By Dimitris Sourvanos (London School of Economics) and Kyriaki Nanou (University of Nottingham)

Last week Euclid Tsakalotos gave a talk at the LSE discussing from his own experiences – as (the current) finance minister in Greece and as a lifelong Marxist – the difficulties that left-wing parties are faced with when governing under severe constraints. The Greek finance minister said:

It’s difficult for a left-wing Finance Minister to have any left-wing credentials. {…} The deal of July is only as good as the strategy you have to incorporate it in a left-wing direction. The final test of the deal for the Left is not given a priori.

He also added that although the Greek government disagrees on certain aspects of this deal (e.g. pensions, non-performing loans); it is important that it gives space for alternative experiments in in other sectors (e.g. healthcare system) where there is still an “open space”.

This talk took place only a couple of months after his party performed a major U-turn (something flagged up in a previous blog post) and, despite this, emerged strongly from the September 2015 national election, retaining office. Despite the result of the summer referendum which rejected EU-dictated austerity measures, the pro-memorandum parties (including SYRIZA and ANEL, who signed the most recent package) received 81% of the vote share in the September election.

And the recent electoral successes do not stop there: Tsipras also managed to eradicate the blackmail potential of the more extremist part of the party, that of the Left Platform, before its defection. SYRIZA’s dissidents, such as Panagiotis Lafazanis, Zoe Konstantopoulou, Yanis Varoufakis and Dimitris Stratoulis, are not in the Greek parliament anymore since they failed to convince citizens there was a viable alternative despite their emphasis on principles and their claims that they were the loyal deputies who supported a ‘No’ vote in July’s referendum.

Even if someone can explain Tsipras’ political somersault in the last nine months, it would be difficult to understand why voters punished both the parties that endorsed the previous memoranda (PASOK-DIMAR, ND) and the Left Platform, rewarding Tsipras’ efforts in Brussels (despite the outcome in terms of austerity being the same or arguably even worse). What Tsipras has managed to do is nothing short of squaring the circle – convincing the electorate that responsibility and pragmatism can be combined with core principles and the need for new thinking and policy innovation, so that the Left remains responsive to its voters. What was common to the pre-electoral strategies of both SYRIZA and the Independent Greeks was that they acknowledged that they were wrong during the previous election campaign to disregard EU constraints. They admitted they were mistaken in their assessment of the changes to public policy they perceived they could bring about once in government and admitted that any ‘wriggle room’ to soften the impact of the bail-out deal was going to be minor.

Statements in defence of the “left” memorandum highlight this. A few weeks before September’s election, the Greek Prime Minister had publicly said in Thessaloniki:

We will honour this agreement by trying to fight for the open issues that we kept open and improve them. The open debt issue will be a priority. {…} I can see only this way after the experience of six months in office. The ‘Drachma option’ does not provide an exit from the crisis.

He acknowledged the policy constraints facing his government but insisted he would still fight to soften the impact of austerity measures within those issues still up for negotiation.

By consistently emphasising constraints and pragmatism, Tsipras and his governing coalition convinced the Greek electorate of the pragmatic nature of the policy issues at stake and justified the need to move away from ideology and principles if these are incompatible with pragmatism. But, most importantly, they convinced the electorate that, despite operating in a political climate of heavily constrained policy choices where pragmatism needs to predominate, they themselves remain principled and, as a result, they offered the best alternative. The general strike rallies attended by 35,000 workers in Greece last week – protesting against rising taxes and more public sector spending cuts – indicate that as austerity measures continue to bite, this might no longer be enough. Now the Left has accepted pragmatism, it is about time it offered some new thinking and started delivering on policy innovation.

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