Greece, April 2015: What are SYRIZA going to do?

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A group of refugees leave the Samanli-Dag Peninsula, on a boat they boarded with the help of the Turkish Red Crescent. © ICRC
A group of refugees leave the Samanli-Dag Peninsula, on a boat they boarded with the help of the Turkish Red Crescent.
© ICRC

The issues

I look outside my balcony and I see flowers, I see greens of all sorts, Spring is finally coming to Marathon and it is beautiful. This symphony of colors and smells however, does not take my mind away from the current political and economic situation in Greece.  Since SYRIZA became the leading party in the new Greek Government in January 2015, we have not seen any results in the negotiations with Greece’s creditors. Uncertainty rules the situation of Greece.

SYRIZA won the January 2015 parliamentary elections and formed a government with the ANEL extreme-right nationalist party. Since then they have started negotiations with Greece’s creditors, that have not been concluded to date and have not progressed much thus far. There are two major issues to consider.

The first issue is the conclusion of the current (second) memorandum between Greece and her creditors. The current agreement expires at the end of June 2015. A final payment of Euro 7.2 billion is pending.

The second issue has to do with reaching a new agreement for the future of Greece. The future needs of Greece have been – moderately – estimated at Euro 30 billions. The new agreement must be approved by the Greek Parliament.

Alexis Tsipras
Alexis Tsipras. the Prime Minister of Greece

The ongoing negotiations testify that there still is a gap between the creditors and SYRIZA. There are two potential outcomes.

1. SYRIZA and the creditors agree on a plan to continue the funding of the Greek State and formalize it as a new agreement.

If SYRIZA agree with Greece’s creditors, they must submit it to the Greek Parliament for approval. This means that it must be an agreement that is compatible with the electoral platform of SYRIZA, or is presented to the public to be so.

2. SYRIZA and the creditors do not reach an agreement.

If on the other hand SYRIZA were to choose not to reach an agreement with the creditors, they run the risk of the country entering into a twilight zone.

It seems to me that one way or another SYRIZA will need to agree with the creditors and either present the agreement to the Greek Parliament and People as compatible with their political platform, or seek another means to legitimize it.

What is going to happen?

Time is running out for SYRIZA and for Greece. The end of June is the latest an agreement must be reached. Otherwise, Greece will face bankruptcy.

In order to understand how SYRIZA are negotiating it is important to revisit the primary political objective.

The end of the Greek Civil War, Summer of 1949
The end of the Greek Civil War, Summer of 1949

The primary objective in politics

At this point it is necessary to remind ourselves what politics is all about. We hear from SYRIZA and ANEL all sorts of things these days, most of them populist nonsense.

Some examples will help the reader understand what I am talking about.

“We are restoring Greek pride”

“We will save the country”

“We will rescue the poor”

Let us return to reality.

The number one objective in politics has been and will always be to have power and to govern.

Defence Minister KAmmenos and the Greek Church Archbishop during the Greek Easter celebrations in Athens
Defence Minister KAmmenos and the Greek Church Archbishop during the Greek Easter celebrations in Athens

By definition, the pragmatists in SYRIZA have this prime objective, no matter what they say to the public and to Greece’s creditors. Recall that the definition of a pragmatist is:  “a politician who accepts that her primary objective in politics is to acquire, enhance and maintain power”. Mr. Tsipras, the Prime Minister, is a pragmatist.

But there are not only pragmatists SYRIZA.

There are idealists, the so-called “left wing” of the party, led by Mr. Lafazanis. Recall that an idealist in politics is primarily interested in maintaining the purity of their political ideas, regardless of what the implications are. To understand “the idealism of the left” in Greece, it is useful to remind the reader that the left in Greece have suffered a humiliating sweeping defeat in 1946-1949.

Greek Communist Party Headquarters, December 1944
Greek Communist Party Headquarters, December 1944

It would be wrong though, to restrict the discussion to SYRIZA, as the block of power today in Greece is much more complex.

