While I was at university, I was preoccupied by the question of how political parties used foreign policy issues to influence domestic audiences. I even wrote my thesis, which I later published as a book, about how Greek leader Andreas Papandreou dealt with the issue of American military bases in Greece in the 1980s.
The dismantling of American military bases, with the slogan "Out with the bases of death," was the flagship election proclamation of PASOK, the Panhellenic Socialist Movement, which led Greece in the 1970s and '80s, and it found itself at the center of the particular type of national populism that Andreas successfully came to express. With PASOK's rise to power, the party was asked to juggle its unrealistic election promises with the hard geopolitical realities that made removing those bases impossible. The eventual solution yielded to the political realities of the situation at hand. The military bases remained, but the wording of the agreement was phrased in such a way that Andreas could claim that they were leaving! All the negotiating weapons the government had at its disposal went into putting on this show, so that Andreas could sell the agreement to his political supporters. Complete control over the media, coupled with a public opinion desperate for a sense of national independence, made the management of this reversal all the easier.
Does this story sound familiar? SYRIZA used the write-down of the debt, the tearing up of the Memorandum and the ousting of the Troika as its main election slogans. All populist movements need a common enemy in order to be able to unite disparate audiences. For SYRIZA, the Memorandum and German dominance in Europe symbolized exactly what the military bases and American hegemony did for Andreas. The shift back to political reality came quickly for SYRIZA. Realizing that it was not possible for the country to move outside the EU framework without disastrous consequences, the government requested an extension to the existing program for four months, until the pending evaluation program is completed. This will be followed by the Greek government putting forth its own narrative regarding the strengths and viability of the Greek economy.
In these types of situations, words start to acquire their own special meanings. The "Troika" was renamed the "Institutions," the "Memorandum" has been retitled the "Program," and the "prerequisites" are now known as the "national reform plan." The substance of these things, though, has not changed. Greece must implement specific actions that will be checked by its creditors so that it can get the money that it so badly needs. Only when these people are satisfied that the government's actions are not jeopardizing the fiscal health of the country and are not undermining those reforms that have already been completed will they release the remaining tranches of the program.
The reality is that this government lost precious time and undermined the credibility of the country in the eyes of Europe, all in an attempt to justify its hard shift back to reality to its domestic audience. Wearing raised collars and untucked shirts is all fine and good, but trust is not built in the family of Europe by leaks and double-speak, all done just to show the domestic constituency how hard you are negotiating. Even the most experienced member of the Left, Manolis Glezos, immediately saw the government's attempt to "rechristen the fish into meat." Now that Lent is beginning, that phrase is quite appropriate.
The truth is that the government missed a great opportunity. Europe, now more than ever, needs a persuasive alternative to counter the German insistence on austerity. Mr. Tsipras would have been in a position to offer that alternative, had he not made himself so vulnerable in the campaign with rhetorical jabs or had he immediately requested an extension of the existing program. Instead, he decided to partake in some shadowboxing for the viewing pleasure of the Greek public.
Emphasis should have been given instead to a structured program with three pillars: the reduction of debt through guided changes, the reduction of excessively high primary surplus targets, and the implementation of a comprehensive program of reforms to improve the competitiveness of the real economy. The problem is that all of these are in direct conflict with the pre-election promises of SYRIZA and the expectations they stoked in the public. That is exactly what the first Papandreou government did, albeit with complete control over PASOK and a lot of money at its disposal.
Unfortunately, extreme campaign rhetoric will always continue to follow political parties, even when they rise to power. We in the opposition would also do well to remember this, so that we do not find ourselves one day in the unfortunate position of having to practice similar verbal gymnastics.
This post was originally published on HuffPost Greece and was translated into English.