A stable progressive government is possible, says opposition chief

A stable progressive government is possible, says opposition chief

SYRIZA will not seek to form a government if it comes second in the general elections on May 21, the main opposition party’s leader and former prime minister Alexis Tsipras tells Kathimerini in an interview.

Citizens, says the leftist leader, will pay no mind to public opinion polls; he dismisses the minimum grade required for entry to universities as “a manipulation.” He also states that he is in favor of the fence on Greece’s land border with Turkey along the Evros River in the country’s northeast.

You have said that the “progressive government” you have in mind will not be a government of losers. Will this be the case if SYRIZA comes a close second to New Democracy, by half a percentage point, say? In such a case, will you not try to form a government if the situation allows it?

I deeply believe that a coalition of progressive forces around a government program could be both sustainable and long-lived. Most importantly, it would be able to effectively deal with the enormous challenges that lie ahead and also to achieve broad consensus on a program of institutional changes and reforms. The first time such a new model of governance is attempted will not have the moral and political legitimacy it needs to thrive if the party at its core is not the election winner. Objectively, therefore, a SYRIZA win would be a prerequisite for the change to come.

All of SYRIZA’s possible partners have rejected such cooperation, though. PASOK chief Nikos Androulakis also objects to you personally as prime minster. Is a coalition realistic when those who will apparently comprise it have already rejected it?

I’ll keep saying it: Between pre-election tactics and post-election jockeying, there’s an election. It is the people’s vote that determines reality, the power dynamic and the developments. And when the people decide, as I believe they will, when they give a clear mandate for a progressive coalition government, I cannot imagine which progressive political party, and on what pretext, will assume the responsibility and cost of saying no. Who will assume the responsibility and the cost of taking the country to a second and third round of voting as New Democracy wants?

Because there have been a lot of contradictory voices from within your party, can you please clarify: Would your invitation also extend to the Greek Communist Party (KKE)? Or to Yanis Varoufakis of MeRA25?

I don’t usually put the cart before the horse. The proposition does not exclude anyone besides New Democracy, Mr [Kyriakos] Velopoulos [of Greek Solution] and, of course, the far-right. Beyond the parties, though, the invitation is addressed first and foremost to all democratic citizens. To the social majority that demands to be rid of the right-wing regime and demands political change. The citizens will determine by their vote who will govern the country and how. And the leaderships of the parties in the democratic opposition will have to choose between a joint program of change and progress on the one hand, and the adventure of another electoral challenge on the other – which, I repeat, is what [Prime Minister Kyriakos] Mitsotakis has already said he wants.

You have claimed that the government you would form would not be one of party officials. Yet we have not seen any new potential members other than the party officials who were part of the 2015-19 government. Do you have another cabinet in mind that you haven’t revealed yet?

You probably haven’t focused enough on the people in the “think-tank” I formed two years ago or the list of SYRIZA candidates. If you do, you will see a lot of new faces. Young people and first-timers in politics. We don’t believe in privilege, permanence or hereditary rights in politics. And I can assure you that the progressive government will surprise with its new faces and the number of women who will be invited to carry the burden of the effort for justice everywhere.

Many argue that the fact SYRIZA comes second to ND in all the public opinion polls published in the last seven years is proof that the party’s platform is unconvincing. How do you explain your party’s inability to overtake its rival? What’s to blame? Is it the pollsters?

We will find out very shortly. Judgment time is coming for the political parties and the pollsters. The only thing that’s certain is that the citizens will not heed opinion polls when it comes to their ultimate choice.

If you do return to power, will you also restore the electoral system of simple proportional representation?

It is widely acknowledged as the fairest system, and it deserves to be tried for the first time and yield a stable progressive coalition government. It would change everything about how the toxic political battle is fought. It would herald a new age for our democracy, which would be defined by consensus, convergence in political programs, the equal weight of each vote, and support for the government from the majority of society and the electoral body. If this works, I see no reason to return to the tension, the polarization, the sinful and arrogant – as they have been proven – minority governments that we are used to calling [parliamentary] “majority” governments.

Does your proposal about settling debts and the protection of the main residence cover also the middle class or just the most vulnerable?

It certainly does, and this is the difference from other proposals or actual applied policies. It covers much more than vulnerable households; it applies right into the middle class. And, what’s more, it is an applicable and realistic proposal. It gives households with minimal financial ability who, for a host of reasons, failed to keep up with mortgage payment schedules, to reclaim ownership of their homes in a relative short time span of five to 10 years, with the help of a big loan haircut and state subsidy. This is crucial. Middle-class people are not free-riders by nature. They are aware they will need to carry their part of the burden so they can leave some small legacy to their children. Provided, of course, they are able to carry the burden and see results fairly quickly.

What will happen if the firms managing the loans decline to take part in the extrajudicial process and the debt settlement platform?

