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Syriza Anniversary: What Has Alexis Tsipras Achieved?

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Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in Athens, Greece, January 14, 2016. As his government marks a year in power, what has he achieved? Reuters/Alkis Konstantinidis

Power can do funny things to a person. Just look at the panel Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras sat on at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Thursday. There, the former firebrand, besuited and sporting a fancy watch, shared a stage with an old foe, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble, and other EU leaders. Tsipras solemnly warned an audience of brainy business types and the global super-rich about the dangers of “populism” for Europe.

His warning came just under a year after Tsipras and his party Syriza—or the Coalition of the Radical Left—swept to victory in the Greek general election on January 25, 2015. Back then, Tsipras was seen as the dangerous populist, his triumph marked a shift in the old order of things. His supporters, as he cried in a jubilant address outside Athens University, were “an example of history which is changing.” At its height, his approval rating stood at 61 percent.

Now, depending on who you ask, Tsipras is either a capitulator to the “neoliberals” of Brussels and Berlin, a mature convert to the reformist center-left who saved Greece from economic catastrophe, or the same as he’s always been: a political tactician of no fixed ideology. So what, if anything, have he and his party achieved in a year of drama and disappointment—and where are they going next?

Tsipras and Syriza’s election marked a new chapter in a seven-year-old story of grievance and debt. When the global financial markets fell off a cliff in 2008, Greece swiftly became one of Europe’s crisis points. It was saved by two bailouts, eventually totaling more than 240 billion euros ($261 billion), from the so-called troika—the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Commission. But these loans came on the condition that successive governments, first led by the center-left Pasok party and then by the center-right New Democracy, impose harsh austerity measures. With unemployment spiralling over 25 percent, a desperate electorate in 2015 gave the anti-bailout Syriza a chance. Tsipras promised them he would negotiate significantly better terms for Greece and bring an end to austerity.

His critics are unanimous that on those terms, Tsipras has failed. “Syriza has achieved next to nothing,” says Costas Lapavitsas, a former Syriza MP from the party’s left wing who in August split to join the radical splinter group Popular Unity. “Syriza has accepted austerity, it has accepted a new bailout, it is applying it. It is implementing all the policies that it spent years decrying.” Meanwhile, a New Democracy source points out that on a Harvard University list of the most disastrous negotiations of 2015, Tsipras’s battles with the eurozone came out worst, beneath such travails as NATO’s standoff with Putin over Crimea.

It’s true that Tsipras didn’t break free of the bailout. After months of fraught negotiations with the troika and other European powers, including a surprise referendum called by Tsipras in July in which voters on his recommendation gave a resounding “no” to creditor-imposed austerity conditions, Greece signed a third bailout deal in August. The move confirmed what some true believers on the Greek left had always said; Tsipras was not as radical as some of his rhetoric. “It is very hard to tell what Alexis Tsipras genuinely believes in,” Lapavitsas says.

But Tsipras won praise for his remarkable campaigning abilities and political nous. He called—and won—another election in September, and his revived coalition with the small Independent Greeks party now holds 153 seats, less than the 162 it had after January’s election but still well ahead of second party New Democracy’s 75. Tsipras’s victory in the referendum strengthened his hand at the EU negotiating table, with one senior official telling The Guardia : “They didn’t like the outcome, but they realized how formidable he is.”

Most mainstream economists agree that Greece would have seriously struggled outside of the euro zone, and polls consistently showed that Greeks did not want to abandon the currency. Given that, many observers credit Tsipras with managing to secure the least worst option from an impossible situation. “He will fight to change the system from within,” Konstantinos Tsoukalas, Greece’s preeminent sociologist and a former Syriza MP, told The Guardian in September. “It was absolutely right that he signed [the bailout agreement]. The alternative would have been catastrophic.”

