When Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras appeared on Greek television Thursday night to announce his government’s resignation and early elections in September, his message was received neither with the giddy postelection celebrations Greece saw in January nor the exaltation it experienced after June’s referendum rejecting the terms of a European bailout.
The failure of Greece’s left-wing government may boost the far right as voters flail for any anti-austerity alternative. But it will also radicalize leftists and those driven to desperation by a seemingly unsolvable economic riddle. With the country faced with multiple crises — including a mounting uncontrolled refugee problem, fears of infiltration by Islamists and unrest in Turkey, Libya, Egypt and Syria — time is running out on an ideological approach to politics.
Syriza’s split and Tsipras’ attempt to pass responsibility for the financial debacle onto the electorate disappointed the millions of Greeks who felt genuine optimism after the party was elected into power. Syriza was the first leftist government in Greek history; its rise smashed a political glass ceiling that kept a younger, post-dictatorship generation out of politics.
Syriza thus represented a generation of 40-somethings who could barely recall the 1967–74 colonels’ junta, let alone the 1946–48 civil war, the first generation of Greek leftists to have grown up largely free of persecution. Rather than force through true change, the party revealed itself to be closer to a reinvention of the cage-rattling but center-socialist PASOK government of the early 1980s than a radical new face of the Greek left.
Now Syriza is bequeathing its successors an almost unprecedentedly polarized country crippled by the harshest austerity measures to date.
In January outgoing Prime Minister Antonis Samaras warned that Syriza would be little more than a flash in the pan — a “leftist parenthesis,” as he put it. He wasn’t wrong. During its eight-month interlude, Syriza reneged on most of its pre-election promises, jettisoned its economic pledges to reduce pressure on society’s most vulnerable and failed to reduce the country’s debt or successfully negotiate any other major concessions from its European creditors. It ultimately cut a harsh deal with them after it became clear that Brussels, apparently itching to kick Greece out of the euro, called its bluff.
After spending half the election campaign denying he would compromise on his commitments once in power, Tsipras called for a June referendum on whether Greeks wanted to reject the bailout terms of the German-led troika (the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund), won and promptly made peace with the Eurocrats on the troika’s terms. Earlier this week the European Commission signed a memorandum of understanding that outlined the terms of a third bailout, including continued harsh austerity measures. Popular reaction was muted by a combination of exhaustion from successive months of tension, media scare tactics, the summer holiday season and the sheer numbed disbelief over how so much hope could be reduced to so little so fast. In his resignation speech, Tsipras quoted leftist Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, saying, “We have yet to live our most beautiful days.” Contempt and derision roiled social media in the moments that followed, with one commentator adapting that to “We have yet to vote through our most beautiful memoranda.”
Tsipras’ early fascination with student politics and demonstrations trumped academic learning, earning him the label of eternal student and hinting at his focus deficit displayed during negotiations with the creditors. His relative inexperience in politics and apparent lust for personal aggrandizement were shrouded, initially, by Syriza’s euphoric victory. But when it became clear to him that a combination of external pressures, his party’s lack of preparedness to bargain hard in Brussels and the Greek people’s refusal to endure the kind of hardship that would accompany an Iceland-style default would tie his hands, he clung to power by performing a rapprochement with the pro-memorandum political mainstream.
A segment of Tsipras’ party quit, refusing to endorse this U-turn and leaving him exposed to vast amounts of criticism. And his naiveté grew starker. Tsipras once seemed to think that German Chancellor Angela Merkel had a soft spot for him and would help him out; instead, she greeted news of early elections by saying, “Tsipras’ resignation is part of the solution rather than the crisis.” He parted ways with old party comrades such as Minister of Energy Panayiotis Lafazanis and parliamentary Speaker Zoe Konstantopoulou, who accused him of straying from the path they embarked on together, while punters charged that he gained nothing out of the Eurogroup negotiations but some extra kilos on his waistline.
Tsipras’ mismanagement of his mandate has condemned Greece to decades of further austerity and the bargain basement sell-off of essential segments of national infrastructure. Already last week a German-Greek consortium snapped up the rights to manage 14 regional airports — including those in Thessaloniki (Greece’s second-largest city) and on some of the most popular tourist islands. Profits will be boosted by doubling passengers’ terminal fees — a move that will make Greek vacations pricier and encumber islanders needing to fly to the mainland.
Syriza initially electrified public opinion because it set out to challenge the fundamental inequity at the heart of an economic coalition tailored to boost its most powerful members’ exports. Greeks disappointed by mainstream center-left and right parties who meekly accepted negotiating terms in the crisis’ iteration transferred their hopes onto an ostensibly radical leftist party that revealed itself to be no more than mildly Keynesian.
Following its shocking U-turn, they are likely to transfer their loyalties to the only remaining anti-austerity options: the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn’s muscular anti-Europeanism and xenophobia (which has benefited from the influx of 160,000 refugees fleeing conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria), the Communist Party’s nihilism (“No to yes, no to no”) and the vaporous wastelands of abstention and violent dissent.
In his “Trilogy of the Crisis” (published from 2010 to 2012), Greek writer Petros Markaris explores some scenarios of what happens to a society pushed to the brink. His crime novels are less whodunits than whydunits, insightfully exposing the corruption and inequality undergirding a society under dissolution, with a police inspector protagonist constantly pressured by corrupt politicians to soft-pedal morally ambivalent cases that threaten to expose the vested interests they serve.
One of Markaris’ antiheroes is the national tax inspector, a murderer and popular hero who dispatches his tax-evading victims with hemlock-laced injections and poisoned arrows. As the trilogy progresses, Greek society becomes progressively threadbare before finally defaulting to the drachma, prompting Markaris’ cynical hero to quip that a coup is still unlikely, given that “half the tanks lack spare parts and the other half fuel.”
But the overall message is one that Tsipras and the European negotiators who imposed the latest no-surrender memorandum may do well to heed: A society pushed to its extremes may end up embracing extremism.