Tsipras tackles speech impediment

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras is to attend the funeral of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez but this will not be his most significant political statement of the week or month. That came when he delivered a speech on Wednesday night at an event in Athens held to mark 15 years since the death of New Democracy founder and late Prime Minister Constantine Karamanlis.

In many European countries, a political leader from one ideological camp paying respects to the memory of a politician from the other side of the spectrum might not be particularly noteworthy. Tsipras’s address, though, broke several taboos in Greece.

Karamanlis has widely been acknowledged for his statesmanship in leading Greece from the pain of the dictatorship to the prosperity of European Union membership. But his prominent role during a turbulent period in Greek politics before the rise of the junta meant that many on the left had trouble accepting him as the national father figure (“ethnarhis”) others portrayed him to be. On the flip side, the Greek left has traditionally remained entrenched and introspective, largely as a result of the scars inflicted by civil war, persecution and the colonel’s regime. Even since the restoration of democracy in 1974, the left has rarely accepted any practical cooperation or ideological cross-pollination with the country’s right.

Beyond the ideological barriers to Tsipras’s appearance at the Constantine Karamanlis Foundation event, there was also the personal factor: The SYRIZA leader is seen as a young upstart by much of the current political elite, which started its rise to power in the years when the late ND leader steered the country back to stability. For instance, current Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, who also spoke at the function, was first elected to Parliament as a New Democracy MP in 1977. Tsipras’s often outspoken attacks on Samaras and his predecessor as ND leader Costas Karamanlis, nephew of Constantine, seemed to preclude the possibility of these men finding themselves in the same auditorium, praising the same political figure.

However, the Tsipras of the last few months is a different political entity to the one of previous years. With SYRIZA within touching distance of the kind of support that would make it the next government, the party’s leadership has sought to cultivate contacts with the pensive moderates that would bring the leftists an incredible electoral victory. Tsipras’s recent meetings with German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, US officials and IMF representatives have been partly in this direction. This move has not met with universal approval within his party but Tsipras and his advisers are making a clear attempt to balance his image as a radical with a dose of realpolitik. The effort to connect this political yin and yang is what brought Tsipras to the Athens Concert Hall on Wednesday.

His speech was a skillful attempt to inch himself along the highwire over jagged terrain created by the shifting tectonic plates of Greek politics – a by-product of the economic crisis and the spectacular fall from grace of New Democracy and PASOK, in particular. Tsipras tried to endear himself to the compassionate conservatives while not alienating his leftist base. This involved a substantial amount of linguistic and ideological acrobatics on the SYRIZA leader’s part.

He began by establishing his leftist credentials, just in case there were any doubts. “I belong to those who believe that history is not written by individuals, as important as they may be, but by peoples and their struggles,” said Tsipras, echoing the Marxist principles he embraced during his political upbringing.

Having said that, though, Tsipras needed a reason to explain why a leftist leader would praise Greece’s most famous conservative. To bridge this gap, the SYRIZA chief called on the assistance of a previous Communist Party leader. “Some time ago, Harilaos Florakis had characterized Constantaine Karamanlis, while he was still alive, as an important leader of his class.” A Second World War resistance fighter, Florakis’s fidelity to the left is in no doubt and the fact, as Tsipras suggested, that he had praised Karamanlis while the conservative was alive gave the SYRIZA politician a free pass to laud his contributions to Greece 15 years after his death.

Tsipras said it would be useful to study Karamanlis with “less prejudice” and to appreciate the “extra step” that he took to bring calm to Greek society when it was in an extreme state of agitation. “All political forces have to preserve this extra step,” said Tsipras. It will not have been lost on his audience that Greece’s society is currently slipping toward a similar fragmentation, which no leader seems capable of preventing. If Tsipras is to be that politician then he too will have to go the extra mile to heal wounds.

