Wednesday 13 November 2019

Where we have a cause for anger, Greece sees hope

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras (C) gestures next to Deputy Prime Minister Yannis Dragasakis (L) and Interior and Administrative Reconstruction Minister Nikos Voutsis as the new government poses for a group picture after the first meeting of the new cabinet in the parliament building in Athens. Tsipras told his ministers on Wednesday voters had given them a mandate for radical change that would restore national sovereignty but pledged to negotiate responsibly with international creditors
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras (C) gestures next to Deputy Prime Minister Yannis Dragasakis (L) and Interior and Administrative Reconstruction Minister Nikos Voutsis as the new government poses for a group picture after the first meeting of the new cabinet in the parliament building in Athens. Tsipras told his ministers on Wednesday voters had given them a mandate for radical change that would restore national sovereignty but pledged to negotiate responsibly with international creditors

Liz O'Donnell

Since Sunday, all eyes have been transfixed by the political drama in Greece. Whatever your leanings, it makes for compelling viewing. As bailout countries, we have much in common, yet much which divides us. While Ireland has exited our troika bailout with commendable plaudits and now shows signs of recovery and job creation, the story in Greece was and is very different.

The harsh budgetary cuts and reforms demanded by the troika as the price of the 2010 Greek bailout has essentially impoverished the country to the point of democratic revolution. Syriza, a radical far-left party which 10 years ago scraped 4pc of the Greek vote, has swept to power with a clear mandate to renegotiate the country's €240bn debt. Financial markets and the EU political establishment are understandably nervous. European leaders insist that Greece must meet its debt obligations, but privately there is a pragmatic view that democracy demands that concessions will be forthcoming.

The anti-austerity flank here will be cock-a-hoop at electoral gains by what they see as their kindred spirits. And sister party in Spain, Podemus, which is now polling at 25pc, anticipates a similar surge to their cause in the next election. While Sinn Féin and left-wing independents have prospered in opinion polls with similar rhetoric, they are not yet perceived as an alternative government. They can inflame passions by populist opposition to Government, fomenting anger at every opportunity, but they rarely offer credible solutions to the complex economic and fiscal issues which are at issue. People doubt they are fit to govern.

There is also a view they do not know how to behave on the streets or in the House. The most recent manifestation of this is by condoning the targeting of President Michael D Higgins in a thuggish protest; a sequel to an earlier assault on the Tánaiste in west Dublin by anti-water charge protesters. Most citizens are appalled that a popular and respected president should be so abused. The video released by the organisers, for propaganda purposes, showed protesters swearing at and provoking gardaí. Finance Minister Michael Noonan may have been premature when he quipped that Irish people, unlike the Greeks "don't set fire to cars".

After all, we now have a TD who claims he was elected to "break the law".

In contrast, new Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, is a highly evolved and sophisticated politician, central to the success of his party.

The former communist is charismatic, intelligent and perceived as a national saviour. Syriza won the hearts and minds of the broad left of centre by a combination of discipline and professionalism. The two parties which had ruled the country since the military coup in 1974 were thoroughly discredited by their links to oligarchs and corrupt elites and by agreeing and implementing Troika-imposed conditions that were patently unsustainable.

Tsipras has vowed to deliver massive changes in governance. He will tightly control the government; cabinet has been reduced from 20 to 10. It is dominated by left-wing intellectuals, not rabble-rousing populists. Syriza's victory was the result of presenting a modern, plausible and youthful alternative administration to a population and electorate who were on their knees. They won votes everywhere; the centre had self- destructed and Syriza filled this gap. They even appealed to farmers, many of whom were suicidal following the foreclosure of their vineyards and lemon groves by the banks. Unemployment was at 28pc, youth unemployment at 50pc. And it was not all about protest and political rhetoric. Syriza set up food banks for the hungry which were called "solidarity clubs" and organised to feed starving families at local level.

The creation of a new Ministry for Transparency demonstrates a resolve to stop the "carnival of tax evasion and tax avoidance". This will shore up confidence about Greece's capacity to control corruption, a major concern of creditors.

New Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, a university economics professor, has already taken his place among his peers in the EU. There is an expectation that with the clock ticking towards an EU Summit on February 12, and the expiry of the current bailout at the end of the month, the bones of a deal on the debt will be soon on the table. In fairness, Tsipras has said Greece will not default on the debt, which would trigger a crisis and a Greek exit of the EU, but demands a renegotiation of its repayment and a halt to austerity which has humiliated and subjugated his country beyond what was deliverable.

Mindful of his mandate, and the expectations of the Greek electorate, he has not put a foot wrong since the election victory.

Neither has he frightened the horses in EU capitals and in his meeting with European Commission President.

He showed his independent and radical streak by taking a different tack on increasing sanctions against Russia on Ukraine. He broke with tradition by having a secular swearing-in ceremony without the presence of the Archbishop. Yet a private meeting with the cleric beforehand to ask for his blessing avoided a public insult to those with religious sensibilities. He knows how to behave. Despite all the bluster by the EU leaders and institutions, there must be a collective acceptance that what worked however painfully in Ireland did not work in Greece.

Such was the penury and pain caused by the demands of the troika that people fled from a failed state into the arms of a government of "societal salvation".

The mantra of Syriza is: 'Hope begins today.'

Who could not wish them well?

Irish Independent

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