Saturday 22 October 2016

Stakes sky-high for Greece in Tsipras's latest roll of the dice

Ben Wright in London

Published 22/08/2015 | 02:30

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras arrives for a meeting at his party’s headquarters in Athens yesterday after he resigned as prime minister and triggered snap elections. Photo: Louisa Gouliamakil/AFP
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras arrives for a meeting at his party’s headquarters in Athens yesterday after he resigned as prime minister and triggered snap elections. Photo: Louisa Gouliamakil/AFP

Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minister until this week, has not been one to shirk a gamble. But will his decision to call snap elections pay off?

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August 20 has long loomed large in the calendar of Greek deadlines. And yet it looked likely to pass smoothly until Tsipras's surprise resignation caused European markets to tank first thing yesterday.

The Greek debt crisis has calmed down in recent weeks with the country having just secured €23bn funding and made a large and psychologically important payment to the European Central Bank.

So what is the Greek politician, who is reputed to be a big fan of 'House of Cards', up to?

The answer to that needs to be traced all the way back to January when Syriza was elected on its promise to tear up the memorandum of understanding between Greece and its creditors.

Tsipras then spent the subsequent months in a long stand-off with the rest of the eurozone before, just six weeks ago, calling a referendum in which he urged the Greek people to reject the country's previous bailout programmes.

And yet, barely a month later, the Greek parliament was voting on whether to accept the terms of a third bail-out.


This would have to go down as the most stunning about-turn in Greek politics since, well, the last one. There was bound to be fall-out.

Tsipras won the Greek parliamentary vote because the majority of MPs voted in favour of reforms. But this was only achieved with the support of opposition parties. Only a minority of Syriza MPs voted in favour of the motion, leaving the prime minister adrift from the majority of his party. Rumours of an impending confidence vote were soon swirling with the opposition parties clearly stating that they wouldn't come to Tsipras's aid again. Partisanship could be laid aside for the sake of keeping Greece in the euro, but not to save the neck of a political foe.

So, really Tsipras was left with little choice but to resign and call an election.

If Tsipras was having trouble with his party now, it was only going to get worse as the months went by and the long, hard trudge to implement the necessary reforms dragged on.

And, if the ex-prime minister called the election in order to rid himself of Syriza's troublesome Left Platform, then the gambit has already worked. Late last night, 25 MPs split from Syriza to form a new party called Popular Unity (full marks for irony on that one), which is now the third largest in parliament.


The chances are that Syriza will still win the elections set for September with a renewed mandate from the population to roll up its sleeves and get on with enacting the reforms it must to ensure that each fresh tranche of bailout money is paid out.

That's why the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, on a diplomatic trip in Brazil, said last night that Tsipras's resignation is part of the solution, not part of the crisis.

Other commentators have suggested that Tsipras's split with the Left Platform is the best news to come out of Greece in months, the bail-out accord included.

However, the move is not without risks. The Greek constitution allows the opposition, New Democracy, to try and form a minority government. It won't be easy because the party is hugely unpopular, is headed by an interim leader, only holds 76 out of 300 seats in parliament and would therefore have to pull together a rag-tag coalition to win a vote of confidence. But it's a possibility.

More troublesome is that the legislative process is likely to grind to a halt as the election campaign kicks off.

That will made it harder - if not impossible - for Greece to enact meaningful reforms before the first review of the bailout programme in October.

One would assume, however, that if Greece's creditors believe that Tsipras has emerged from the election with a strengthened hand and greater resolve to shake-up the economy, then they'll cut him some slack.

But with Greece already bearing the trauma from seven months of inaction, each additional day of delay will add to the cost.

Then there's the question of what kind of coalition Tsipras will lead even if he does win the election and whether it will be up to the challenges of the coming years and months.

At best, the previous bail-outs merely allowed Greece to tread water. The country's next prime minister will need to secure debt relief from its creditors and enact supply-side reforms that probably go beyond the radical programme envisaged by the latest bail-out agreement.

Things are unlikely to get any easier for the next Greek prime minister, whoever that may be.

Meanwhile, there's been plenty of debate about what move former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis would take in the wake of the election. His former press secretary last night tweeted that the economist will not stand for re-election as a Syriza MP.

Contrary to all those reassuring noises from Brussels about the viability of Greece's bail-out, rating's agency Fitch said yesterday that the absence of a government could "hamper" the implementation of economic reforms.


They've also warned that any electoral outcome could lead to "ambivalence" rather than "ownership" of the punishing raft of measures over the course of the next three years.

But the likely pause in legislating for reforms during the election campaign coming so soon after the agreement was concluded may rekindle or reinforce some creditors' concerns about Greece's ability to meet the programme's requirements.

Opinion polls and Mr Tsipras's personal popularity rating suggest that a Syriza-led coalition government of MPs and parties that have so far supported the new bailout agreement is a possible outcome. However, the election result is inherently unpredictable.

It is not clear how the split within Syriza will affect the party's support.

Election campaigning may demonstrate ambivalence rather than 'ownership' towards elements of the programme by the Greek authorities and electorate.

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