The SYRIZA leader then made reference to his childhood and leftist upbringing, stressing that he was taught that the Karamanlis who returned from exile in Paris to Greece in 1974 (the year Tsipras was born) was a different man. By drawing the line at 1974, the leftist indicates a willingness to jettison the political emnity of the years that preceded that moment and build only on what was achieved after it.

“His contribution to the country managed at times to go beyond the boundaries of his ideology,” said Tsipras. “He managed with other party leaders to cement the culture of calm democratic exchange. It is a culture that we have to safeguard.” Again, the SYRIZA leader appeared to acknowledge that he will have to temper his rhetoric and rein in the more hardline elements within his party if he is going to be able to lead from the front.

In the next sentence, there was an indication that Tsipras is prepared to be more dialectic in his approach as he accepted that he was not “claiming the absolute historical truth” in his analysis of Karamanlis’s impact. This was a statement of some significance from Tsipras as he and his party have claimed the single truth on Greece’s economic plight and the failures of the EU-IMF program. The leftists have been stubborn to the point of brittleness on their interpretation of what went wrong and what is going wrong, often painting themselves into a corner from where their credibility seeped away.

Adroitly, Tsipras then used Karamanlis’s legacy to defend his own controversial positions on some issues. “He was never a passive receiver of orders,” said the SYRIZA leader. “He was radical in his conservativism,” he said, pointing out that Karamanlis withdrew Greece from military involvement in NATO in 1974 due to the occupation of Cyprus and between 1975 and 1977 nationalized several industries, “believing that this was in the best interests of the public.” It is no coincidence that Tsipras chose these two examples since SYRIZA has questioned Greece’s role in NATO and is opposed to the government’s privatization program. In essence, Tsipras was saying, “If Karamanlis supported these positions in difficult times, why am I wrong to do the same?” It is worth remembering, though, that both of these choices came at a cost. It could be argued that Greece continues to pay the price of stateism, in particular. Drawing parallels to Karamanlis does not guarantee Tsipras a free ride.

“He had understood that every major effort to change and reform can only start in the public sector and particularly from the public administration,” added Tsipras, who is in favor of Greece maintaining a strong and active state to drive economic growth. Again, the SYRIZA leader was suggesting that his choice is justified by the country’s history and by Karamanlis’s legacy.

Tsipras has also been outspoken about how corruption has blighted Greece, accusing the political, business and media elites of serving narrow interests. The leftist leader drew parallels between his stance and that of Karamanlis, who he said had “drawn clear lines of distinction between public interest against smaller and larger private interests.”

Concluding his speech, Tsipras attempted to be graceful to his hosts, saying that “even we leftists have many useful political messages” to learn from Karamanlis. But there was an inherent question in his final statement: “If we leftists take these messages on board, are you prepared to overcome your own ideological hang-ups to support us?”

It is this thought that Tsipras left hanging as he departed for Caracas. On his return, he is sure to continue his efforts to hold on to the left while trying to entice the moderates. In the process, he also has to lead his often confused and contradictory party on a journey of discovery during which it will overcome its fragmentation. His success or failure will define his political career and is likely to shape Greece’s near future.

While he is honing his skills with regard to attracting middle-ground voters, which he appears more convincing at as each day passes, Tsipras faces a severe risk. In his effort to cultivate new ties, he risks losing many of the people whose support he attracted over the past couple of years. The anti-memorandum rhetoric that he and others have engaged in has created a specific audience with particular demands and expectations. After all his efforts to appear more moderate, Tsipras may just find that there are more Greeks who want a Chavez than those who want a Karamanlis.

Nick Malkoutzis


13 responses to “Tsipras tackles speech impediment

  1. Guest (xenos)

    Yes, I agree with all this, Nick. Good article. Tsipras (or his advisors) is cleverly extending Syriza towards the middle ground of politics — at the same time as offering an olive branch to the old right (drawing a line under 1974, as you say). You are right that he may alienate some on the left (it is a tricky balancing act he is performing), but to my mind the danger is more that Syriza may look as if it is not offering a real alternative to ND/Pasok/Democratic Left governance. Traditionally, Greece has never had floating voters; I suspect that this has now changed, and many of those floating bodies are gravitating toward Chryssi Avgi. If Greek politics is moving, or has moved, away from simple Left-Right dimensions, then Syriza will need real innovation to capture enough of the vote to form a government.

