Tsipras’s Paradox Is Six Months of Pain and Enduring Popularity

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His party is split, government undermined and the economy lies in tatters. Yet in the rubble of Greece, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras reigns supreme.

In the six months since he became prime minister, Tsipras breezed past challengers at home, new and old, as he followed an election victory with backing for his anti-bailout message in a referendum. After yielding to his European peers, next month he may be signing a third financial rescue that he opposed, while capital controls keeping money in Greece remain.

The paradox reflects how punch-drunk Greece has become after years of spending cuts and tax increases by successive governments allied to the euro region’s austerity hawks. For all his doomed brinkmanship, Tsipras’s popularity is unblemished as Greeks blame Europe for their financial punishment, or others in his Coalition of the Radical Left.

“His rhetoric of defiance, resistance and regaining sovereignty flies well with Greek public opinion,” said Wolfango Piccoli, managing director of consulting company Teneo Intelligence in London. “He is by far the most popular politician across the whole spectrum.”

A poll by Kapa Research published on July 14 showed 51.5 percent of Greeks backed the new terms Tsipras agreed to in return for staying in the euro.

The blame for the pension cuts and higher taxes rested with the Europeans, 49 percent said, while 68 percent said Tsipras should lead the country.

Unruly Party

For now, he has to deal with the party that he brought to power. Tsipras, who turns 41 this week, purged his government of dissenters after bringing home the deal that promised the exact opposite of what he pledged to voters in January.

Even as he clawed back some supporters in last week’s parliament vote, Syriza officials publicly worried about the chasm growing between dissident leftists and the more pragmatic group Tsipras leads, fearing a breakup of the party.

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“The question is whether Tsipras will remain the leader of Syriza or he will form his own party with those who support him in Syriza,” said George Tzogopoulos, a research fellow at the Athens-based Hellenic Foundation for European & Foreign Policy. “It is probably easier for him to purge Syriza.”

For now, the focus is on filling in the outlines of the deal agreed with creditors on July 13. Tsipras could then move to consolidate his position by holding elections.

Unchallenged

He has little opposition. Antonis Samaras, his predecessor and arch-rival, quit as leader of the next-biggest party, New Democracy, on the night of the July 5 referendum after Greeks emphatically backed Tsipras in rejecting more austerity. Samaras’s replacement is temporary and the party has backed the bailout Tsipras has delivered to keep Greece in the euro.

Yanis Varoufakis, the former finance minister and face of successive failures to reach an accord with the euro region, garnered the most votes of any party candidate in the Jan. 25 election. He now has a popularity rating of 28 percent, compared with 59 percent for Tsipras in the Kapa poll.

Comrades causing Tsipras headaches, such as former Energy Minister Panagiotis Lafanzanis and Speaker of Parliament Zoe Konstantopoulou, both polled lower than Varoufakis.

“It is more and more a Tsipras government and party,” said Piccoli. “His U-turn has been justified with a narrative that argues that there was no other option.”

Drachma People

Political brinkmanship has been the bane of getting Greece’s economy back on track since the first bailout by the European Union and International Monetary Fund in 2010.

Then-opposition leader Samaras refused to support the first bailout and kept back support for a second rescue, prompting Prime Minister George Papandreou to propose a referendum that nearly tipped the country out of the euro and back to the old currency now feared by so many Greeks, the drachma. The idea was ultimately shelved and cost Papandreou his job.

The difference is that the past month has provided a sudden reality check for everyone -- Greeks, the rest of Europe, the party faithful in Syriza -- that gives Tsipras a chance to consolidate power, said Tzogopoulos.

“They know now there is no alternative,” he said. “Politicians who even today reject the bailout will be associated with the drachma.”

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