ATHENS — I voted “Yes” and the result was a resounding “No.” And yet I believe that the “Yes” campaign may still win. I am not a hard loser, and I am not delusional. Instead, I have started to become accustomed to the doublespeak that has always characterized Syriza and its government. Strangely enough, I draw on elements of this doublespeak today to retain hope, against all odds, that reason and the founding ideals of Europe may still prevail.
This government is certainly not unique in populist tendencies, but it has turned it into an art form; perhaps a mark of the extreme times. Doublespeak turned a diverse clutch of Marxist-Leninists, social democrats, Eurosceptics, pro and anti-euro groups into a party and allowed it to form a coalition with an extreme right-wing party. Doublespeak and desperation gave purchase to the irreconcilable pre-election promise of an end to loan agreements, austerity, debt, and an end to, and even reversal of, reforms. Doublespeak has characterized the negotiations with the creditors and has done so much harm to Greece’s credibility with its European partners. It has also allowed world renowned liberal economists and thinkers to believe that the government has been committed to far-reaching while everything the government has done and said has been deeply anti-reform and clientelistic — that is, beholden to organized interests that would be harmed by implementing reforms in areas such as taxes, pensions, labor laws and professional licenses.
In the short span of its administration, the ruling Syriza coalition has begun dismantling recent education reforms, excelled in nepotistic appointments, undertaken questionable and expensive military procurements, threatened journalists and turned indiscriminate rehiring of public sector workers into a symbol of justice to a desperate people longing for the security of permanent jobs. Its continued declarations to end corruption, tax evasion and oligarchic privilege-a mantra of every government and opposition party have the flavor of a witch hunt against those who dare speak their mind.
The ease with which Syriza formed a coalition with the extreme right Independent Greeks, when it could have sought support from the pro-reform Potami party; the speaker of the parliament’s flirting with Golden Dawn; the sympathy with left-wing terrorist groups; have all imbued its doublespeak with frightening Orwellian overtones. This has been reinforced with veiled threats by the minister of defense to send jihadists to European countries, homophobic, anti-Semitic comments, and often authoritarian behavior and disregard for parliamentary procedures and independent authorities.
“Despite all the animosity towards European leaders, the single demand that unites the Greek people is to remain firmly in the euro and the European Union”
My point here is not to attack everything that Syriza and its followers stand for. I am convinced that enough of its members and enough of its voters — and certainly the large majority of the “No” voters — remain motivated by the hope for a just and deeply reformed society. Clientelism is our habit because it is the only way we know how to secure a living. But we also know that it is the cause of injustice and a dysfunctional and unsustainable future.
Part of this very clientelism means that we don’t have trust in institutions. Our security and advancement comes from who we know. We trust people not rules. Leaders not parties. And here’s the paradox. We have to trust a leader to bring about a transformation so that leaders become less relevant and so that we can count on rules and institutions and know that leaders will be accountable.
While we don’t trust our own weak, clientelistic and exploitative institutions, we do trust the stronger and healthier if imperfect institutions of Europe and the ideals they represent. The reason that we cling to Europe, the EU and the euro despite all our suffering, and however much we attribute to their poor handling of our present predicament, is that with all the disillusionment we have in the capacity of our own governments and our institutions, imperfect Europe remains a beacon of hope.
We have already gained immensely from the needed reforms to enter the EU and from being part of the EU. We have come to associate much of our hard won progress and improvement in our institutions and our lives with the EU. Our European Union has become our clearest proxy for reform and the ideals of democracy that we cherish despite its glaring imperfections.
This is why despite all the animosity towards European leaders, the single demand that unites the Greek people is to remain firmly in the euro and the European Union. This is why Tsipras had to promise that we will stay in the euro in order to achieve his win. However much we come to trust our own leaders, we check their power by binding them to the rules of the European Union. Our leaders after all, are also the product of clientelism however much they can transcend its strictures.
“The main check to Tsipras’ power is the unique historical double bind he is now in.”
There is little doubt that Tsipras, a master of doublespeak, has gained the trust and hope of a large swathe of the Greek people. No doubt, the damage done from the economic crisis and its mishandling, in Greece and abroad, has wiped out an entire political class giving Tsipras near monopoly power over Greece’s fate at this moment. This monopoly power was substantially enhanced in the referendum.
Concentration of power is never good. Checks and balances are fundamental to democracy. The main check to Tsipras’ power is the unique historical double bind he is now in. Should he break with the euro the misery that will follow will likely be his demise. Should he sign an agreement that will certainly involve tough and sweeping reforms and some barely tolerable austerity he will suffer loss of popularity but has a chance at a success and a good place in history.
The “No” vote substantially increased the risk of an exit from the euro and it strengthened the many eurosceptic anti-reform elements in the coalition government. But the extent of the win and its attribution to Tsipras personally has strengthened his hand.
Staying in the Eurozone
Tsipras’ first moves following the election appear to be in line with his promise to stay in the eurozone. Varoufakis’ resignation was a gesture of goodwill to these partners. His calling of a council of the party leaders of parliament has shown a desire to unite. The joint statement reached with the party leaders on negotiations with the EU include a commitment to reform.
The implicit deal that has always been on the table from a conservative Europe has reached its starkest form: far reaching reforms and austerity potentially softened by some form of debt relief/investment support, or an organized exit from the euro and possibly the EU. The choice for Tsipras is dramatic. The moment of truth and the first break from doublespeak has come.
He can become a leader of stature and take the deal and side with the vast majority of Greeks on either side of the “Yes”/”No” divide to whom he has promised to remain in the euro and undertake the reforms Syriza has resisted. Alternatively, he can live a short moment of glory as a revolutionary by siding with a small minority of the “No” camp and turn the country into a failed state run by a new set of authoritarian oligarchs. Sunday night is upon us.
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