  2. Xenos I would like to believe you are wrong regarding Chryssi Avgi.

    And to add: this speech, and Tsipras’ performance over the last 2 years, has shown an intelligent politician on a steep, self-imposed learning curve. This is absolutely unique among today’s greek politicians, and has been watched and noted by foreign press and governments, where Tsipras is increasingly seen as both highly impressive, decent, and a force to be reckoned with.

    At the same time ND is throwing away its centrist credentials by moving into the territory occupied by Chryssi Avgi. This has also been watched and noted.

    Who then represents a law-abiding, democratic centre-right today, whose main focus is to develop the real economy and create a level playing field? Drasi / Dimiourgia Xana. These parties constituted a serious threat to the oligarchy ruling the Greek economy (and controlling the media), ie. of them but not with them. Therefore both parties were kept out of the mainstream media and given no air time on TV until after the 2nd election results were in.

  3. If Tsipras wants to win over the middle of the road voters he will need to do a lot more than give a few words of praise for Karamanlis. He will need to change the Greek constitution, to remove the immunity from prosecution for acting MP’s, to amend the clause that the Greek President may be male or female, and that public workers can be removed from their employment. He will need to stop supporting the trade unions which protect public workers accused of criminal offences which includes paedophiles, corrupt tax inspectors, corrupt police and their officers, corrupt tax inspectors, doctors that take fakelos, lawyers that prevent justice by taking bribes, and our latest bunch of rubbish pharmacists that work with hospitals, doctors and pharmaceutical companies in medication scams. He will also have to ensure that we are committed to the Euro which will be even more difficult now that his mentor suggests a return to the Drachma. Obviously from the support he is receiving from unions he has no intentions of dealing with any of the above and frankly looking at his motley of MP’s ranging from anarchists to left wing extremists, one wonders how he could possibly run Greece.

    • Annie Athens,
      I suggest that you do some serious research on SYRIZA and Tsipras because most of the above – though not all – have been in their party platform since Day 1.

      SYRIZA / Tsipras are
      – committed to the euro
      – intend to change the constitution
      – remove immunity from MPs
      – remove gender specification for President
      – de-politicize the judiciary
      – stamp out corruption
      – punish corrupt tax officials, judges, police, department of works officials etc
      – ditto punish corrupt doctors, lawyers, pharmaceutical companies

      (The corruption of the last 2 groups affect everyone, left & right)

      Of course they support the unions, Annie Athens, but in principle so should we all, in that they are the only protection for workers our society has invented. But – it remains to be seen how.

      Also part of their platform is the ability for immigrants to become greek citizens over time. They also want a strict crackdown on crimes against immigrants and decent conditions in the holding camps; crimes against race, gender and religious difference.

      My quarrel with ALL the parties is that none have offered a plan for the development of the real economy. With one exception: SYRIZA (presented at Thessaloniki last September). As retired-banker, pro-real-economy Klaus Kastner said in his blog Observing Greece: except that it lacked in details, nobody sensible could disagree with it.

      SYRIZA is a party whose origins spring from the greek communist tradition (which if you read greek history was primarily communitarian). Today though, they are a standard party of the european Centre Left.

  4. You might be surprised at the amount of establishment support for SYRIZA….for example Gerasimos Arsenis, ex-governor of the Bank of Greece. Yes, he is Louka Katseli’s husband, but he is more than capable of his own opinion, as a visit to Wikipedia will confirm.

