Every politician has opportunities which they either make the most of or ponder carefully until they disappear. Alexis Tsipras appeared on the European Union’s political stage as a major headache for European social democracy while also being something of a rock star for the European left.
His appearances at rallies for the 2014 European elections met with great enthusiasm in Rome and Paris in certain anti-establishment leftist circles. Tsipras has succumbed to reality, though, after coming face to face with the “beast,” just as his predecessors did.
In summer 2015 he was forced to compromise after an unprecedented adventure. But he won the second election that year. That may have been the win that gave him the overwhelming conviction that “since I managed to win and control the game after all this, I will never lose.”
Conservative leaders in Europe were confident they had tamed him. They believed it would be a lesson for would-be Tsipras-esque politicians in Spain and Italy. The socialists began believing they could get him on their side, hoping some of his anti-establishment zeal would rub off on them.
They effectively gave him the keys to represent European social democracy in Greece. They, and especially former French president Francois Hollande, gave Tsipras unreserved support. He promised to create a centrist socialist party. The political transformation would have made him more attractive to the markets, foreign investors and anyone else that could help to bring about economic recovery. Tsipras played this game well outside Greece. He held up a few heads from the old establishment to prove wrong those in Europe who believe “nothing changes in Greece.” He spoke the language of markets and entrepreneurs. They liked that he was a “bad boy turned good.”
In Greece, however, Tsipras could never shake off his past. There have been times when people of other political affiliations would have worked with him if he’d had a clear plan, a different political culture and repudiated division as a policy tool. He did not do this. On the contrary, at the first sign of political panic he recoiled into a non-European version of national populism. Markets and businesses don’t have any patience for this. They want results and actions yesterday, not tomorrow.
This is pretty much how Tsipras ended up with one foot in European social democracy and the other in a very marginal left. The crack below his feet is growing and he doesn’t know what to do. As the poet says, only a bullfighter knows what he’s thinking when he looks a bull in the eye. As for the beast, it is preparing to welcome the next fighter into the ring.