Like its predecessors, the bailout unlocked new funds for Greece—up to 86 billion euros ($96 billion)—but it, too, came with conditions. These, which included reforms to healthcare, welfare and pensions, and sweeping privatisations, precipitated the departure of Popular Unity and sparked protests outside the parliament building in Athens. Dynamic but antagonistic Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis had already quit after the referendum. But Syriza, with its new finance minister Euclid Tsakalotos, a more conciliatory figure preferred in Brussels to his predecessor, has patiently begun the process of securing votes on successive reforms.

Indeed there is some evidence Tsipras and the party might find a bold new political home in the reformist center. “The [Tony] Blair analogy is very apropos when it comes to Tsipras,” Dimitrios Triantaphyllou, a Greek political analyst, told Prospect in October. “[Tsipras] seems to be evolving into a power broker who understands that the only way to keep himself and his political platform in power is by transforming it into a mass party of the center-left.”

Syriza also on Thursday managed to appoint a new chief to Greece’s independent revenue authority. French-trained tax lawyer Giorgos Pitsilis will head the government’s crackdown on tax evasion, smuggling and money laundering; politically essential so that the public believes public sector belt-tightening is matched by a heavier hand for Greece’s sometimes reckless elite.

But Tsipras faces a significant backlash from unions like the agricultural workers’ PASEGES. Greece’s creditors are insisting on cuts to the pensions system, and Greeks are protesting in response, with ferry drivers and farmers both going on strike on Wednesday. “It is absolutely knife edge” whether Tsipras can see the new measures through parliament, says Kevin Featherstone, professor of contemporary Greek politics at the London School of Economics (LSE). Even if they do pass, it’s equally doubtful that they can be properly implemented by such a creaky state apparatus.

Meanwhile, Tsipras faces a new, formidable opposition leader in Kyriakos Mitsotakis. The liberal reformer, who won his party’s leadership in January, is beloved of Brussels and a “far stronger political opponent” than his predecessors, one who “would offer a real alternative” to voters, says Featherstone. Mitsotakis is already preparing to attack Tsipras’s credibility. “ The Syriza government is like an iceberg,” says a New Democracy spokesperson. “On top, the white tip represents Syriza's reform-minded promises to implement the memorandum. Beneath the surface, [there is] a menacing mass that represents Syriza's radical left aspirations.” But Mitsotakis faces deep divisions between conservatives and liberals in his own party, and will have a long job to do overturning its legacy as one of the original bailout parties. Syriza and New Democracy now often appear almost tied for support, with New Democracy on 19 percent and Syriza on 20 percent, according to a poll by ProRata released in December 2015.

Some on the left believed a genuine alternative path was possible, it just would have required Tsipras to be bolder. Lapavitsas, who repeatedly called in the spring of 2015 for Greece to leave the euro and carve its own fiscal path, says: “When [Tsipras’s team] were presented with the absolute dead end of their strategy, when they realized that Europe was not what they imagined… then they panicked and surrendered.” But he acknowledges that the anti-euro left of Syriza failed to win support for its message. “Politics is about grasping the moment, and we didn’t,” he says.

“Syriza has approached a kind of existential moment,” says LSE’s Featherstone. “There is clearly a momentum...to become a pro-reform, left-of-center broad umbrella political force. But it’s clearly struggling with its own identity...given that its pre-government experience was of very much opposing austerity and opposing the bailout programs.”

So which Tsipras will we see in 2016? The liberal reformist or the radical insurgent? Featherstone thinks the prime minister doesn’t necessarily need to choose just yet, adept as he is at speaking with one voice to Greeks and another to the international community. But Featherstone says that 2016 will eventually force Tsipras to come down one way or the other.

Syriza’s success, says Featherstone, “has been to give confidence and purpose back to a section of the electorate that was previously politically excluded.” In 2016, it must perfect a balancing act; playing along with the rules set by the creditors while keeping on-side at least some of that coalition of the hopeless. It’s a tall order. It requires one strategy for the World Economic Forum and another for the streets of Athens. But if anyone can pull that off, it’s Tsipras.

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