The outcome of the Greek referendum seems like a paradox: Voting against austerity measures lead to yet more extensive austerity measures. That is mainly due to Greece not only being in an economic and international crisis, but also in a political, domestic crisis that Tsipras was tackling.
Ever since the implosion of PASOK, Greece’s political arena has been open to small, fragmented parties, radical both on the right and the left. Especially the growth of a fascist party like Chrysi Avgi was worrisome, but the lack of political representation for many Greeks remained an issue for Greek democracy. This is partly why Nea Dimokratia did not suffer the same fate as PASOK; someone had to run the country, right? Even if you did not like them, there were worse alternatives out there.
Where there is a political opening, new parties may emerge. Where these parties unite behind one common cause, something like Syriza can have success. And there we go – with 36% of votes and almost a majority in parliament, Syriza had the mandate to do “different” politics. Yet, any party in power in Greece is faced by the same challenges and has similarly limited options. Thus, it was very likely that Syriza would fail, like PASOK and Nea Dimokratia did, and lose public support. And this is where the referendum comes handy.
No, of course the referendum was not about Syriza, it was about the bailout programme. Except that Tsipras might have retired if the vote had been “Yes”, and that Dijsselbloem, president of the eurogroup, hinted at this by asking who would be in charge of bailouts that Tsipras seemed to fight. When the result was clearly a “No” (how surprising, with the government supporting this), it was a major win for Syriza. Apparently, they were executing the will of the people, and that kind of makes it hard for the opposition to argue against them.
Strong in Athens, Weak in Brussels
The gains in domestic support came with a lack of international support. Varoufakis had to go. Shortly afterwards, Tsipras had to agree to terms quite similar to those he had declined prior to the referendum; the EU had made clear that there was no other option, with German finance minister publicly discussing a partial Grexit. Should we stay or should we go? Tsipras opted to stay, but paid a hefty price, agreeing to reforms not in exchange for aid, but rather as a prerequisite for talks.
Again, this affects Tsipras’ domestic standing. Maybe some politicians in Berlin or Brussels would not be sad to see Tsipras stumble over drastic reforms; but they definitely would not grant him some sort of victory by improving terms after the referendum. And when 32 Syriza parliamentarians voted against the first set of reforms, i.e. 21% of his party, it was a sign of fragmentation within Syriza. Fun fact: 65 MPs of Merkel’s party, also equalling 21% of her faction, did not support the equivalent vote in the German party. Unlike Merkel, however, Tsipras had to rely on MPs from the opposition to pass the measures. The result: A massive reshuffling of his cabinet. But also a surge in polls, with Syriza at 42.5%.
More bills are to come, but Tsipras seems on track to stabilize Syriza, maybe even to win a comfortable majority in a snap election, despite agreeing to austerity measures. And, believe it or not: This might actually, at some point, result in better conditions for Greece, with a stable government negotiating rather than technocrats or imploding governments. However, Tsipras will have to be more than a popular and strategic politician.
Syriza has yet to prove its competence
Ok, so Paul Krugman seems to be mainly annoyed by Greece staying in the Eurozone, but he is right that Syriza had not yet been able to deliver many of its promises or challenge the difficulties facing them. Where is the fight against corruption, inefficiency and tax fraud? Of course, 6 months have been a short time to tackle these issues, and Tsipras did seem preoccupied with domestic issues like the referendum; but 6 months have passed now, and slowly, more needs to happen. We will see if Syriza is capable of using its newfound power productively or not.
And Krugman is not the only one annoyed be Greece; most European politicians have, in one form or another, voiced there annoyance with the Greek government in general and Varoufakis in particular. So Varoufakis is gone now, but rebuilding relations with key allies in the Eurozone will be important of Greece ever wants to out-maneuver someone like Schäuble. Come on, Alexis, don’t leave Francois hanging!
If Syriza is serious about rebuilding the Greek political landscape, it may have the power to rebuild the state. In doing so, it might even overcome the ongoing crisis; but it should not forget there is a crisis going on, and that it need tackling more than parliamentary majorities.