The key challenge for Alexis Tsipras will be to rise above the incompetence and corruption that have plagued past Greek administrations as he juggles various crises. Pavlos Zafiropoulos reports from Athens.
Even in the face of the rapidly escalating refugee crisis and with the all-important final bailout hanging in uncertainty, Greek voters wondering if Alexis Tsipras is up to the task of leading the country recently found themselves puzzling over the identity of one Himalayan cat.
The cat in question first made its appearance in a February 28 article in the Vima newspaper. The paper alleged that while still leader of the opposition, Alexis Tsipras held an off-the-books meeting with Stavros Psycharis, the head of the influential Lambrakis Press Group which owns the Vima and numerous other major media outlets. The article implied that Tsipras offered to help Psycharis write off his publishing group’s debts in exchange for favorable coverage. The encounter was held in utter secrecy, the article concluded, aside from the presence of an ‘enigmatic and austere’ Himalayan cat which, “alone had the privilege to hear the request of the politician to the publisher for an …exclusive relationship, for a stable relationship of mutual support.”
The article immediately triggered extensive speculation as to who, or what, the cryptic cat might represent. A former confidante of Tsipras? A hidden microphone? Varoufakis? What is certain is that it marked the beginning of a public and ongoing battle between the prime minister’s office and the Lambrakis Press Group, one that cuts to the heart of the Syriza’s government’s key pledge to end the long-entrenched system of clientelism between political parties and business-media conglomerates in Greece. (For its part the Prime Minister’s office has not denied the meetings took place but stridently rejects that Tsipras sought any sort of deal with Psycharis.)
Fighting for political survival
Of course Tsipras’s current targeting of media barons may seem like small change in the face of the enormous challenges facing the country. And in a way it is. The common consensus is that Tsipras’s future as prime minister depends on a successful bailout review by the early summer at the latest which would open the way for debt restructuring and a long-awaited economic recovery. Provided that Greece’s lenders come to an agreement on what exactly Greece needs to do (which remains in the air), in the coming weeks Tsipras will need to push through tough pension cuts and other reforms through parliament.
That will be politically difficult, especially given that his coalition government has a razor thin majority in parliament. While the reforms are expected to pass with the help of opposition parties, a small number of defections would leave Tsipras exposed and likely unable to govern. He would then either have to cobble together a new coalition with one of the smaller parties, or call elections. (The third option of a unity government being formed by the major parties under a different PM is widely thought to be a political non-starter).
“The likelihood that this Syriza-ANEL government survives the review in its current form is very limited,” argues Yiannis Palaiologos, author of the “13th Labour of Hercules, Inside the Greek Crisis.” Aside from the huge challenges of the bailout review, Palaiologos points to the government’s lackluster record in actually operating the machinery of the state. Even in the event of a successful review in the short term he says, “It will be very difficult for them to restore growth both as the direct result of delays and the indirect result of bad practices, such as not supporting a politically independent civil service which will impact investor confidence.”
“Tsipras will try to avoid elections but I think it is questionable whether he will make it halfway through his term,” he told DW.
Syriza’s inexperience in managing day-to-day operations of government also threatens to compound the already dramatic refugee crisis, with the potential for conflict growing which could have unpredictable political repercussions.
Its tumultuous time in government has certainly taken its toll on Syriza’s poll numbers. Recent polls including one conducted by the polling company Rass show the opposition party New Democracy pulling ahead of Syriza with 26.2 percent saying they would vote for the conservative party compared to 23.4 percent for the leftists.
But while Alexis Tsipras’s personal poll numbers have also slipped, they show that the young prime minister continues to have a decent base of support. “His image is not as good as it was prior to the elections, but given the circumstances it is good,” says Maria Karakalioumi, a pollster and political analyst.
According to Karakalioumi that enduring support is in part due to the impact of the six-year economic crisis on the electorate. “The main electoral lines in Greece are no longer ideological but based on economic standing. The electorate is broadly divided between those who have suffered heavily and those who are still getting by. The former are stronger electorally,” Karaklioumi told DW. “They tend to favor Tsipras and are still waiting for him to deliver on at least some of his promises for a recovery.”
On top of this is Tsipras’s image as a break with Greece’s clientelist past (although that image has been tarnished somewhat by his government’s propensity to appoint party loyalists to key positions in supposedly independent public bodies). According to the same Rass poll 45 percent of respondents said they considered the prime minister to be honest. In contrast around 74 percent agreed with the statement that New Democracy had tried to cover up cases of major tax evasion when in power, while a whopping 86 percent agreed that the media in Greece abuses its power to control and direct the political situation in the country.
“There are many who believe that [Syriza] can lance the boil of clientelism,” the political commentator and author Stavros Lygeros told DW. “This government can be seen, in a way, partially as a last act as opposed to a new beginning, one that has elements of catharsis.”
In that light Tsipras’s tussles with the Himalayan cats of Greece’s establishment press are crucial to maintaining his standing as a break from the past, even as he is forced by Greece’s bailout agreement to impose many of the same austerity-based economic policies as his predecessors.
Yet on both fronts it is also clear that voter patience is wearing thin, and Tsipras must soon show tangible results a opposed to admirable losses – all while avoiding the worst from the refugee crisis. Or as one Wolfgang Schäuble so succinctly put it in Davos, “It’s the implementation, stupid.”