Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 6 December 2019

Greece's Alexis Tsipras became a victim of his own budget cuts

The prime minister who came to power on a promise of change was booted out in the election because he was simply more of the same

Outgoing Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras leaving the Maximos Mansion after a meeting with newly-appointed Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Costas Baltas / Reuters
Outgoing Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras leaving the Maximos Mansion after a meeting with newly-appointed Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Costas Baltas / Reuters

Within hours of the polls closing on Sunday night, Greece's ex-prime minister Alexis Tsipras had called his rival and successor Kyriakos Mitsotakis to concede defeat. The man who swept to power on a tide of hope and a pledge to end austerity four years earlier was knocked from it by resounding losses at the ballot box, after the centre-right party New Democracy trounced him with an outright majority.

Over the course of his four-year term in office, Mr Tsipras went from being leader of the scrappy, left-wing, anti-establishment party Syriza, or Coalition of the Radical Left, promising a radical overhaul of tired, elitist systems, to becoming indistinguishable from the very hierarchy he promised to challenge. After four years of being governed by a prime minister who over-promised but under-delivered, Greeks have returned to the centre by voting in New Democracy – many of them young voters, nearly double the number that voted for the party in the 2015 election. What Greeks wanted from Syriza was something different. What they ended up with was more of the same.

The writing was on the wall in May, when Syriza trailed behind New Democracy in the European parliamentary elections, prompting Mr Tsipras to call an early election. There are still plenty of believers in the party’s founding principles. But faced with four years of disappointments, Syriza only managed to secure 31.5 per cent of the vote, considerably less than the 35.5 per cent it won in 2015.

The arguments will soon start over whether Syriza would have won had it stuck to its left-wing politics, instead of becoming managers for EU-imposed austerity. But the past few years have been so extraordinary for the country, it was always unlikely that Syriza would be able to deliver what it promised.

When the history of Greece's long path out of financial crisis is written, the legacies of both Syriza and Mr Tsipras will be tangled, complex ones.

After coming to power in January 2015 as a relative unknown, there was already a cloud hanging over his leadership by that summer when, despite the outcome of a referendum rejecting bailout conditions, Mr Tsipras negotiated loan terms with the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. There was enough of a backlash to trigger his resignation in August 2015. Although he was reinstated as prime minister in September 2015 in the second election that year, and Greece finally emerged from years of austerity measures last year after the end of its third bailout in a decade, for many, the damage had already been done.

Having steered a course for Greece through painfully deep cuts to public spending, Syriza is leaving office just a year after the last of the international bailouts ended.

Syriza and Mr Tsipras's political project were undone by a mixture of factors. Greek voters appeared to be exhausted by austerity. The radicalism that Syriza promised did not materialise or, more charitably, was at least unequal to the challenge of austerity.

But Mr Tsipras, too, bears some responsibility. He became too cosy with Brussels and Berlin, too enamoured of the trappings of the political circuit. His supporters will say he was merely being realistic; to his critics, he was elected on a message that things could be different but as it turns out, they weren’t.

If austerity pushed Syriza to the edge, two other political challenges tipped the party over it. The first was far bigger than Greece alone. The continuing migrant crisis was exacerbated by the civil war in Syria. There are an estimated 90,000 migrants scattered across Greece's islands in the Aegean, in camps built to take considerably fewer people.

The other issues that swayed voters was very regional – a long-running dispute with neighbouring Macedonia over the country's name. Although the Greek government managed to strike a deal to rename the country North Macedonia, it proved an easy lightning rod for nationalist sentiment, one which Mr Mitsotakis exploited to the fullest.

But it was ultimately tough austerity measures and Mr Tsipras's U-turn in office that decided his trajectory. Three rounds of international bailouts after the 2008 global financial crisis saved the Greek economy from collapse but at the cost of enormous social and financial hardship.

The Bank of Greece last year estimated that half a million Greeks had emigrated since 2009, a staggering 5 per cent of its population. The vast majority are young, pushed out by a youth unemployment rate of nearly 40 per cent and a decade of financial hardship. Mr Mitsotakis, in his victory speech, said he wanted to “give the children that left the country the possibility to return”.

Still, the difficult times are not going away: under a new deal struck with the European Union, the country must stick to limits on its spending until 2060. Some of Greece's young will have spent their entire working lives in the shadow of austerity.

But the story of Syriza is also the story of Europe's evolving left-wing politics.

The continuing Greek crisis has had an impact across the European Union. The sight of unelected officials in the EU and the International Monetary Fund facing down the elected representatives of a country and forcing austerity on them ignited fury on both the left and right of Europe's politics. Right-wing parties that wanted to exit the EU frequently cited the example of Greece being “bullied” by Brussels.

Yet while there was a brief period in 2015 when it was thought that left-wing parties could win more widely, today the parties whose ideas have the most momentum are all on the right.

This year alone, centrist parties in Denmark and Spain have won power by stealing the policies of their far-right competitors. That is also what happened in Greece, with New Democracy taking a hardline stance on immigration. Indeed, that was the other major story of the night: the far-right Golden Dawn's vote collapsed and the party failed to take even a single seat.

Mr Tsipras and Syriza were the future once. They might well be again. The Greek crisis, as the former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis put it, is far from over. The former prime minister is only 44 and Syriza remains the major opposition party. If Greek politics changed so much in four years, there is no reason to suppose it might not change radically again.

Updated: July 9, 2019 02:47 PM

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