Greece is headed for snap elections in September, less than eight months since its last parliamentary elections. For the past five years, Greece’s internal political competition has centered around its financial crisis — and more specifically, around whether the nation should accept the austere bailout terms offered by the European Union “troika” of the International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank and the European Union. This has become known as the “memorandum” vs. “anti-memorandum” policy cleavage.
That debate appeared to be decisively answered in a July 5 referendum, when 61.3 percent of the nation voted to reject the troika’s “memorandum” terms. And yet within a week, Greece’s parliament — led by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his party—capitulated and signed the memorandum of understanding. What operated as a sharp division between the pro- and anti-memorandum camps disappeared, when most of Tsipras’s Syriza party and all of the ANEL party voted in favor of the third memorandum — yet one-third of Syriza refused to go along.
Of the nine parties that have entered the Greek Parliament in the past five years, only two remain opposed to the terms of the European bailouts: the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) and the far-right Golden Dawn.
Why is Tsipras still popular, after capitulating to Europe despite the referendum?
It may seem rather paradoxical that Alexis Tsipras remains the dominant political figure in Greek politics, despite his major turnaround. To be sure, plenty of followers have been disappointed by his change of heart. He is still mistrusted by many of his opponents, who fear that he can jeopardize Greece’s place in the European Union. But according to all polls at the moment, Tsipras is still the most popular Greek politician, and his party has a wide lead over the second-place New Democracy party. Why?
To begin with, Tsipras has convinced a large part of Greek public opinion that he did his best to negotiate with the country’s creditors these past six months. Regardless of whether this is true, his supporters believed he was more willing to negotiate. Next, his followers balance his support for a third bailout plan for Greece with expectations that he will oppose corruption and tax evasion or stand up on issues of human rights.
To defend his transformation, Tsipras suggested that the choice was between a “a memorandum with the euro or a memorandum with the drachma.” In other words, there was no way to avoid a new bailout.
Of course, it helps that most Greeks still see Tsipras’s main political competitors as discredited by their recent record. Meanwhile, both of those competing parties — New Democracy and PASOK — are undergoing leadership changes. In contrast, Tsipras is still perceived as representing something new, unspoiled and somewhat hopeful. After all, he was elected for the first time six months ago. This image may have been tarnished in the past months, but it has not been entirely overturned.
Tsipras’s pragmatic turn cost him votes on the left, but it is compensated by new voters from Syriza’s right. In fact, it seems that the more he fights against his internal opposition, the greater his appeal among the wider public. This has led many, even among his toughest critics, to suggest that he is a social democrat in the making, not a leader of the radical left. A solid bloc of voters still considers him to be an irresponsible politician whose communist ideological background will prevent this transformation.
Finally, his support may still be strong, but there is no doubt that when the Greeks begin paying their annual tax obligations and the measures stipulated in the third memorandum get implemented, Tsipras will have to pay the political cost from this deal.
How does all this fit in the larger Greek political scene?
Here’s the larger political context. Syriza is internally divided. The main actors in the internal opposition include Panagiotis Lafazanis, head of the most organized internal faction, known as the Left Platform; former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis; and Zoe Konstantopoulou, the president of the Parliament. The latter two have little power within the party but do have some appeal to the electorate at large. What complicates things is that these main actors may not be able to collaborate to form a party and oppose Tsipras.
The minor coalition partner, Independent Greeks (ANEL), is facing the fate that all such partners faced when they changed sides on the memorandum-antimemorandum cleavage: electoral demise. ANEL has only 13 members of parliament now. If any of those are to make it into the next one, the party will have to either produce a convincing new message or be absorbed by Syriza.
In the main opposition party, New Democracy, former prime minister Antonis Samaras resigned, passing the baton to Vangelis Meimarakis — the former party secretary and president of the Parliament — as interim party president. Meimarakis is considered a hardened party cadre. Despite his classical liberal past, he has good relations with all tendencies within the party — and most important, with both former prime ministers, Karamanlis and Samaras. Meimarakis has already initiated a realignment of the party to the center. Nothing is more permanent than the temporary, goes a Greek saying. Nevertheless, when things quiet down, there will be an intensely contested succession struggle within the party.
PASOK’s president, Evangelos Venizelos, also resigned and was replaced by Fofi Gennimata — a former minister and governor of Attica, daughter of a historic PASOK figure and the first woman to hold this position. Gennimata is attempting to regain the support of former PASOK voters, but so far, to no avail. Ironically, Venizelos, who was not popular as the leader of PASOK, has increased his popularity across the “yes” camp since he stepped down.
The River, a new political party, is still trying to find its niche, balancing between safe political choices and new political personalities.
PASOK, ND and The River supported the “yes” in the referendum and voted “yes” for the third bailout plan, interpreting both as a vote for remaining within the European Union and the euro zone. The question remains whether they could form an electoral alliance in the next election — possibly involving nonpartisan players such as Athens Mayor Giorgos Kaminis, or Yiannis Boutaris, the mayor of Thessaloniki, who spearheaded the “yes” campaign in the recent referendum. Winning only 38.7 percent of the referendum vote may have been disappointing, but this percentage could win an election. The comparative advantage of this camp is that its voters have more homogeneous political views relative to the “no” camp.
Things will be complicated by the fact that existing electoral law does not allow for coalitions of parties to receive the 50-seat bonus (out of 300) received by the political party that gets the largest number of votes. Thus, such a coalition seems rather unlikely.
On the left, KKE is trying to regain disappointed Syriza voters. Tsipras’s turnaround may strengthen the Anticapitalist Left Cooperation for the Overthrow (ANTARSYA), which currently has no seats in Parliament.
On the far right, Golden Dawn is trying to capitalize on Syriza’s troubles, which are coincidentally taking place during a new immigration crisis in the Aegean.
Finally, previously electorally marginal political parties have been approaching the 3 percent threshold — necessary to enter the Parliament — in recent opinion polls.
Tsipras decided to hold early elections. His decision can be explained by the fact that he enjoys the support of just about two-fifths of the Greek Parliament (which makes governing impossible) and his belief that his party will win — the latter estimate remains to be proven. He prefers early elections, before the implementation of the bailout terms kicks in, so he can return in Parliament with a more cohesive parliamentary group. The latter goal is easier to achieve at this juncture since the electoral law allows him to contest with ranked lists of candidates when an election is held within 18 months from the previous one. Moreover, Tsipras believes that early elections work to his favor since his opponents — within and outside Syriza — will not have enough time to prepare.
Greek political developments may seem paradoxical or even completely irrational. The referendum, its results, Tsipras’s turnaround, the overwhelming support for the third bailout (222 out of 300 MPs), and now the decision for early elections may not appear to cohere. But consider this. The victory of the “no” in the referendum was overdetermined, given the dominant political discourse — i.e. blaming the foreigners for Greece’s troubles — in the past five years. But, not for the first time, accepting the bailout was equally overdetermined, given that Greece had no alternative sources of funding and the logic of political survival kicked in.
A discrepancy between words and deeds defines Greek politics. Whether this discrepancy persists by the next government will define Greece’s future.
Akis Georgakellos is managing director of Strategο, a communication strategy firm. Harris Mylonas is assistant professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University and the author of “The Politics of Nation-Building.” Twitter: @hmylonas