PEOPLE

Greeks pay price of Tsipras' populist ploys and missteps

PM's tactics anger creditors and put his country on brink of disaster

WHEN Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras won power in January, he was hailed by many as the man to revolutionise not only his country's politics, but also those of all Europe.

Aged only 40, he is Greece's youngest prime minister in almost two centuries. More importantly, he seemed to herald the rise of a new generation, one which took the existence of a united Europe for granted, but also wanted to refashion the continent.

Instead, Mr Tsipras' experiment has taken his country on a wild and largely irrelevant economic and political roller coaster which is almost certain to end in a disastrous crash when Greeks vote in a referendum scheduled for July 5. And, far from being upended, Europe's political class has reaffirmed its grip.

The moral of the Tsipras story is that youth, good looks and shrewd tactics are still no substitute for logic and strategy.

The secret of Mr Tsipras' success was his ability to grab attention by playing the role of a disciplined youth in the midst of an undisciplined mob, by charting a road for those who would otherwise be going in all directions.

In 1990, when a Greek government plan to cut educational spending sparked off massive protests throughout the country's educational establishments, it was Mr Tsipras, then just 16, who represented the protesters in negotiations with the government.

And, after spending a decade joining every hopeless fringe radical movement in Greece, Mr Tsipras defied political gravity by achieving what nobody thought possible: welding together a coalition of green environmentalists and left-wingers. The Syriza movement he heads fronted hard-hitting electoral campaigns, catapulting him to victory.

As those close to him knew from the start, Mr Tsipras' informal public demeanour was a carefully constructed facade. His trademark refusal to wear neckties is intended as a snub to Europe's political establishment. Yet it's also a controlled one: The shirts he wears are immaculate and the suits are well-tailored, giving him both the appearance of spontaneity and authority.

It was reasonable, therefore, to expect that the man who cultivated his own brand of "radical chic" would also know how to tone down his rhetoric when in power. For he needed to, since he won power by promising the impossible, by vowing that Greece will abandon its economic austerity programme, yet still get the subsidies and credits from the European Union and remain in the euro zone.

To everyone's surprise, Mr Tsipras did neither, and ended up infuriating Europe.

One reason for this catastrophic mistake is that Mr Tsipras continued to treat the European talks to avert his country's bankruptcy as an extension of Greek domestic politics. He played the anti-German card by encouraging demands for compensation for Germany's occupation of Greece during World War II, an absurd claim. This played well at home, but embarrassed the Germans, Europe's biggest paymaster.

Mr Tsipras' decision to send Dr Yanis Varoufakis, his sharp- tongued Finance Minister, to deal with negotiations was equally disastrous. There is nothing politicians hate more than being lectured at as though they were first-year university students, which is how Dr Varoufakis treated the negotiations.

Mr Tsipras subsequently attempted to rectify his error by sidelining Dr Varoufakis, and assuming direct control over the negotiations. But it was too little, too late, and the Greek leader never grasped how close to success he was, if only he would change tack. Mr Tsipras could have appealed directly to the people of Europe, by telling them about Greece's suffering after years of austerity programmes and asking for their continued solidarity.

If such a message was delivered in simple and conciliatory terms, it would have played well with the Germans, who are still racked by guilt about their past, and would have won him the support of many other Europeans, who also believe that current economic politics will not work.

Instead, Mr Tsipras dismissed European politicians and ignored their nations, and in the process, forfeited everyone's respect. The result is the current ultimatum which Greece got from Europe: It is now expected to choose between continued austerity and bankruptcy, precisely the choice Mr Tsipras was elected to avoid.

Mr Tsipras is trying to shirk personal responsibility for this monumental diplomatic defeat by calling for a referendum on the financial ultimatum.

And he continues to peddle myths. He still claims that if the Greeks reject the European offer, he can go back to negotiations despite clear indications to the contrary. He continues to tell his electorate that, even if Greece defaults on its debts, it can remain in the euro zone, something economists know to be nonsense.

Ekathimerini, Greece's top daily broadsheet, summed up the record of Mr Tsipras' policy in a memorable phrase in a recent editorial: "Gibberish, topped off with nationalist populism."

Sadly, it is now time for ordinary Greeks to pay the price for his policies.

jonathan.eyal@gmail.com

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 29, 2015, with the headline 'Greeks pay price of Tsipras' populist ploys and missteps'. Print Edition | Subscribe