Alexis Tsipras: The Bitter Taste of Real Politick

“The Truth as object, the useful as objective, and the interesting as mean”

A. Manzoni

Whoever has campaigned for a party knows how strange (and intense ) the feelings of an election night are; and can imagine how they can be even more overwhelming for a candidate. It is difficult to imagine what Alexis Tsipras thoughts were, while looking at the exit polls and projections  before he would be able to say his opening lines to the overcrowded Omonia Square: tonight Greek People has made history, has stopped austerity and has written an end to the memorandums of the Troika” . However, if there is a way to guess a politician thought, this is by observing his actions.

For some days, many observers of European politics have speculated about the “shifting toward South” of the political centre of the old continent, from the windy boulevards of Brussels to the small streets between the Acropolis and Syntagma Square. They have let flow the famous rivers of ink recalling Solon, Temistokles, Perikles and the Athenian “polis” of the 5th century  BC, showing much more the romantic than political (or even historical) sense. I apologise with every reader who would like to read similar arguments, but starting to write this article, I’m pledging to myself to strive to be politically reflective and -if lucky- clearer. Usually in politics, rethorics is the enemy of reflection, and the opposite of clarity. So I will let Solon and Perikles walk between the Agorà and the Akropolis, and I will try to focus on Alexis Tsipras, which holds much for discussion and grounds for reflection.

The day after the elections: creating a majority

Two weeks after the elections, Tsipras has shown a particular aptitude to surprise, and to surprise everyone, including his electors and sustainers, making important choices which could have been difficult to take, and even harder to explain. But let us start from Omonia Square, from the night that has seen Syriza winning the elections as first party, with the award of fifty seats in the Parliament according to the Greek electoral law. The fifty bonus MPs have brought Syriza at two seats from the absolute majority in the Parliament, making obvious the need of an agreement with another party to form a coalition for the government. To be honest, it’s more than possible that if Syriza would have had four more seats, an agreement would have been needed, given that forming a government (and possibly even make it last) with a majority of two or three MPs on 350 could have been much difficult. And probably this is the main thought of Alexis Tsipras while watching the results: looking for a party for a coalition. We can imagine the to-become Prime Minister reflecting on two different levels, and two different issues: the first is to find a partner with a number of seats sufficiently high to form a coalition without involving other political forces (given that in Southern Europe governments based on large coalitions of many parties show a strange tendency to don’t last much long); the second is a need to find a partner which  can be accepted by the electoral basis of Syriza.

Syriza

To find a partner which  can be accepted by the electoral basis of the party is an extremely difficult issue because Syriza (acronim of “Synaspismós Rizospastikís Aristerás ” meaning  “Coalition of the Radical Left”) is not a simple party. This is because it is a conglomeration of previous smaller parties  party (by 2004 until 2012 has been only a coalition), which includes Troskists and Maoists groups. Already, last May, before campaigning for the European Parliament elections, there had been a complete change of the Syrizas image, shifting from a much clearer Euro-communist vision (reflected in the electoral  with the partial demilitarisation and with the project of Greece quitting the NATO) and project, to a radical social-democratic program, for sure radical, but still social-democratic which focuses more on the welfare of the State and its growth. Part of this process included declaring that the official position of Syriza defends and sustains the permanence of Greece inside the European Union and the Euro Zone since they hold the opinion that there is no other option. The most radical part of the party was declaring openly that they were completely against sacrificing anything else for the Euro. Alexis Tsipras has been the Frontman, and Director, of this change, which has created some internal conflicts inside his own party, but which has made possible for Syriza to propose itself as a reliable candidate for the government.

A strange coalition

The first surprise was the choice as partner to form the government of Anel, a right-wing eurosceptic party which in the European Parliament is part of the “European Conservatives and Reformists Group”, the political family of the anti-federalist conservatives. In the Greek Parliaments political universe, Anel cannot be defined as an “extremist” party: born from a separation from Nea Democratia (the EPP-Member party of the former Prime Minister Samaras), due to opposite views on the memorandum and austerity policies,  Anel can be defined as a center-right party, with a strong opposition to european federalist projects and views.

