Tsipras Is Learning From Merkel Who’s the Boss

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Alexis Tsipras and Angela Merkel
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, left, speaks as Chancellor Angela Merkel looks on during a news conference in Berlin, on Monday, March 23. Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

Alexis Tsipras is flouting the cardinal rule of political survival in Europe: don’t displease Angela Merkel.

The German chancellor’s disapproval helped end the political careers of former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and Greek leader George Papandreou.

After burning through whatever goodwill he had with Merkel’s lawmakers and the German public, the current Greek premier could be next.

The support of Merkel, politically secure in her 10th year leading Europe’s largest economy, is essential for debtor governments. Tsipras upended talks with his creditors last week calling a referendum on German-inspired austerity, a decision that left him few options if voters accept budget cuts as the cost of aid.

“We are watching the end of the political career of Alexis Tsipras,” Jacob Kirkegaard, a senior fellow at Peterson Institute in Washington, said in a Bloomberg Radio interview. “Mr. Tsipras can continue his career on T-shirts for students, replacing Che Guevara.”

Merkel says there will be no further debt negotiations with Greece until the outcome of the referendum is known. Euro-area finance ministers echoed that line following a conference call late on Wednesday.

‘Legitimate Right’

“It’s the legitimate right of the Greeks to do that whenever they want, on whatever question and with whatever recommendation the government wants to give,” Merkel said in a speech to parliament. “But, to be clear, the other 18 euro member states have the same democratic legitimacy to duly take their position in response to the Greek decision.”

Refusing to play ball with Germany didn’t turn out well for Berlusconi, whose premiership had survived innumerable court cases and a tawdry sex scandal. A senior lawmaker from Merkel’s Christian Democrats spoke for her party when he urged Berlusconi to resign in November 2011 to allow Italy to fix its economy. A few days later he did just that.

Papandreou’s Lesson

Papandreou learned a similar lesson the same year. When he called a bailout referendum, Merkel insisted to him that the question focus on remaining in the euro -- as Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble recounted Wednesday in German parliament. The ensuing turmoil in Greece, and within his own socialist party, forced Papandreou to resign and the vote was scrapped.

“This is the historical truth,” Schaeuble said.

Whether Tsipras, the former Communist organizer can continue in office will depend largely on the outcome of the plebscite on Sunday. His left-wing Syriza party is urging voters to reject the program of tax rises and spending cuts proposed by euro-zone finance ministers.

A “no” vote could propel the country out of the euro, an outcome that opinion polls show most Greeks want to avoid. Tsipras says that result would strengthen his leverage and yield a better bailout deal.

A win for the “yes” camp, backed by Greece’s main opposition parties and the rest of the euro-area leaders, would constitute a public rebuke of Tsipras.

Tsipras Choice

When asked by a Greek television interviewer if he would resign if he loses in the referendum, he said, “I’m not attached to the chair.”

“I’m in this position because of the will of the people,” he said. “I will respect the will of the people.”

While Merkel disputes that she seeks to interfere in other countries, her influence isn’t universally welcomed at home.

Gregor Gysi, parliamentary leader of Germany’s anti-capitalist Left party, on Wednesday alleged that Merkel is trying to foment regime change in Athens.

“You want to get rid of the leftist government in Greece, that’s your goal,” Gysi said in a parliamentary debate. He cited Merkel’s refusal to engage in aid negotiations before the referendum. “That’s the proof. It’s because you hope that the government will fall on Sunday,” he said.

The view from Athens reflects a similar perspective.

When asked in a Bloomberg Television interview Thursday if Merkel is pushing for regime change, Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis cited a stock phrase uttered by a fictional British politician.

“You may very well say that,” he said. “I couldn’t possibly comment.”

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