News analysis

Now, Alexis Tsipras has to prove he can govern

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras being congratulated on Sunday on winning the country's latest election. The news had little impact on Asian markets as investors now have other concerns on their minds, such as an economic slowdown in China and whe
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras being congratulated on Sunday on winning the country's latest election. The news had little impact on Asian markets as investors now have other concerns on their minds, such as an economic slowdown in China and when the United States Federal Reserve might raise interest rates.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has moved quickly to form a new government after his far-left Syriza ruling party secured an unexpectedly solid win in the country's snap general election.

With all the votes in Sunday's ballot now counted, Mr Tsipras' Syriza has secured 145 parliamentary seats, well ahead of the centre-right opposition New Democracy, which ended up with only 75 seats. Mr Tsipras will once again rule with his party's former coalition partner, the nationalist Independent Greeks, whose 10 MPs provide the government with an overall majority of 155 in the 300-seat Parliament.

"Now, we roll up our sleeves and get ready for the hard work,"

Mr Tsipras told jubilant supporters in the Greek capital of Athens yesterday. And not before time, for Greece still has to implement a severe economic austerity package to stave off bankruptcy.

The election is a personal vindication for the youthful Mr Tsipras. The Prime Minister, who came to power only last December and was often dismissed as just a "one-day wonder", has now been confirmed as Greece's undisputed leader.

The Prime Minister's domestic opponents got an even bigger slap: the Popular Unity, a movement of people who defected from Mr Tsipras' ruling Syriza party, failed to get even one parliamentary seat.

Mr Tsipras rose to power promising to defeat the country's financial creditors and end European Union interference in Greek internal affairs. He even ran a referendum in which the Greeks voted to reject any further cuts in government expenditure.

He failed in all these objectives and was forced to introduce the most savage expenditure cuts ever, in return for an €86 billion (S$136 billion) bailout package that gives the EU even greater powers over Greece. Yet none of this seems to have mattered with the voters. It's hard to think of any other politician in Europe with such a slim record of achievements, yet such effective electoral performances.

Still, Mr Tsipras' victory is not as sweet as he'd like it to be. His party secured just 35 per cent of the ballots; it is dominant only because of a quirk in the Greek electoral law, which gives the party with the highest share of the popular vote a "top-up bonus" of 50 extra parliamentary seats. Furthermore, only 60 per cent of the electorate bothered to vote. With three national ballots this year alone and no fewer than five general elections in as many years, the Greeks are simply bored with the entire process. So, although Mr Tsipras retains power, he cannot claim an overwhelming popular mandate.

And he needs one, because the next few months will be cruel. International creditors, who held back as Greece went to the polls, expect that the terms of the bailout package agreed in July should now be swiftly implemented.

These include the cancellation of a promised rise in state pensions, the elimination of around 15,000 civil service jobs, the privatisation of state industries and, most controversially, the cancellation of special sales tax concessions given to remote Greek islands and provinces - one of the main methods by which previous Greek governments retained popular support.

Mr Tsipras proved adept at winning elections; now he has to show his ability to govern, on the basis of a bailout programme, which he cannot blame on anyone but himself. And the omens are not good, since there is no indication that the Tsipras government has any better managerial skills than its predecessors. Up to half of all the tax revenues due to the Greek state are never collected, according to EU statistics.

Yet to date, the only Tsipras proposal on how to deal with this tax-evasion plague is a vow to "squeeze the rich", a slogan that works in an electoral campaign but not in government.

To make matters worse, although Mr Tsipras' opponents were trounced, some of his most formidable critics are just beginning to be heard.

Mr Yanis Varoufakis, who, as a former finance minister, infuriated Greece's international creditors by refusing to go along with their demands for austerity in return for cash, continues to enjoy stardom status both at home and with populists throughout Europe. He has already dismissed the general election as an attempt "to nullify" the wishes of Greeks, a clear hint of political showdowns to come.

"I hope we won't disappoint the people," current Greek Finance Minister Euclid Tsakalotos said soon after the votes were in.

But chances are very high that this is precisely what will happen.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 22, 2015, with the headline 'Now, Tsipras has to prove he can govern'. Print Edition | Subscribe