On September 20 2015, Alexis Tsipras becomes the leader elected by his country to implement the austerity programmes he was elected in January to oppose.
His story illustrates the success of a charismatic leader in retaining trust regardless of sudden shifts of policy he may make.
The Greek election of 2004 had seen the success of Kostas Karamanlis of the New Democracy party, defeating George Papandreou of PASOK. It was very much business as usual, as the two were from the dynastic tradition in Greece, of political families providing the country’s leaders since the new era of democracy in 1944.
Syriza as a political party emerged in 2004 as a coalition of left wing groups (implied in its acronymic type name) challenging this tradition. The coalition held six seats but its members were engaged in various power struggles (hardly surprising as the radical alliance could count around twelve groupings within it).
After several years of internal struggle, a young Athenian politician Alexis Tsipras eventually gained the leadership of the Greek parliamentary opposition. His track record was as a student activist who had considerable media visibility through his energetic campaigning efforts which demonstrated his considerable personal charm and audience appeal.
Greece and the domino theory of collapse
Greece went on to suffer from increasing financial difficulties exacerbated by the global economic crisis which called for austerity measures imposed externally. By 2012, had Greece became the first domino within the theory of the collapse of the EU. The financial crises had a Darwinian feel to then, with the weakest national economy facing tough austerity measures or default from the club.
According to the domino theory, the default on the weakest economy would increase pressures via creditor institutions, on the next weakest. The IMF, the European Central Bank, and the World Bank were in complex ways influencing financial and political measures taken by national governments. The weakest economies would face increasingly painful decisions which acquired the euphemism of taking austerity measures. Opposition to such measures were simplified into anti-austerity policies. The next dominos included Spain, Portugal, Italy and even France. The most secure economy in the European Union was Germany. Increasingly German economic power was seen as dominant, and Angela Merkel seen as the most powerful political figure in Europe, and chief architect of the austerity measures being imposed on Greece. Greece was seen as fragile enough to make its exit from the EU (‘Grexit’) likely.
By then, Tsipras was attracting international attention for his anti-austerity speeches. Across Europe more extreme parties on the left and right were gaining ground. Disenchantment with austerity measures and the old political alliances was high. The country faced pressing demands to implement further demands in order to renegotiate a financial bail-out, needed to protect the very viability of the internal banking system.
Promise of a heroic rescue
Tsipras promised a heroic rescue. The Greek voters turned to Syritza and Tsipras’s anti-austerity proposals in an election of January 2015. He was sworn in as Prime Minister with a mandate to renegotiate the resented austerity measures.
Tsipras became the poster boy of youthful political protest around the world. At 40 he was the youngest Prime Minister of Greece and arguably the leader of opposition to the EU’s austerity programmes. His election promises had been greeted with incredulity in European leaders concerned with the wider financial stability of the Eurozone and their own internal political pressures. His success in the election was even more of a surprise.
The young hero flung himself into the battle with the forces of austerity. Any sympathy for his cause was weakened in the EU by his lack of diplomatic concealment of his contempt for his perceived protagonists. He was further weakened by the even more abrasive style of his chief financial negotiator.
In the first month of difficult negotiations Greece’s European lenders agree to extend its second bailout by four months with additional evidence of good faith by the newly appointed Greek government.
Neat footwork or stumble?
By June, the EU negotiators appeared to have been making progress, when Tsipras found a way of wrong-footing his opponents (although possibly wrong-footing his own cause as well). Facing unacceptable demands, he announces a hasty referendum on a possible bailout agreement. In July The electorate again supported Tsipras in rejecting the EU latest terms Tsipras assured the voters that the result would not be ‘Grexit’.
The timing resulted in further pressures on the Greek economy, but Greece agrees a bailout deal allowing more austerity measures. The government is in disarray and destabilised by defections.
Another snap election
Then in another piece of wrong-footing, Tsipras resigns and declares he needs a mandate for implementing the deal. A snap election is called for September, as he seeks a new mandate.
On 20 September, Alexis Tsipras wins but without a majority of seats. He is able to form a coalition and survives as the new protector of Greece’s austerity programs which he originally came to power by opposing.
He becomes Leaders We Deserve charismatic leader of the month for September 2015.