In some ways, the agreement between Greece and the European offers Greece a second chance—a second chance to avoid the mistakes that previous governments made since 2010. Alexis Tsipras comes into this challenge with unquestionable assets: he is enormously popular; he has a fresh mandate; there is no obvious challenger within his party or outside of it; the opposition parties in parliament are willing to support him and he should have no trouble staying on for his full term; the stakes of failure are clear to all (Grexit); and, as a left-of-center politician, he is less vulnerable to attacks.
What can Tsipras learn from George Papandreou and Antonis Samaras?
First, move fast and close issues. Every new government has a honeymoon period, and Tsipras has room to maneuver while there is unity across political parties for a pro-European agenda. He needs to capitalize on this momentum and move fast before opposition to him emerges and before reform fatigue starts to creep up to slow down bills through parliament or implementation through the bureaucracy. Tsipras also needs to close issues. This was a problem for Papandreou: he would start fights and never finish them, and so his government ended up clashing with an ever increasing avalanche of opposition. In my book, I quoted Samuel Huntington: “To achieve his goals the reformer should separate and isolate one issue from another, but, having done this, he should, when the time is ripe, dispose of each issue as rapidly as possible, removing it from the political agenda before his opponents are able to mobilize their forces.” This is as good advice as ever.
Second, be fair and consistent. This was another problem that Papandreou, in particular, exhibited. As long as Greeks felt that “we are all in this together” they were willing to tolerate pain. The problems started once certain groups started to be excluded—for instance, once the liberalization of “closed professions” turned to be an illusion and powerful groups could secure exemptions or delays in implementing the law. Meanwhile, the broader charge—that systematic threats such as corruption and tax evasion were never seriously tackled—only fed the impression that the crisis hit some but not others. Consistency is essential.
Third, don’t govern for your base. Both Papandreou and Samaras made this mistake—they tried to please their base and failed, and their failure threatened the very existence of their parties (in particular, Papandreou). You cannot be a reformer and try to please everyone. Tsipras needs to understand that the 38.7% which voted “Yes” on the July 5 referendum will give him enormous latitude to rule and upend the structural absurdities of the Greek economy and society. The thirst for changing Greece and cuts across ideologies and parties—Tsipras can lose supporters but he will gain many more if he is serious and he succeeds. His willingness to break ranks with his party and to embrace a whole cadre of people who opposed him is testament to his ability to do this. I count myself among the people that Tsipras can win over if he stays on the path he’s on.
Fourth, keep selling the big picture. Neither Papandreou nor Samaras offered a particularly compelling picture of where they wanted to take Greece. Even Tsipras, so far, has only sold Greece “independence” or “exit from the Memorandum.” This can serve an electoral purpose but they’re not the platform that can animate and guide a country. Tsipras needs to keep selling the destination, keep telling us that the reforms being implemented are necessary to create a fairer, more prosperous and stronger Greece—a Greece that will never again be so weak as to have to accept the conditions imposed on it this weekend.
Guy Verhofstadt asked Tsipras if he was going to be the new Venizelos. Remember that Venizelos came to power after Greece had lost a war, declared bankruptcy and had accepted international supervision of finances (ring a bell?). And yet he found the courage to turn the country around politically, militarily, economically, diplomatically and socially. I hope that Greece hit rock bottom this weekend and that the long path to recovery has started. Tsipras just needs to avoid the mistakes of his predecessors.