Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras may have lost at the negotiating table with Greece’s eurozone creditors, but in a development that has pundits scratching their heads, he is still winning the hearts and minds of his countrymen.
How can a man who submitted to a severe new set of austerity measures after promising relief and presided over devastating bank closures manage to not only survive, but thrive, politically?
Tsipras’ continued success is a credit both to his political talents and the lack of real competition -- but it may not last, several analysts told The Huffington Post. Tsipras’ fate, they say, hinges on how the Greek public reacts once massive new austerity measures take effect and whether Tsipras can hold his ruling Syriza party together in the meantime.
Few would dispute that Tsipras remains popular. Tsipras enjoyed a 60 percent approval rating in a recent Kapa Research poll -- more than 10 points higher than any other political leader. If elections were held now, Tsipras’ Syriza party would win 42.5 percent of the vote -- nearly twice that of its main rival, the center-right New Democracy party, according to a poll by Palmos Analysis published Saturday.
Some observers see the Greek public giving Tsipras credit for trying to secure better terms, even if he ultimately failed.
“The fact that he went through five months of negotiations gives him credibility in the Greek population that he really meant to undo austerity,” said Angelos Chryssogelos, an expert in the European Union at London’s Chatham House think tank. “It gives him credibility, in a weird way, to now introduce an austerity package. When he says, ‘We cannot do anything else now,’ he is more credible. Previous governments claimed they had no choice, but Tsipras actually tried. He can truthfully state that he exhausted all other options.”
And Greek voters have exhausted all their options as well.
“Tsipras is dominant in domestic political terms,” noted Nick Malkoutzis, editor of economic and political analysis for Greek news site Macropolis. “Two of the main opposition parties, New Democracy and PASOK, are in a transitional phase, while the result of the referendum showed that he can galvanize people's support.”
Parina Stiakaki, a translator and property owner living in Athens who voted for Tsipras in the last elections, may be a case in point. She told HuffPost in late June that she wanted Greece to pursue a “Grexit” rather than accept more austerity, and would vote against Syriza if they agreed to a concessionary deal.
But now Stiakaki holds out hope that under Tsipras’ leadership, Greece might still get relief.
“He fought a tough battle and lost,” Stiakaki said. “But it’s not all over yet. Far from it.”
She is among those who believe that Tsipras is only implementing the demanded reforms reluctantly. That casts doubt in some minds on Tsipras’ willingness to go through with the measures.
“I am just not sure he has the willingness or stomach to go through with deeper austerity or harder reforms further down the way,” Chryssogelos said.
While Tsipras has vowed to crack down on tax evasion by the wealthy, Chryssogelos doubts he can remain steadfast against pressure from that group. The government already withdrew a proposal to increase taxes on farmers in response to organized resistance.
Demanding licensing fees from televisions stations that have long refused to pay them, Chryssogels said, may be a populist move that is more within Tsipras' grasp.
Others, like Harvard economist Jeffrey Frankel, say that Tsipras has the chance to become his country’s version of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva -- Brazil’s former leftist leader, popularly known as “Lula.” Frankel argues that Lula recognized political realities and moved to the political center once he gained power, allowing him to consolidate modest progressive gains.
Tsipras himself appears to be keeping his options open. He has maintained his disagreement with the austerity proposals, even as he says they must be implemented. On the other hand, he also appears to be moving genuinely to the center, saying that allowing people to retire at age 50 or younger is not "progressive political policy."
Regardless of his motives, Tsipras’ political career now depends on how soon he can get Greece the aid he surrendered so much to receive. To do that, he must quash political opposition within his party.
The Greek parliament approved the first of three sets of reforms last Thursday -- a needed step to reopen negotiations for an 86 billion euro bailout with eurozone creditors. But 38 Syriza members voted against the government’s bill or abstained. Several more Syriza parliamentarians vowed to join them in opposing the second set of reforms, scheduled for a vote on Wednesday evening.
Tsipras’ leadership of Syriza and its makeup as a party will ultimately be decided at a party congress in September, after which elections are likely to follow, a Syriza official told the Financial Times.
Costas Eleftheriou, a doctoral candidate at the University of Athens who specializes in radical left politics, believes that Tsipras is willing to move Syriza to the center in order to maintain the party's hold on power, but not to engage in new coalition building willy-nilly. That is why the prime minister has emphasized party discipline so much in recent parliamentary votes.
“He will try to transform his party to a new modern center-left political organization,” Eleftheriou said. “Tsipras is trying to personalize the Syriza message, by transforming their anti-austerity vision to a pro-austerity vision with social justice that protects the lower strata of society.”
If Tsipras can finalize the new bailout package, he may begin trying to secure concessions like debt relief.
“Whether he maintains the strong position will depend on whether things progress smoothly with Greece's lenders in the next few weeks,” Macropolis’ Malkoutzis said. “If the third bailout is agreed and he is able to reach the point where a meaningful discussion on debt relief begins, this could prove a real turning point.”
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