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Greek election: Tsipras trounces his opponents, but at what cost?

Alexis Tsipras, head of Syriza, returns to power after election victory. Reuters/Michalis Karagiannis

In the latest episode of the seemingly never-ending Greek crisis, the election of September 20 marked another decisive victory for Syriza – and especially for its leader, Alexis Tsipras.

As in the UK elections, opinion polls failed to predict the considerable gap between Syriza (35.5% of the vote) and centre-right opposition party New Democracy (28% of the vote), with most pre-election surveys indicating a very close battle.

In another surprise, no seats were won by Syriza’s splinter party Popular Unity, which accused Tsipras of treason for signing Greece up to a deal with the so-called “troika” (the European Commission, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank).

Natural coalition

Further confounding predictions was the popularity of Syriza’s populist right-wing coalition partner, Independent Greeks (ANEL). Contrary to the polls, the party managed to enter parliament with ten seats. Its leader, Panos Kammenos, announced that the Syriza-ANEL coalition government will be renewed, while Tsipras promised a four-year government.

It should be noted that ANEL was supported enthusiastically by Tsipras, who claimed numerous times that ANEL was the only party he was willing to collaborate with, and that any other coalition would be “unnatural”. Despite their differences, Syriza and ANEL have an ideological affinity over anti-western populism. This paradoxical coalition, however, is now expected to implement a western-led austerity package in order to satisfy the troika.

Shockingly, neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn remains Greece’s third party, winning almost 7% of the vote (slightly higher than the January 2015 elections) even after its leader publicly accepted the “political responsibility” for the assassination of a left wing musician Pavlos Fyssas.

Golden Dawn’s persistence shows that a part of the Greek electorate openly supports a neo-Nazi party which uses violence as political strategy and tool and remains loyal to its message of hate and nationalistic totalitarianism.

It should be noted that Golden Dawn (along with Syriza) is predominantly supported by young voters. Greeks have had many options to punish the establishment by voting for any of the country’s array of protest parties; voting Golden Dawn in this election shows there’s a cohort of voters doggedly loyalty to the party, potentially a considerable problem for Greece’s future political stability.

Pyrrhic victory

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the biggest winner in the September election was Tsipras.

His call to hold snap elections turned out to be a masterstroke of Machiavellian political ingenuity.

On one hand, Tsipras managed a very efficient move to get rid of his internal opposition without even facing them in public. On the other hand, he saved face for his anti-austerity u-turn and now has legitimacy to implement three more years of harsh austerity which he agreed before the elections. That means Tsipras’s power is now more assured than ever, and his popularity clearly intact.

Syriza supporters listen to Alexis Tsipras deliver a speech during the final campaign rally. Reuters/Alkis Konstantinidis

Still, one could argue that Tsipras’ victory was rather pyrrhic. The elections show the highest abstention rate in Greece’s modern history with almost half of eligible voters not turning out. This shows the disappointment of many voters as well as their silent acceptance that there is no alternative to austerity, and implies that almost half of Greeks do not feel that any of the existing parties represents them.

Greece is still coming off a prolonged period of reform inertia and political instability. That turbulence can be traced back to Syriza’s victory in the 2014 European elections, after which the Samaras government did little to implement much needed reforms for fear of unpopularity. Then the economy almost stalled after Syriza’s win in January 2015, while the imposition of capital controls dramatically undermined economic stability and confidence both within and outside Greece on economic recovery.

The worst is yet to come. The new government will have to implement a series of unpopular measures such as pension and labour market reforms, privatisations, liberalisation of professions and other structural reforms in healthcare and public administration that will alienate key parts of the Greek electorate.

Still, Tsipras has proven to be a remarkable political maverick. He is greatly skilled in electioneering, and his natural charisma keeps him very popular among Greeks (especially younger ones). It remains to be seen how his transformation from a hard-left radical to a pro-austerity premier will turn out, but so far, he has escaped punishment from the electorate despite reneging on almost all of his pre-2015 promises.

One may argue that Tsipras faces a considerable danger to turn into an unpopular leader as soon as austerity hits Greek voters. As Thomas Hobbes wrote in Leviathan, “where men build on false grounds, the more they build, the greater is the ruin”.

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