An alliance between radical left and center-right is not very common in the recent political history of EU states, and can be viewed and interpreted as a token of the pragmatism and political sense of Alexis Tsipras. Furthermore, this alliance demonstrates the cornerstone and main pillar of the Tsipras’ Government which is in opposition to austerity policies. This is mainly because it is one of the only topic which the two parties fully agree on. In fact, if we look beyond the Syriza electoral program, views are clearly different, the leftist party insist much more on de-militarization of the cost guard and on deep cuts to military expenditures; points on which Anel opposes. In addition, the action at defence-policy level will remain the only ink on the program of Syriza, given that the seat of Minister of Defence in the Tsipras’ Government is assigned to Anel. The agreement between the two parties has brought turmoil inside the structure of Syriza due to their differences. However it is much more strange then effective because it gives to the new Prime Minister a solid majority in the National Parliament and a strong political legitimacy and mandate for the negotiations with the Troika on the debt.

The heart of the political project of Tsipras

We have just seen the main pillar of the program of the new government, which is the fight against austerity policies, which is radically connected to the renegotiation of the debts of the Greek Government with the Troika. The efforts of Alexis Tsipras on this issue are simply remarkable, most of  all because of his vision of the role of politics in this negotiation. His idea is simple and radical, like most revolutionary ideas may look: given that the issue of the debt is strongly connected to the vision not only of the EU, but of a wider European Integration process, it should be approached in a political way, which do involve Member States. This step, which may look logic (or even crystal clear), but to those who are not used to the EU-bubble” it is indeed revolutionary, for two reasons:

  • The Troika is formed by the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission. The governments of member states are not directly part of such bodies, which are mainly technical and not political. Demanding a political dynamic for the negotiations on the debt means to take away such negotiations from the Troika, who does have not a political legitimation and mandate.
  • The debt (and obviously the connected credit) has been until now perceived as toward the European Union, and not toward Member States (even if actually, the States have been the ones to put forward the money for the loans), which suggest that the negotiations connected to the previous issues should be carried on by the European Commission, which represents the Union and works in the interests of the Union itself. Even politically, linking the dynamics of the debt to the vision (and future) of the EU is logic and advocating for the role of Member States is a direct consequence of it. It is however difficult to make this request fit in the European Legislation.

New allies

Obviously, the request of a political dynamic and a role of Member States as main characters, comes hand in hand with the need of finding allies among the EU governments. From 2009, after the Lisbon Treaty was signed, political families have gained an increase in power and impact in EU politics, with a consequential diminution of influence of regional blocks. In this framework Alexis Tsipras looks completely alone in Europe: his political family (the Party of European Left, which is reflected in the GUE-NGL Group in the EU Parliament) does not have any other seat in the European Council but the one of the Greek Prime Minister which counts on 52 Members of the EU Parliament out of 751: which are very poor numbers, especially if compared with the high expectations written in the program of Syriza. The search of new allies has started right after the oath of office, with a number of visits to other Prime Ministers and Heads of States. Also in this regard Alexis Tsipras, he has shown much pragmatism approaching directly the Members of the European Council, belonging to the Party of European Socialists; the same party that Mr. Tsipras did criticise during the campaign for European Elections, while he was the candidate of the Party of European Left as President of the European Commission (notably, without being at the same time candidate to the European Parliament).

In particular he has started to approach (even before Greek elections) Matteo Renzi, the Italian Prime Minister belonging to the Party of the European Socialist (PES), which in Italy is strongly opposed by the sustainers of Alexis Tsipras, mainly because to form the Government he did need a coalition with a centre-right party; but obviously, at least on this, Alexis Tsipras cannot afford to criticize anyone.

Coups de théâtre

In the negotiation process that has just started, Alexis Tsipras has already put forward two Coups de théâtre: the request of the payment from the German Government of the war debts of WWII and the link with Russia. The first issue is almost purely rhetoric, aside from the fact that it seems to be linked to a very vocal  anti-german feeling, which is not political, neither useful.

The second issue is more serious, even if it seems mostly a role play between these next two parts: with Alexis Tsipras showing interest in a partnership with Russia to scare the EU interlocutors and bring them to renegotiate the debt to avoid any interference of Putin with european politics, and at the same time, Putin, investing in a renewed relationship with Greece to avoid a complete isolation in the EU framework, and even more important, a possible advocate inside the European Council.