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Down a populist road to nowhere

Many Greeks and fellow Europeans might well be wondering if the latest election triggered by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was just another pointless exercise by the newbie leader. Eleven weeks ago, he obliged his strapped and weary countrymen to vote "yes" or "no" to a euro bailout proposal. Having got the populist rejection he had sought, Mr Tsipras then went on to lamely accept a separate bailout offer - a show of force turned farce. He wanted a thumping mandate this time to end political bickering. Instead, he got a fresh Parliament that looks much like what it was at the beginning of the year when he came into power. His vote share declined to just above a third, his party won fewer seats, and he's again short of an outright majority in Parliament. So, after all the exertions in Athens, just what did he achieve, apart from neutralising a splinter group within his far-left party, Syriza?

With its feet planted in the birthplace of democracy, Syriza might have been under the delusion that the handy answer to knotty issues is more democracy. The Greeks have picked five prime ministers since the crisis began six years ago, and Mr Tsipras alone has won two elections over the past nine months. Yet his people are still stuck with their massive Greek debt, with one in four unemployed and almost half the youth out of work. He ought to have known that the sacred vote is only as good as the choices made available in a plebiscite. Europeans have not forgotten that his bailout referendum in July was a "fundamentally dishonest way of dealing with an extremely serious question", as noted by the founder of think-tank European Stability Initiative. The referendum question was couched in legalese, there was insufficient time for debate, and politicians offered rhetoric rather than workable policy.

Another election and more argy-bargy later, the nation is no closer to recovering from the mismanagement of a series of inept leaders and the Hydra-like prevalence of corruption. The Greeks themselves appear weary of the political theatre, as indicated by the historic low turnout of voters - 56 per cent compared to figures that were once over 80 and never below 70 over half a century.

Despite his electoral victories, Mr Tsipras might be seen as a leader who took his nation to the brink, made populist promises he couldn't keep, and lacked the skill to overhaul the economy. The lesson for nations is that in both racking up massive debt or getting out of it, there is simply no substitute for good governance. In truth, nothing else will change the fiscal bottom line, especially as bailouts (whether seen as a Faustian bargain or a lifeline) can't continue indefinitely. In perilous times, simply going after a bonanza of votes by pandering to certain groups will serve little more than to provide just populist glitter to pave the road to fiscal hell.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 26, 2015, with the headline 'Down a populist road to nowhere'. Subscribe