Tag Archives: Tsipras

Democracy, the game show

weakestlink

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

“A celebration of democracy” – it’s a cliche, used to describe the voting process, that you’ll hear repeated on TV and radio throughout Sunday. But the truth is that voting has ceased to be a cause for celebration in this and many other countries for some time.

Too many voters enter polling booths not filled with the joy of someone about to pick the most suitable party but weighed down by the anxiety of choosing the one that’s least likely to disappoint. In an age when few politicians have convictions, let alone the courage of them, voters have become participants in democracy’s great game show – in the absence of talented candidates to vote in, they simply vote the failures out.

This rather subdued month-long campaign looks like it will culminate in exactly this manner. It has answered few of the questions the electorate had at the start and none of the parties has been able to present a convincing plan for rescuing and reviving the country’s economy, while a range of social issues have not featured at all.

The fewer the topics of discussion, the better for Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis and his party. He’s the game show contestant who’s finding life under the spotlight uncomfortable. Neither Karamanlis nor New Democracy is in the mood to answer difficult questions about their shortcomings over the last 5.5 years. But the government’s failure to engage with the electorate over the last month has strengthened the feeling that this administration’s time is up.

Karamanlis’s decision to call snap elections only made sense if it allowed New Democracy to get a head start on PASOK but the conservative party’s machinery creaked onto the campaign trail and was soon lagging behind the Socialists who set the agenda with their plan for their first 100 days in government. Karamanlis gambled on a snap election, hoping it would reinvigorate his party and renew people’s faith in his government but he forgot to give people some new ideas to believe in. “More of the same” is not a prize anyone wants to claim.

As a result, PASOK leader George Papandreou has limited himself to the role of the contestant who takes as few risks as possible and waits for his opponent to slip up. But this prompts the question: is he really limiting himself or are these actually his limits?

Doubt about Papandreou’s leadership is just one of the reasons that PASOK goes into Sunday’s voting sweating on whether it will get a clear parliamentary majority. Another is that although plenty of people are willing to believe the Socialists can do a better job in a number of areas, such as environmental and immigration policy, not so many have faith in their plans for the economy.

Athens PlusPASOK’s intention to increase public spending on wages and pensions still does not add up. Papandreou says he’ll find the money from uncollected taxes and tax dodgers. But these taxes have been uncollected for years and PASOK would have to conduct some serious restructuring of the tax collection system to gather them. This is a long-term project. Papandreou doesn’t have that sort of time. So, the question remains – where will he get the money?

If you ask Communist Party (KKE) leader Aleka Papariga, she’ll tell you the working classes will end up footing the bill. In the current economic climate, it’s a response that resonates with quite a few people and KKE is likely to increase it’s share of the vote, cementing it’s role as a strong voice in opposition but nothing more.

Papariga is the contestant who’s good with the questions about history but no so comfortable with the one involving numbers. The credibility gap in her and KKE’s positions means that the party will only ever attract true believers and those that want to poke ND and PASOK in the eye.

The Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), however, has much more riding on this election. Its leader, Alexis Tsipras, has been the young challenger who too often blurted out the answers before engaging his brain. It has cost him and the leftist party points, so SYRIZA goes into Sunday hoping for enough support (more than 3 percent) to get into Parliament.

Provided it achieves this, it could even be a coalition partner for PASOK if the Socialists fail to get a parliamentary majority. Perhaps that’s why Tsipras has been more prudent in recent weeks, thinking things through before putting his hand on the buzzer.

One leader perfectly cut out for the game show format is the leader of the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) Giorgos Karatzaferis. But even this master of the camera seems to have lost his touch during this campaign. Lacking his usual car salesman slickness in the TV debates and not knowing whether to attack PASOK because it is likely to be the next government or New Democracy because that’s where most of his voters come from, Karatzaferis has become trapped in his own nationalist-populist rhetoric.

The Ecologist Greens leader, Nikos Chrysogelos, has put in a more convincing performance, prompting many to cheer him on from the sidelines. Whether this will transfer into votes on election day remains doubtful. In game show parlance, the Ecologist Greens are the appealing mystery prize that many people will avoid, fearing it will turn out to be a cheap toaster rather than a holiday for two in Barbados.

Although they still lack slickness, the Ecogreens have admirably tried to state their case during this campaign, often having to avoid being dragged down blind alleys where journalists wait to ambush them with questions about foreign policy and other issues that are clearly not their priority.

To get into Parliament, they’ll have to virtually triple their support from the 2007 general election. It would be a historic achievement that could lead to them being a coalition partner for either of the two big parties.

