Paralysis in Greece: Democratic politics hits a dead-end

Thumb_james-mates
Leader of the far-left Syriza party Alexis Tsipras.
Leader of the far-left Syriza party Alexis Tsipras. Photo: Reuters

If you are going to have political paralysis, then I suppose it’s good to be paralysed quickly. The process of trying to form a Government out of the patchwork of parties and fringe groups that now sit in the Greek Parliament could have dragged on for ten days or more. It looks as though it may only be a day or two now before everyone agrees that a functioning administration is impossible, and they get on with planning new elections.

After the failure, yesterday of the conservative leader Antoni Samaras, Alexis Tsipras, the leader of the far-left Syriza party, gets his turn today. He’ll try to cobble together a coaltion of left-wing parties who would reject austerity and the terms laid down by Europe and the IMF. He won’t succeed. Even if the Communists were to join him, which they won’t, he wouldn’t have the votes.

Greek Conservative leader Antoni Samaras.
Greek Conservative leader Antoni Samaras. Credit: Reuters

I first met Mr Tsipras about a year ago when we interviewed him as the leader of what was, back then, a tiny party in Parliament who advocated telling the Germans to get lost, renouncing all Greek debts but at the same time staying firmly in the Euro. He’s young, rather charming, speaks good English (although he won’t on camera), but his views on what was politically possible or acceptable within the Eurozone bore almost no connection to reality. This afternoon he will have an audience with the President and be asked to try to form a Government. That, in a nutshell, is how bad things have got.

To make matters worse (could they be worse?) Greece is at a crucial stage of enacting the reforms demanded by the EU and the IMF in return for €240bn in bailout cash. €11.5bn in new spending cuts are due to be finalised in June, as are 77 separate reforms to the jobs market, without which - as Angela Merkel spelled out yesterday - there will be no more money. A source in The Greek Government was briefing yesterday that there is enough cash in the Treasury to pay pensions, wages and bills until the end of July. When that’s gone, the fun will really start.

A judicial representative empties a ballot box after the end of voting at a polling station in Athens.
A judicial representative empties a ballot box after the end of voting at a polling station in Athens. Credit: Reuters

Is there any reason to think that new elections (already being talked about for June 17th) would produce a different result? Not really. In fact Syriza could do even better if they can persuade several other leftist parties, which failed to win 3% of the votes and thus get seats in Parliament, to stand down in their favour. In Sunday’s vote it seems that the harder line you took in standing up to ‘Europe’ or ‘Berlin’, the better you did, and that’s a lesson the parties will to take into the next one.

The great irony in all this is that membership of the Euro remains extraordinarily popular, at 60-70% support. But this may also create an opportunity. If it is made abundantly clear to Greek voters that a repeat of this result in a second general election would mean Greece’s inevitable ejection from the Eurozone, it is just possible that it might concentrate voter’s minds. But it is a strategy that would carry substantial risks, not least with the markets, and the danger of provoking massive capital flight from Greek banks into accounts abroad as soon as opinion polls suggested the result may be going the wrong way.

The complexity of it all is beginning to resemble the ‘Gordian Knot’, which, legend has it, Alexander the Great didn’t bother trying to untie, but slashed through with one blow of his sword. Where’s a leader like that when Greece needs him?