Friday, January 25, 2013

The Incredibly Useful Alexis Tsipras

Readers of this blog know that I have little sympathy for SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras. Yet I cannot help but be grateful that he exists. Of course, I haven’t always been that grateful. On June 17, as the second election was taking place, I was terrified and depressed at the prospect that he might actually win first place in the polls. But just like a near-death experience lets you appreciate life anew, so his near win allowed me to appreciate his existence in a new light.

Now, I do not take Tsipras very seriously. And neither do most Greeks. Consider these public opinion data points from Public Issue. Around four in ten Greeks have a positive opinion of Tsipras, but only three in ten think he would be the best prime minister for Greece. Even fewer (one in four to one in five) believe that a SYRIZA government would be the best government for the country. And only one in six are actually satisfied by the opposition. The public is attracted to Tsipras for the same reason someone is attracted to his ex’s not-so-cute roommate—you don’t really like her, but you are annoyed at your ex. In Greek politics, PASOK is the ex, and Tsipras is the not-so-cute roommate.

The not-so-cute roommate can be useful sometimes, and so it is in Greek politics. Tsipras serves two functions. First, by gaining the support of the left, he is keeping PASOK and (less so) DIMAR firmly in the coalition. PASOK’s estimated vote hovers around 8%, much below the 12.2% it got in the June 2012 elections. DIMAR’s estimated vote is around the same as the June elections. So the two parties that could force elections by withdrawing their support from the coalition have no incentive to go to the polls. This allows New Democracy, which actually wants to change a thing or two in Greece, to push forward with reforms.

Second, Tsipras shows starkly what Greece’s choices are. The public may be angry and dissatisfied at the status quo, but few folks have any illusions that Greece under Tsipras would be any better—most suspect it would be worse, far worse. Tsipras reminds us of that fact by his shallow and contradictory political thinking (“I will get all the money I want without any concessions whatsoever”); and he does so also by his blatant support for the narrowest interests, no matter how philosophically untenable that support is (for example, his opposition to harmonizing the wages of the employees in parliament with the rest of the public sector). The not-so-cute roommate becomes even less attractive when you actually talk to her.

That is why I am grateful for Alexis Tsipras—his opposition is strengthening the government coalition, and it is reminding the public of how worse things would be if he were in charge. In doing so, he makes the policies that he loathes—and that Greece desperately needs—that much more likely. And the Greek public is thankful that he plays that role—which is why it likes him just where he is: in opposition.