Our proposal attempts to tackle the problem at the least possible cost for all sides. Debt management companies find themselves at an impasse because the “Hercules plan” [to slash the amount of bad loans held by banks] has failed. And for the management firms’ planning to succeed, it will require a tsunami of auctions of repossessed homes. This would represent the greatest redistribution of property since World War II. I don’t know what Mr Mitsotakis has promised the debt managers, but I’m sure even they understand that the [mass auction option] cannot be tolerated in Greece, irrespective of who’s governing. Thus, we offer a solution that is also attractive to them, above all because it is realistic and also because it will not lead to losses. They may not achieve very big profits but will avoid the worst and will make a reasonable profit in a relatively short time.

You have been criticized for bleeding the middle class dry with taxes and you got massively disavowed as a result. Do you agree with this statement? Also, do you believe your party’s standing with the middle class suffered because of a disconnect in values on issues such as education, defense or migration?

However hard some may try their hand at revisionism, the history of Greece did not begin in 2015. We found a middle class destroyed by the Samaras [conservative-socialist coalition] government [of 2012-15] and a bankrupt country with empty coffers. And, concerning our own period in government, I never shied away from saying that the middle class was overburdened. But it was not our choice; it was part of a national goal to get out of the [creditor-imposed] austerity packages. But Mr Mitsotakis, who was elected on a pledge to lessen the tax burden on the middle class, has made it live with discount coupons. With indirect taxes that encroach on its income. The state’s excess revenue from VAT in 2022 was €4 billion higher than in 2021. And his ministers are calling “strategic free-riders” those who are in danger of losing their property because the cost of living and interest rates have escalated. We are witnessing at this moment the greatest income redistribution from the middle class to a powerful few.

But, to talk about values, is the middle class satisfied that Mr Mitsotakis has put Greece in the sights of European institutions and the international press for defiling the rule of law? For the bugging of communications, the perversion of justice, for the widespread corruption, lack of transparency, the client state, the hordes of [conservative] “golden boys” that have captured the state? I don’t think so? That’s why, in the May 21 election, Mr Mitsotakis will no longer have the middle class’ back; it will turn its back on him. 

Recently, you changed your mind about excluding MP and former minister Pavlos Polakis from the list of parliamentary candidates and accepted his apology. However, Mr Polakis did not apologize to those he attacked on social media, including some with whom you are in regular contact, such as the Bank of Greece governor. So, what was the transgression you forgave? Was it just defying party discipline? Are your differences with him just ones of temperament?

Self-criticism is very important to the Left. To admit one’s mistakes publicly, and see their negative consequences on collective action, regardless of intent, is an act that shows responsibility and is expected. And this is far more consequential than a hypocritical apology. SYRIZA-Progressive Coalition is, as you know, a democratic, broad church party. We do not all have the same views or the same manner of expressing them. But we do share the same rules and the same collective processes that we all respect, above and beyond our specific views.

After the rail disaster at Tempe, there is a general clamor for the state to change. What do you believe must change in the way state agencies operate? Is there a need for a more thorough assessment of personnel?

There are dozens of open wounds and maladies that have made the state ineffective, unjust, hostile, even dangerous as the tragedy at Tempe proved. An endemic culture of favors, non-meritocracy, family rule, placing “our people” in positions of trust, expropriation of public money in nontransparent ways for corrupt ends. And the Mitsotakis government, which promised and advertised the rule of the excellency and the “strategic state,” all it did was take advantage of all dysfunctions for its own profit, political and economic. It did not only make the state look like a regime, but also a sort of property. In a way, it privatized the state, with Mr Mitsotakis himself the main shareholder. Owner of the National Intelligence Service (EYP), owner of state TV, owner of funds that directed billions without competitive tenders. And a provocative rewarding of relatives and friends with extravagant salaries under scandalously opaque procedures. All this must end. Even if it comes at a cost to our party. We need a just, effective state. With strict transparency and evaluation rules. With every part of its operations and actions monitored. With every euro spent accounted for. With the digitalization [of operations] as a tool and means to make the state friendlier to the citizens. And, of course, with the restructuring of its “hard-nosed” tools, such as EYP and the police.

Recently, there appears to be a detente in our relations with Turkey. Do you think this will last? Should Greece see this as a window of opportunity to take advantage of with a substantial dialogue with Turkey?

There is, indeed, a window of opportunity that must be taken advantage of so that [both countries] can focus on the challenges our peoples face during this difficult period, especially in the economy and our everyday lives. But this opportunity can only be leveraged if there is the will to overcome the fear of political cost and ensure a structured dialogue with explicit red lines and a specific goal. Unfortunately, Mr Mitsotakis has neither the will nor a goal. As far as we are concerned, our will to engage in a dialogue is clear. Our red lines are our territorial integrity and our right to defend it. And we plan to make good use of our alliances to defend these red lines at the negotiating table. And our goal is very clear: Seize the International Court in The Hague to rule over the continental shelf and the [related] exclusive economic zones (EEZs).

