the repercussions of the fresh barrage of cost-cutting measures, Bertsos suggested that the source of most woes is, in fact, far from home.
“Sure, Tsipras has made mistakes, but the pressure on him from outside was unprecedented. They [foreign creditors] really wanted to rip him to shreds,” Bertsos said, adding that Athens paid the price of antagonism between Brussels and Washington.
“When elephants fight, it’s always the grass that gets trampled,” he said.