With Greece's economy in pain, Tsipras resigns. So why is he smiling?

Prime Minister Alexander Tsipras proved unable to get a better deal from Europe's creditors, and ultimately signed a bailout more bruising than the one he promised to reject. Yet there is no politician more popular in Greece.

Stoyan Nenov/Reuters
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras leaves his office at Maximos Mansion in Athens on Thursday. Mr. Tsipras is due to meet senior advisers shortly to discuss whether to call early elections to quell a rebellion in his leftist Syriza party, a government official said on Thursday.

Greece took a significant step away from economic collapse today with its debt repayment of 3.2 billion euros ($3.5 billion). But its leader, Alexis Tsipras, has also moved the country further away from what Greeks elected him in January to do: Rip up bailout papers and get a better deal.

Yet while that sharp about-face has led to his resignation today amid a party rebellion and new fresh elections, it hasn't hurt his popularity – at least, not yet. A majority of Greeks back his signing of an onerous new bailout, the first installment of which was released Wednesday night after Germany's parliament and other creditor nations approved the package. And his left-wing Syriza party is still the most popular political party in Greece.

Mr. Tsipras could see his ratings plummet once Greeks feel the burden of new tax measures and cuts. But his party is still polling first as September nears, and analysts say he is expect to easily beat back the hardliners who rejected the bailout plan.

That's because Greeks have recalibrated their expectations – with help from rhetorical spin from the top. Through bank closures, limits on cash withdrawals, and nail-biting negotiations with Europe, they recognize that they've lost the battle with European creditors. But they've also regained a sense of pride in fighting the good fight, and still see Europe as the main villain. Perhaps most important, they see very few other options.

“Even those who are not satisfied with Tsipras [support] him … because there is not any alternative solution, neither a person nor a party,” says Kostas Vergopoulos, a political economy professor at Paris VIII University. “Greek society, despite all these things that have happened, maintain great expectations for the future from Tsipras, and at this moment these expectations are not transformed into anger, displeasure, or defection.”

Syriza still on top

The 86 billion euro ($96 billion) deal that Tsipras signed after he failed to win concessions from European creditors – taking the country to a referendum in a failed negotiating bid and causing economic chaos in doing so – now brings fresh political instability.

Hardcore leftists within Syriza refused to sign the terms of the bailout last Friday in Greece’s parliament. Tsipras announced his resignation today to trigger elections in the fall that he expects to give him an opportunity to head off his party's dissidents.

Tsipras was only able to get the bailout signed with the help of opposition parties, who have made clear they do not support Syriza but wanted to save Greece from collapse.

Greece isn’t the only parliament that is divided over the bailout. Germany’s Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, one of the harshest critics of Syriza throughout the bailout negotiations, urged conservatives yesterday who were threatening to vote against the package to change their minds “in the interest of Greece and the interest of Europe,” he said.

But his appeal has done nothing to curry favor with Greeks. They still see him, along with the government of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and European conservatives in general, as the cause of their pain – which helps to buoy Tsipras at home.

Valia Aranitou, a professor of political sociology at the University of Crete, says the public sees Tsipras as a leader who “fought a lot for the betterment of his country,” she says.

And the mainstream parties have not been boosted by Tsipras’s backpedaling either, she says. Many in fact express the views of Alkis Madousis, a student in Athens, who says he wouldn’t hesitate to vote for Syriza again.

“Not because I trust the party,” he explains, “but because I don't want to vote for any other party. I think there is no alternative. Even the silly things Syriza is doing are better than the others. At least Tsipras tried to negotiate, in contrast with the others who said yes [to Europe] at once.”

Is it 'radical pragmatism'?

The views of the Greeks in this crisis have always been a paradox: they firmly want to stay in the eurozone, but not under the terms demanded by the currency bloc. Today’s mood is no exception. While 62 percent of Greeks voted against the terms of the bailout in the referendum Tsipras called, 63 percent said in the most recent polling that their leader did the right thing in signing the eventual – and harsher – deal.

No new polls have come out since last month, but the most recent, from Metron Analysis, showed Syriza’s popularity standing at 33.6 percent, well ahead of its next biggest rival, New Democracy, at 17.8 percent. It is unclear how much support the anti-bailout faction has, but since most Greeks have long said they want to remain in the eurozone, the more moderate faction would have the broader appeal. 

Syriza is working hard to reset expectations, says Nikos Demertzis, a professor of political sociology at the University of Athens.

Mr. Demertzis says that, based on the comments of Tsipras's inner circle Wednesday morning (before fresh elections were called), Syriza is essentially arguing that “We [Syriza] have to accept what the external environment is. We have to act like a left-wing party within these confines.”

They are calling it “radical pragmatism,” he says. But that is “rhetoric,” he adds. “These are just words.”

Or 'radical conservatism'?

But others say the viewpoint is not spin, but reflects the way the majority of Greeks simply feel.

Ms. Aranitou calls it a “radical conservative” spirit that defines the vast majority of Syriza supporters, who do not side with the more hardcore, anti-EU faction brewing within the party. “They have understood that they have a very good way of life, that [Greek] prosperity is better than in many other countries,” she says. “They don’t want many troubles.”

And so, she adds, if they must subscribe to the terms of an EU-mandated bailout, they’d at least like to do so under a leftist government, not a neo-liberal one.

Not everyone is left with a sense of clarity moving forward. Demosthenes Tsirbas, a 65-year-old who sells lighting for a living, is one man scratching his head. “It is a strange situation,” he says, “and I’m wondering why people, after all these things the Syriza government has done, have not changed their opinions.”

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