  5. Please don’t give me Arsenis as an example, that’s a very big mistake. As for trade unions, what workers did they support, the public workers, they certainly didn’t support mine. They forced private companies to pay absurd salaries to office workers especially accountants that were badly trained and never held responsible, while all technical staff were considered immaterial. They knew of the corruption here and did nothing, they are a disgrace. They supported PASOK for years in exchange for parliamentary seats and now they have switched allegiance to SYRIZA. Strikes and demonstrations to keep their precious public workers even criminals. Let’s see what the pharmacists union will do with these creeps that have prospered while their compatriots have suffered. For weeks you have blamed the TROIKA for the lack of medicine in the market, now take a good look because hospitals are even more involved and hopefully they will all be uncovered. Just how democratic are your unions they don’t need a majority to go on strike and if you believe that Tsipras has any intentions of changing the constitution and removing immunity for MP’s now that the flotsam and jetsom has joined him, think again. Arsenis, please don’t make me laugh, how about Laliotis?

    • Mostly agree with all this, but some reservations. Unfortunately, the Pasok rats are leaving their sinking ship and finding that Syriza is a suitable home for their money-laundering activities. Tsipras will have a hard time controlling these experienced crooks.

      My main reservation is about the role of unions. Whereas I think I can agree with your general account, I am reluctant to denounce or try to interfere with unions. They have to be persuaded in the direction of self-reform and modernisation of Greece; the Thatcher destruction of unions was a disaster, and this could be replicated in Greece.

      In the end, I suppose it will be a compromise between accepting some of the corruption of the past and some modernization — otherwise, it would have to be a bloody revolution. That compromise may not be acceptable to enough of the electorate — and (despite ND’s attempt at neofascist ideas) this could benefit Chryssi Avgi quite a bit. It’s all up in the air, or in the hands of the gods.

      • Hi Xenos,
        I wasn’t trying to push SYRIZA, (and I am not a member of SYRIZA), I was only trying to point out to Ann Baker that most of the things she demanded have been in the SYRIZA platform for 2 years and more. I made the mistake of being too polite…which was mistaken for enthusiasm.

        I share your reservations on SYRIZA – except that, considering the original core of the party I can’t see PASOK immigrants having it all their own way. (I’d love to be a fly on the wall: supping with the devil needs a long spoon!). As for corruption, it will all depend on Tsipras and his key lieutenants: ALL fish rot from the head down.

        Am with you 100% on unions, modernisation is key. Modernising management too – 2 friends of mine have just lost their private sector jobs to reduced-salary 24 year olds.

        The pity is that there is no centre-right opposition for SYRIZA. With no viable opposition to SYRIZA, the true public debate that is so urgently needed on change and the future of Greece is indefinitely postponed. It is impossible to generate this yet. A political snapshot today has ‘tiny’ SYRIZA on one side vs the ‘giant’ morally bankrupt dynastic rat’s nest of politicians and oligarchs – ellinorades maimoudes – whose corruption shamelessly and openly speeds up before our eyes to get the spoils distributed on time! A David & Goliath situation which is not actually helpful to SYRIZA in its development as a political movement, or the greeks.

        ND/PASOK were more scared of Drasi / Dimiourgia Xana! than SYRIZA. Because of this they suffered an almost total news boycott in the oligarchic greek MSM, and the votes they attracted were mostly through internet, meetings, word of mouth, radio.

    • Ann Baker / Annie Athens.

      In my reply (above) I pointed out that SYRIZA’s party platform already includes the majority of points you said would be necessary to win over the middle of the road voters. This was done politely, to inform you

      Therefore I cannot understand your tirade, or if you are even addressing me, since I hold none of the opinions you state.

      I do not belong to a union. I believe there should be unions; I am against their abuses. I’m against all abuse of power.

      I have never posted about medicine or pharmaceutical industry abuses.

      I do not belong, and have never belonged, to any party.

      As an architect I continuously post about the whereabouts of Laliotis, who has gone underground, no doubt protected by the PTB. I am sure he is just as rich as Tzochadzopoulos, having sat in the Ministry of Works in the 1990s watching suitcases of cash being carried in, before the Athens Olympics were confirmed.

