A Tsipras comeback?

Photographer: ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images

Greek Voters Have a Choice, But Not Much of One

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Greece is having an important election on Sunday, and nobody seems to care. Last night I went to a rally here in Athens for New Democracy, the center-right party that has, somewhat unexpectedly, pulled even with Syriza in the polls. As appropriate for a center-right party, the street was filled with neatly dressed people waving enormous Greek flags.

Well, I say "filled," but from where I was standing, the crowd seemed to fit into one largish street, with a little spillover onto the next block. There in the back, no one looked much interested in the proceedings; they smoked, greeted each other, occasionally gave an interview to the roving TV crews. But for the flags, they could as easily have been at a block party as a political event. The Syriza rally Friday was decidedly bigger, and somewhat more enthusiastic, but considering that Athens is the country’s major population center, and they are going to the polls on Sunday, it was also much smaller and more subdued than I’d expected.

No one I’ve asked has exhibited any notable enthusiasm for the upcoming vote; some of them hadn’t even decided whether they were going to bother casting a ballot, or if so, who they would be voting for. People seem weary of elections, which are starting to resemble the weather in San Francisco: if you don’t like what you got, just wait fifteen minutes for the next one.

Besides, there’s only one real issue in the election: the bailout agreement that was most recently negotiated (after a summer referendum resoundingly rejected the previously proposed bailout agreement). Readers following along at home may recall that this ended up with the firebrand left-wing prime minister accepting a worse deal than the one voters that had rejected. But as an issue, this is not much of an issue.

After all, the deal has already been agreed. The memorandum of understanding has been published. Both major parties are committed to it. “It’s a dirty game,” my cab driver told me on the ride from the airport, “but we have to play it.”

The anti-establishment vote has few outlets these days, and not all that much voter support, either; they are down to, as I was jokingly told, “the Stalinists or the fascists.” Or perhaps Popular Unity, the splinter party that exited Syriza after Tsipras capitulated. But it’s not clear that Popular Unity is even going to get 3 percent of the vote, the threshold needed to take seats in parliament, and at best, they’ll be a small presence. For that matter, even the Communists are being almost disgustingly reasonable about the whole thing. The biggest concern is that the anti-establishment vote will boost the totals for Golden Dawn, the far-right party which this week took “political responsibility” for the murder of a rapper by one of its supporters. But even a big boost in its vote tally, while worrying, will not put Golden Dawn into the government.

So the only real issue is who is going to implement the deal. This actually does matter, a lot. But it’s not entirely clear which option would be better: New Democracy, which staunchly opposes Grexit, but which wasn’t exactly a model of zealous reform the last time they were in office; or Syriza, whose prior grandstanding ended in the current deal, and also a banking crisis from which the country is still struggling to recover.

I’ve heard two basic theories about this. The first is that it would be better for Syriza to run things, since after all, they’re the ones who created the latest crisis and negotiated the current deal; they should pay the political price for its results. And if they’re not in the government, then they’ll be in the opposition, where they’ll be free to snipe from the sidelines and whip up voter discontent over painful but utterly necessary reforms. (For various reasons, a Syriza-New Democracy coalition is very unlikely.) People seem to generally agree that New Democracy would be more helpful in the opposition than Syriza would.

The other theory is that Syriza needs to take a black eye over the events of the last few months, and that while New Democracy is going to have the same problems implementing reforms that they did the last time they were in office, they’re still better than the alternative.

Though no one seems to think that Syriza would be exactly ideal in the opposition, losing the election would probably throw the party into some disarray, making it harder for them to mount an effect campaign against the program during the critical coming months when the banking system must be recapitalized, and another round of fiscal and structural adjustment must be undertaken in order to demonstrate good faith to the creditors. So perhaps it’s more important to send a message than to keep them inside the tent.

Which side is right? I am but a visiting journalist; it would be presumptuous for me to say.

And who is going to win? No one knows. Recent polls showed Syriza and New Democracy in a dead heat, but polls have proven unreliable in the past. This morning I heard that New Democracy had the momentum behind it, but this evening, Syriza looked as if it might be breaking away.. The large number of undecided voters probably contain a lot of stealth Syriza people—either folks who voted for the party in the last election, or people who voted “No” in the recent referendum. Will that be enough to keep Tsipras in office?

On balance, I’ve heard more people predicting a victory for Syriza than New Democracy, including some New Democracy supporters. (“Fake it until you make it” does not seem to have the toehold here that it has in the U.S.; I’ve encountered none of the cheery assurances of impending victory that readily pour forth from both sides during American elections, even from doomed candidates.) But it’s hard to be certain. The best consensus is that no matter who wins, neither party is likely to clear a big enough majority to govern by themselves; they’ll probably have to form a coalition, though not, as mentioned above, with each other.

If Tsipras does win, it will be a pretty amazing testimony to his political skills. He came to office campaigning for a tougher line against Europe, caused a banking crisis, then caved and ended up signing an unfavorable agreement to avoid a Greek exit from the euro. Even a shrunken majority would be a pretty remarkable achievement under those circumstances.

But the electoral exhaustion suggests an exhaustion of the rage -- and the hope -- that brought his party to power. The Greek government -- well, governments -- have now tried everything. They tried agreeing to reforms and dragging their feet on implementation. They tried intransigence. They flirted with Grexit. The result has been years of crisis and economic stagnation. All that’s left is one choice: Elect someone to carry out the new bailout agreement, and hope that this time, it finally works. No one seems very excited about the choice, or hopeful that this time, adequate reform will actually follow. But it’s all they have left.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net