The democratic paradox


It is a paradox at the heart of democracy that a minority may decide the fate of many. In parliaments across the globe we have seen one person cast the deciding vote, often on the basis of personal interest. Some years ago, referendums in two countries blocked the road toward a constitution for a continent of 500 million citizens. In Greece today, a small minority, which happens to control a crucial organ of ruling SYRIZA, is in a position to decide the country’s fate.

In such a simple way, the nucleus of a party which until a few years ago barely scraped past the 3-percent limit to enter Parliament can today bring down a government elected with 36.34 percent of the vote just six months ago. Late on Thursday, the clash between Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his party rivals in SYRIZA’s central committee was in full swing but the Left Platform faction and other hardliners had been undermining the premier (and party leader) for a long time already. Just a few weeks ago, the majority of the central committee’s 201 members attacked Tsipras’s decision to try salvage what he could of Greece’s economy when he clashed with its partners and catastrophe seemed inevitable.

This is one of the crucial points in SYRIZA’s internal turmoil. The dissenting Left Platform, led by Panayiotis Lafazanis, wants to leave the euro, representing a small minority in a society that has repeatedly declared it wants Greece in the eurozone. In Parliament, most of SYRIZA’s MPs are aligned with Tsipras, unlike the members of the central committee. In short, a minority in society and in the party’s parliamentary group can overthrow its leader and prime minister if it chooses to do so.

Another crucial factor is that those who attack the prime minister have learned nothing from Greece’s travails over the past few months. Tsipras and his negotiating team applied a policy of conflict with our partners and creditors that had the full backing of the Left Platform. Members of this faction were strongly represented in the government. When Tsipras saw the cliff ahead, they saw only his U-turn. When Lafazanis and others tried and failed to find alternative sources of funds from Russia and China, Tsipras saw this, whereas they persisted with fantasies. When their ridiculously amateurish Plan B for adopting a new currency was revealed, they pretended to know nothing of it and carried on undermining the prime minister while claiming to support him. This is a well-known tactic – do whatever you like and blame others for the consequences. Tsipras tried it in his clash with our partners; now his rivals are using it against him.

Democracy can survive the clash of rivals when they realize that if they cross certain lines they will all be destroyed. Belatedly, Tsipras learned this. His party rivals can’t understand that when you have the power to destroy you have a great responsibility not to use it.