The vote of the Greek people in January 2015 was not necessarily a vote in favor of the left.

It was a vote against the creditors and the political parties that have supported the agreements with the creditors.

It is interesting to note that a big percentage of  the extreme right is now supporting SYRIZA. It is not an accident that ANEL, an extreme-right party is in the governing alliance.

To summarize, SYRIZA have been elected by a heterogeneous political base which may have difficulty accepting a “honorable” compromise with the creditors.

Given the difficult position of SYRIZA in the context of the negotiations, the question that arises is what will SYRIZA eventually do in order to retain political power.

Nicolo Machiavelli
Nicolo Machiavelli

How is SYRIZA going to retain its political power?

One of the cardinal rules  of political power and legitimization is that in order to maintain power you need to build and sustain alliances.

In doing so, you must dominate the internal front of your party.

Another rule is that legitimization is a key requirement when a political community is going through a difficult period.

A third rule requires that you weaken the opposition, so that there is no clear and strong alternative to you.

If we apply these rules to today’s SYRIZA, we need to discuss the following:

  • The alliances that SYRIZA is building in Greece
  • What is happening and will happen in the political opposition in Greece
  • What is happening internally in SYRIZA
  • The mechanisms of legitimization that are available
Mr Kostas Karamanlis with Mr Prokopis Pavlopoulos when Mr Karamanlis was Prime Minister
Mr Kostas Karamanlis with Mr Prokopis Pavlopoulos when Mr Karamanlis was Prime Minister

The SYRIZA alliances in Greece

The first alliance that SYRIZA have built is the one with ANEL. One can safely assume that this alliance was built before the January 2015 elections, and was formalized with the formation of the new government. The leader of ANEL, Mr Kammenos, is the Minister of Armed Forces.

The second alliance of SYRIZA is with Mr Kostas Karamanlis, who served as Prime Minister from 2004 to 2009 and was succeeded by Mr George Papandreou in 2009. Mr Pavlopoulos, one of the closest politicians to Mr Karamanlis has been elected as the new President of the Hellenic Republic. This is not just an opening to the “right”. In my view it signifies the intention of SYRIZA to strengthen its alliance with Mr Kostas Karamanlis, thus also weakening Mr Samaras, the Prime Minister who lost the January 2015 elections to SYRIZA.

Another publicly visible alliance SYRIZA are building is with the Greek Orthodox Church. Contrary to initial impressions, the relationships between SYRIZA and the Church are excellent.

Prominent leaders of the Church are publicly praising the new Government, and Mr Tsipras has frequent meetings with the Archbishop, Ieronymos. The Church appeals to the most conservative part of Greek society, which basically is positioned to the right and the extreme right of the political spectrum.

From the above one can conclude that SYRIZA’s alliance with the extreme right is very strong, through ANEL and the Church, while their alliance with the center-right are developing, through the alliance with Mr Kostas Karamanlis. The gap that currently exists is in the center – left of the political spectrum. This is where SYRIZA is relatively weak.

Alexis de Tocqueville
Alexis de Tocqueville

The political opposition in Greece

When it comes to the opposition, SYRIZA is openly trying to undermine the unity of New Democracy, by strengthening their alliance with Mr Kostas Karamanlis. They aim to reduce New Democracy to a party of the hard-core right.

There are movements inside New Democracy to challenge the leadership of Mr Samaras, who is charged as having led the party to the hard-core right,but they are rather subdued. A catalyst is missing, and New Democracy is trailing SYRIZA by more than 10% in recent polls.

All indicators point to a weak, heavy political body that does not have the vitality and strength to respond to the defeat of January 2015.

PASOK has almost disappeared from the political map following the January 2015 elections. Recent polls give less than 4% to a party that governed Greece for most of the period from 1981 to 2014. It is no accident therefore, that SYRIZA do not consider PASOK a force worth dealing with.

