Outgoing PM has been on quite a journey but he doesn’t seem to have taken the Greek people with him
For Brussels and Berlin, it may as well have been Moros, the Greek god of impending doom, a driver of mortals to their deadly fate, who had been elected as the prime minister of Greece in January 2015.
Alexis Tsipras was the radical leftwing firebrand with the open-necked shirt, whose Syriza government posed a threat to the European order through its demands to rewrite the rules underpinning the single currency, and willingness to take Greece and the EU to the brink to achieve that goal.
The open-necked shirt was still there at a summit of EU leaders last week but rather than being spat out as a profanity by irate German bean-counters, Tsipras’s name was being circulated, perhaps a tad unconvincingly, as an outside contender for a top EU job.
The 44-year-old has been on quite a journey. Unfortunately for him, he doesn’t seem to have taken the Greek people with him this time.
The thumping win for Kyriakos Mitsotakis’s New Democracy party with 39.8% of the vote, giving him 158 seats in the 300-member parliament, highlights a divergence in perception between Brussels and Athens that goes some way to explaining many of the problems facing the EU.
Since Tsipras’s extraordinary volte-face in late 2015, facing down his finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, to accept arduous EU bailout terms despite having won a mandate through a referendum to reject them, the Greek prime minister has emerged to many in Brussels, to paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, as “one of us”.
Tspiras fully implemented the last phase of the austerity programme. In August last year his country finally exited the massive €86bn (£77bn) EU bailout programme and the economy is expected to grow by 2.2% this year.
The recent striking of a deal under which the Greek government agreed to end a 28-year-old dispute and drop its opposition to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia joining the EU and Nato in return for the country changing its name to North Macedonia has added to the embrace of Tspiras as a man with whom Brussels can do business.
“We are a party that belongs to the European family of the governing left,” Tspiras told the Economist recently. “And if you govern, you have to make compromises.”
But while he is now glad-handed and lauded by the likes of the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, who once counselled the Greek people not to listen to their young leader, back at home the ideological flexibility appears to have fallen flat with the voters.
Tspiras was banking on some hefty pre-election handouts, with a heavy fiscal cost of 1% of gross domestic product for both 2019 and 2020, sweetening the pill of the last few years. But unemployment in Greece remains high at 18%, and there has been widespread disappointment at the failure to deliver on promises to restore welfare spending to pre-crisis levels and increase pensions.
Mitsotakis, a former banker, goes into power having promised to cut taxes, lift living standards, reform the state and tackle clientelism, a problem that has dogged his party in the past.
“A lot has been achieved,” the commission president wrote to the new prime minister in his letter of congratulations. “But a lot remains to be done.” Tsipras has said he plans to be active in politics for another 20 years. There is little doubt he has the capacity to reinvent himself should Mitsotakis falter.
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