  6. another_greekboy

    Dont worry elenits. Ann Baker / Annie Athens likes to rant.

    I don’t take it personal.

  7. Was it a tirade probably am running out of patience, but I didn’t mean to be rude or unkind . I’m not against unions Guest my Father was a union man but not just for wage increases, but safety and work opportunities. We have problems with greek unions one of which is the fact that there are simply too many of them. A shipping company told me that refurbishing a vessel there were over 60 unions involved. This had a very bad effect on our ship building industry. Other than that it is the overwhelming support they give to public workers ensuring that accountants etc., have higher wages than their worth and technicians low wages and their lack of dealing with corruption. I don’t belong to a party either, have no political ties, I agree DRASI didn’t get the media attention and Manos was a respected MP unfortunately he was wasted probably too honest. Laliotis, underground is the best place for him. You are an architect so it’s a difficult time for you too. What a mess how many times have we been in this same position and can’t learn from our mistakes. I have no faith in Tsipras, wish I did, but his MP’s have conflicting ideas and am wary of his supporters especially his latest recruits. We desperately need stability and these continuous strikes only make the situation worse.

  8. everygoodboydeservesfavour

    Ann (Annie Athens), having followed your many comments on different topics for quite a while now and found myself agreeing with much of what you have said (I put much of this down to the fact that we are of similar background and vintage!), I find your views on SYRIZA quite baffling. I know that you agree that the previous regimes of ND and PASOK are both totally discredited. The one supposedly socialist, the other supposedly pro- business/private sector, but in reality little different, both being self-serving with the only aim of how to secure ongoing power, with no vision/plan for the longer term. It seems to me that it was ever thus, certainly since a return to what passes as some sort of democracy here. Greece is now close to tipping point. The current government’s target is to try and make it through to the German elections in Sept, thereafter expecting some element of debt forgiveness or QE from the ECB (not a given) to give some hope for the populace. As you are aware there is already a major groundswell against unremitting austerity in Italy, Spain and Portugal, and should any of these countries reach flashpoint, Greece will undoubtedly follow, resulting in the government collapsing. Kouvelis has already made (anti Troika) statements about the public service. This would then lead to a new election, and unlike the past where the electorate was essentially polarised, this time the hugely increased swinging vote may well tip the balance and vote for a new start, ie Tsipras and Co. Two questions then arise: would he be ready? (he/they have certainly had enough notice) and can he do any better? The answer to this is untested but my view is probably yes. Once in power, Realpolitik will kick in (it has already started) and if it results to a short term return to the Drachma and thus a return to some kind of sovereignty so that Greece has a free hand (with ongoing external advise on restructuring), so be it. The alternative as I see it is years and years of unimaginable penury.

  9. If this was the fault only of the governments ND and PASOK that might be an alternative, even so, SYRIZA is not a party with the same principles it’s a mish mash of left wing and anarchist groups and only one has any experience. The biggest problem however is corruption throughout society and this has to be dealt with. Another is the size of the public sector which Tsipras intends enlarging. If you put these two major problems together even if we returned to the Drachma, which is highly possible due to the fact that Tsipras won’t get any better terms from the TROIKA, within a few years we will be back to where we are today. Please don’t think I’m saying this as it suits me, in fact I would be luckier than some as I could sell my factory, which at this time isn’t possible, sell my home in Athens and rent a small home on an island. However, there would be chaos here, the first rumour of elections and the banks will be emptied. The other point is, that even other bloggers have mentioned, too many of the old PASOK retinue have joined the party along with trade unions. He won’t be able to keep the promises he has made without funding, and he has no policy to encourage foreign investment, demonstrating against the mining company has shown foreign investors he’s not to be trusted, plus he is against selling assets. This is not a party of technocrats with any experience in government, only in strikes and demonstrations, using our common sense we know changes are necessary however, most of his supporters are living in the past, these times are over.

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