After Alexis Tsipras’s resignation as prime minister on August 20, I was certain that he simply did not want to carry through the reforms he signed and decided to retire from government. I could not understand why voters would support a man who failed to keep his electoral promises, drove the country to almost financial and economic collapse due to poor negotiating techniques, and signed an 86-billion-euro loan agreement, which literally negates national sovereignty. And yet voters, at least those who bothered or were able to vote, chose him overwhelmingly.
What might appear even more surprising is Tsipras’s support from other EU heads of states and even EU officials. A few months ago, the same people were complaining that they could not trust Tsipras and his government. What changed?
I have read very insightful analyses about why New Democracy failed to capitalize on Tsipras’s failure. One is that neither voters nor Brussels trusts New Democracy to carry through the reforms stipulated by the memorandum because they will not clash with the economic oligarchs or address the problem of tax evasion. Second, Tsipras signed the agreement, so he cannot escape from it once he is in government. I think this second argument has a lot of merit but also needs to be put in context to see why. Officials in Brussels prefer Tsipras in government because they did not want him to be in opposition. Let me expand on that: New Democracy has already shown its pro-memorandum preferences by signing the agreement over the summer. Thus, if Tsipras moves forward with the reforms he has signed, Brussels expects very little resistance, at the political level, in the implementation of the memorandum. The same would not necessarily be true if Tsipras was in opposition.
In an article published two years ago in the journal West European Politics,1 I showed that tax and pension reforms in Greece failed due to the effective and vocal resistance of parties in opposition in tandem with vocal resistance from the trade unions. In adversarial political systems, such as Greece's, opposition parties are rarely included in the decision-making process. Instead, they perceive their role as effective opposition parties when they manage to disrupt the government’s reforms, even when these reforms are essential and unavoidable in the long run, such as pension reform. When trade unions are militant, as they are in Greece, opposition parties, of all ideological leanings, collude with them to disrupt the government’s policy program and appeal to the voters. This has been true not only for left-wing parties, such as SYRIZA or PASOK, but also for center-right parties such as New Democracy. Greek opposition parties have historically capitalized on the unpopularity of necessary economic reforms pushed forward by the governing parties. Indeed, New Democracy celebrated high ratings in the polls and saw its appeal increase across the lower income classes by aligning with the private and public sector unions to oppose Tasos Giannitsis’s social security reforms in the early 2000s.
Many, including Tsipras, argued that we had to have elections in order to achieve a viable majority in government that could carry out the reforms. In my comparative study of 17 parliamentary democracies, I find that majority governments are no better at adopting tough and unpopular reforms than minority governments; in fact the opposite is often true. Under minority governments, the parliamentary groups in opposition are actively involved in the decision-making process by amending and supporting legislation. Often, this allows governments to achieve a high political, and in turn, societal consensus over the proposed reforms. For example, Denmark has managed to undertake more social security reforms under minority governments than either Greece or Britain with their strong single-party majority governments. New Democracy provided such support to Tsipras this summer by voting on the memorandum. Technically speaking, Tsipras could run a successful minority government, with the support of the opposition parties, just as about a third of all European countries routinely do.
Now one might argue that this model of governance is too foreign to us Greeks. In addition, we do not know how supportive New Democracy would be of specific measures that hurt its traditional constituencies. Still, in my view, the consensus model of governance could work even in Greece simply because politically costly decisions need to be shared between the government and the opposition. At the same time, when government and opposition work together, interest groups and voters alike understand that political and societal forces must collaborate to get the country out of the crisis. Brussels is betting that New Democracy will not attack the government’s reform efforts. Indeed, Tsipras has much better chances of succeeding if New Democracy supports him, even if their support is not required for passing legislation. If that happens, it will be a first in modern Greek history.
1. Alexiadou, Despina. (2013). In Search of Successful Reform: The Politics of Opposition and Consensus in OECD Parliamentary Democracies. West European Politics, 36(4): 704-725.
Despina Alexiadou is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Pittsburgh.