The new centrist cocktail party POTAMI, led by journalist Mr Theodorakis, is a different story. Recent polls give it 7%, which is slightly above what they received in the January 2015 elections. POTAMI (The River) are a vibrant political force, but it is too early to say whether they will survive or not. Their existence is due to the political dead ends that have occurred in the political middle ground of Greece, with the majority of the PASOK electorate moving to SYRIZA, but a significant component remaining unconvinced.

SYRIZA are hostile to POTAMI, which they consider a clear threat. Until now POTAMI are afloat and may play a significant role in the immediate future. This role may determine whether they will survive in the long term or not.

The ice pick that killed Leo Trotsky
The ice pick that killed Leo Trotsky

The internal SYRIZA front 

In the internal front, SYRIZA are playing a safe game: propaganda coupled with damage limitation, laced with fireworks.

First of all, they do not reveal anything about their true negotiating with the creditors. This enables them to appear that until today they stand firm by their electoral commitments.

The references they make to a “honorable” compromise and a “plan for economic development” are generalities that lighten the load for the SYRIZA die hearts.

Unfortunately it is not only propaganda that SYRIZA deploys in the internal front.

In order to appease the SYRIZA extreme factions, the Government have passed a law allowing a jailed terrorist who has severe health problems to be at home. This shows how they plan to continue dealing with the internal front and opposition. This is a risky approach, as already USA have expressed their concern for the release from prison of a convicted terrorist and multiple murderer.

Historical Compromise in Italy: Enrico Berlinguer and Aldo Moro
Historical Compromise in Italy: Enrico Berlinguer and Aldo Moro

Legitimization

Anything in politics is as good as its acceptance by the public.

Any agreement with the creditors has to be approved by the Greek Parliament. Is this enough to make it politically legitimate? For simplicity, in what follows I refer to “agreement” as the “new” agreement that will be in effect after June 2015.

Given the severity of the situation, it is not.

SYRIZA must consider two additional legitimization options.

1. Referendum. The agreement will be the topic of a public referendum. If the Greek people approve the agreement, the government is legitimized to proceed with its implementation. If they do not, the government can go back to the creditors and ask for modifications. One has to be careful here, because the risk involved is significant. If the new agreement is rejected, and a precedent is created with the referendum, the process may end up in a vicious spiral, with new agreements being continuously rejected by the Greek Public in a “decathlon” of referenda, without a solution in sight. I assume that this was the reason that Mrs. Merkel and Mr Sarkozy asked Mr Papandreou to withdraw his recommendation to hold a referendum back in 2010.

2. General Elections. The Greeks will be asked to vote again in order to elect a new Parliament and Government. The elections are even more complicated than the referendum, and in a country that is almost bankrupt, there is no time allowance for this type of experimentation.

It appears that SYRIZA are now in a corner.

The best option for them is to present the new agreement as fulfilling their political promises. Hard to do, but they are good in propaganda.

Alternatively, they might proceed with a referendum, taking the risk, but at the same time “engineering” it in a way that almost ensures a positive result, i.e. the approval of the new agreement.

People queuing for food in modern Greece
People queuing for food in modern Greece

Conclusion

SYRIZA need to retain their political power. To loose it after a few months in office would be a disaster for them.

If this is their primary objective, and I believe it is, they will eventually reach an agreement with the creditors but may proceed to legitimize it with a public referendum.

Alternatively, they may decide to avoid the risks of the referendum, and take it on the chin.

Two major political factors are in their favor. Their alliances and the weakness of the opposition.

They can rely on the strong alliances they have built inside Greece to absorb any shocks after the agreement.

They may also take advantage of the fact that their opposition is at the moment very weak.

What remains open is the future of Greece.

I am afraid that even if an agreement is reached with the creditors, the damage to the Greek economy and society is so big that it will take a lot more than a creditors’ agreement to recover.

Interestingly enough, this recovery is not on the agenda in a pragmatic way.