At 8 p.m. local time Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras went on national TV to officially announce his resignation and call for early elections. “The political mandate of the 25 January elections,” he said “has exhausted its limits and now the Greek people have to have their say.”
It was perhaps inevitable. Last Friday the Greek parliament passed the third bailout package (worth €86 billion over three years), which committed the country to more austerity: the very thing Tsipras and his party vowed to oppose when they were elected in January. Unsurprisingly (given the platform they were elected on) 32 of Syriza’s 149 MPs voted against the bailout while 11 abstained.
This meant that Syriza had to all intents and purposes lost its parliamentary majority. It had to rely on the votes of opposition parties for the bill to pass. From that point on almost everyone in Greece knew elections were coming.
The Greek constitution mandates that least a month’s notice must be given for national elections so they are likely to be held in late September at the earliest. September 20 is where the smart money is. But first due process must be observed. After his speech Tsipras went to meet with Greece’s head of State, President Prokopis Pavlopoulos, to inform him that he could no longer govern with a majority. Now it falls to Greece’s second-largest party, New Democracy, to see if it can form a government. If it can’t (which it almost certainly won’t) the chance is then offered to the third-largest party, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn.
It is almost certain that neither of the two will be able to gather enough numbers, even with coalitions, to be able to form a government—especially since no party would consider allying with Golden Dawn. So elections it is.
Which is what Tsipras both expects and wants. It may seem a bold, if not foolish statement to make of a man who has just resigned, but Tsipras’s star is rising.
There are several reasons for this. Perhaps the most important of which is that there are simply no credible alternatives to him. He benefits from an opposition in disarray. New Democracy has a new and untested leader; Golden Dawn are Nazis; and PASOK, the centre-left party that ruled Greece, almost uninterrupted, for over 20 years may not even reach the required threshold to enter parliament.
More interesting (or inexplicable, depending on your point of view) is the fact that the colossal U-turn Tsipras has performed in office—going from the face of the pan-European anti-austerity movement to a man that signed up to the toughest austerity measures yet seen on the continent—has convinced many Greeks who once thought he was too extreme that he is a pragmatist. In the end he has proved to be someone you can do business with. It’s crazy, but so is Greek politics.
He is arguably the sole public figure of any political stature in Greece. And the polls reflect this fact. In June, a University of Macedonia for Skai poll had Syriza at 34.5 percent—an 18-point lead over New Democracy, with a mere 16.5 percent. Regardless of the flip-flops and worsening crisis and the capital controls, Tsipras still dominates the electoral landscape, although this can disappear very quickly.
Which is the first reason that he has to strike now.
The second reason is that the third bailout may have been passed but its measures haven’t been implemented yet. The pension reform and public sector cuts haven’t yet arrived. The increased suffering hasn’t started. The riots haven’t begun. Here again, he benefits from timing. The bailout was passed in August—the one month when the country more or less shuts down. Greeks aren’t rioting or demonstrating. They’re on holiday.
It’s going to be a hard winter. Chaos will once again come to the country’s major cities. Greeks may be sunbathing on islands but everyone you speak to is bracing themselves for tougher times ahead. With insurrection within his own ranks and the likelihood that his popularity will only decrease as time wears on as the bailout’s measures bite, Tsipras was boxed into a corner. He only really had one play, but, counter-intuitively for a gamble born of desperation, it is both relatively safe and almost certain to succeed.
Elections will come and Tsipras will win. With a fresh popular mandate behind him (the third one in nine months, including the July 5 referendum) Syriza’s rebels—at least those that don’t break from the party—will be quieted; the country will have given its blessing to his about-face ;and he can, finally, begin to govern. It is just how good a job he is able to make of this that will determine Greece’s future for the next half-decade, if not longer.