It would perhaps be the biggest prize available to a Greek electorate that has to wrestle with some testing choices on Sunday. There is little you can say to someone faced with such dilemmas other than what you’d say to anyone about to take part in a game show: Good luck.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on October 1, 2009

Back to the future

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

“I want to talk about the future…you were the future, once,” the leader of Britain’s Conservative Party David Cameron told then Prime Minister Tony Blair in their first parliamentary clash four years ago.

The same could have been said of Alexis Tsipras, the leader of Synaspismos, the largest party in the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) ahead of Monday’s televised election debate.

When he was elected in February 2008 at the unusually young age of 33 (the average age of the other four main party leaders was 57), Tsipras represented the future and a break with a past that required politicians’ hairlines to recede before their careers could advance.

He also instilled hope that a dynamic third party could emerge to break the New Democracy-PASOK stronghold and put different issues, or at least alternative takes on existing topics, on the agenda.

The wind of optimism that swept across the barren plains of the Greek political landscape was evident in the opinion polls that followed. A month after Tsipras was voted in, support for SYRIZA had soared from around 5 percent in the September 2007 general election to 17 percent, mostly at the expense of an anemic PASOK.

However, Tsipras and his party handled their newfound popularity with immaturity and support for the leftists now stands at 4 percent – just above the threshold for entering Parliament.

The most obvious reason for the party’s demise is its equivocal stance on last December’s riots. Tsipras failed to draw a distinction between what was legitimate protest and downright thuggery. His attempt to refocus attention on Greece’s disaffected youth and the crumbling education system while Athens was burning exposed his lack of experience. His insistence on, in his own words, “taking the struggle to the schools” betrayed his naivety and irresponsibility.

Since then, his leadership has been beset by difficulties, not least a dramatic falling out with Alekos Alavanos, his predecessor. The pair have drifted apart on their vision for the party, whose poor showing in the June European elections led to a very public row between the two. Voters will never trust a party when the people running it don’t trust each other.

As a result, a coalition that seemed to have found its niche as the voice of conscience on social and economic issues has been replaced by a faction that flits about without any real purpose or clarity.

athensplus_tsiprasInstead of competing with ND and PASOK or even the Communist Party (KKE) on a national level, Tsipras and SYRIZA chose to focus on issues of narrow interest, such as the vehement opposition to the construction of a shopping mall in Votanikos. SYRIZA’s campaign brought plenty of headlines but it effectively turned a national party into nothing more than a residents’ association.

Yet, even at the tail end of this campaign, Tsipras seems to be rediscovering his momentum and may rescue his leadership. With Alavanos deciding to step aside completely, the party now has the chance to settle on the direction it wants to take. Tsipras certainly appeared unburdened in the leaders’ debate on Monday. He gave a relaxed and assured performance that had many commentators declaring him the winner.

The challenge Tsipras must meet now is to clearly position his party on the political landscape. If he needs any encouragement, he should look to the success of Die Linke, the anti-capitalist, pro-social justice party that is set to make a major impact on next week’s general election in Germany. Die Linke has been polling at about 14 percent and its radical approach has given voters a real alternative to the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), a junior partner in the “grand coalition” government.

“The success of Die Linke is a reflection of the programmatic and personnel weakness of the SPD,” Jens Bastian a senior research fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP) told Athens Plus. “The Social Democrats are too closely associated with the grand coalition of Chancellor Merkel. They have not succeeded in providing an independent, left-of-center profile for a social democratic alternative.

“Instead, many voters who would be inclined to vote for SPD, now say that they rather prefer the original, rank-and-file social democratic perspective. SYRIZA can and should position itself as the programmatic alternative to PASOK.”

Apart from being a vessel for disgruntled PASOK supporters, SYRIZA has to also position itself in relation to KKE as well. One of Die Linke’s successes has been attracting ex-communists from eastern Germany. With KKE likely to poll around 8 percent in Greece, SYRIZA should be looking to draw support from the communists.

SYRIZA also has to find an issue on which it will hold a much stronger position than the other parties. Die Linke, for instance, is the only German party strongly opposing the country’s presence in Afghanistan.

However, opposing things cannot be the only thing that defines SYRIZA. It also needs to open up to the possibility of cooperating with PASOK. Tsipras can no longer play the role of the insolent teenager who says “no” to everything.

“Die Linke has strategically placed the SPD in a bind because it is offering collaboration if the mathematics allow for it and the policies provide it,” says Bastian. “So far, it is the SPD that is refusing.

“In Greece, SYRIZA rather gives me the impression that cooperation with PASOK in parliament is out of the question. Why limit your options? Challenge your competitor.”

First though, Tsipras has to challenge himself. The election result on October 4 is likely to be a blow to him and SYRIZA but his appearance in Monday’s debate and its knock-on effect gives cause for the leftists to look forward, not back. It’s now up to Tsipras whether he lurks in the shadows of the past or strides into the future.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on September 25, 2009