If this detente continues after the elections in Turkey, will this affect your views of the defense agreements signed by Greece? Will it strengthen your declared intent to review them?

The first question after the Turkish elections will be whether Turkey, under pressure mostly from its economic difficulties, will make moves toward the West or not. If it does, a positive US-Turkey and EU-Turkey agenda will develop. We must make certain that it will include the conditions for a positive agenda in Greek-Turkish [disputes] and the Cyprus issue, which will protect our positions. For example, we proposed in 2021 to make negotiations for a revised EU-Turkey customs union of a joint [Greek-Turkish] move to take the continental shelf/EEZ disputes to the Hague court. Regarding the US, we clearly contend that it must pressure Turkey directly, and not reluctantly, on its unacceptable position about “gray zones” [of disputed sovereignty] in the Aegean. To sum up, we will forcefully demand the support of the United States, France and other partners in this direction and, at a defense level, clear support of our sovereignty and sovereign rights. Within this framework, we will review the existing [defense] agreements; their revision will be toward ensuring Greek interests on the basis of the relevant articles.

Do we need to expand the border fence with Turkey near the Evros River?

Mr Mitsotakis remembered the Evros fence on the recommendation of his American communications adviser, just like [former US president Donald] Trump in the US elections, to set up another flag-waving show. But, since I mentioned the US, I should remind him of Abraham Lincoln’s words: “You can fool all of the people some of time; you can fool some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time.” So, the fence can help in some locations in Evros, but it is obviously not the solution to the migration issue. It even creates problems as to the control of the land between the fence and the border with Turkey. Of course, we will keep the fence but will not confine ourselves to that. We will demand the protection of our borders on the basis of international and European law, with a new migration and asylum agreement that will distribute in a just and proportionate way [among EU members] those who demand asylum, with legal resettlement routes from Turkey to the EU. And a new bilateral agreement with Turkey that will ensure even more clearly that Turkey will do everything under its power to deal with traffickers and will accept the return of those that are not eligible for asylum.

You have severely criticized the government’s migration policy. Do you think your record as a government, especially given the situation you left at the Moria refugee camp on the eastern Aegean island of Lesvos, was better?

We had to deal with the greatest refugee crisis since World War II, with the Greek economy and society in the throes of a deep crisis, with the [neo-Nazi] Golden Dawn the third largest party and an asylum agency that had been founded just three years before. And we left Moria in 2019 with 5,500 asylum applicants and 13,500 on all Greek islands. I remind you that, a few months later, [the number of people at] Moria had reached 15,000 and 45,000 overall in the islands; the [New Democracy] government accepted the geopolitical dimension of the problem that supposedly didn’t exist before and was sending riot police to the islands. It is very positive that illegal [migration] flows were reduced drastically with the [Covid-19] lockdown and the EU-Turkey deal after the Merkel-Erdogan meeting. I am not sure at all if migrant flows would have been reduced if these events had not happened. In any case, what our country needs is a balanced migration policy. With guarding of the borders but also respect for the rules of international law. 

I heard you telling a youth you met on the street, and who had told you that he had failed the university entrance exams, that “you didn’t fail. They failed you. [Education Minister Niki] Kerameus failed you.” Do you insist it is right for someone who has averaged 3/20 or 5/20 in the exams to be admitted to a university? Isn’t it like telling people, “They have failed you, but I will give you a pass”? What kind of quality university would that be?

All of us in this country have either sat the university exams or our children have done so. And we know that this is the most tamper-proof entrance system in the country but also the most absurd for a 17-year-old kid that is called to determine his or her future studies. However, high demand for some schools and departments forces us to continue, at least for them, holding exams for the limited number of places predetermined by the state. But we do not have grades determined by whether the exam questions were difficult or not. What the Mitsotakis government did, through Kerameus’ decisions [to require a minimum passing grade for every examined subject] was a manipulation at the expense of young children and their families. And they did it not because of a sudden concern about the quality of those entering university, but they wanted to shoehorn a sizable number of young children – thousands – into choosing [private] colleges. This is both unfair and immoral. That’s why we will change it.

To stay with education, you intend to return to the previous “asylum” regime in universities. Won’t public order forces be allowed to enter universities without the permission of university administrators?

The public force could intervene even before the asylum was abolished, if crimes were committed. So, in practice, there will be no difference regarding crime. Abolishing the asylum and creating a university police only happened to feed a conservative constituency convinced that our universities are not places of learning and creativity but gang-infested ghettos. Fortunately, this is not the case. But universities are part of the social fabric. There are safety issues, as everywhere. But you do not restore safety by fiat. We may have a police force in our universities now, but our students do not feel any safer. Crime persists near, and sometimes inside, university premises, such as in University of Athens student housing, but no police, university or otherwise, are intervening. Only in student protest rallies. This is absurd. We will send police to patrol neighborhoods and [fight] crime. As for university classrooms, we intend to send more professors. And we believe this way everyone, including the students, will feel safer. 

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.